The Brazilian national team arrive in Qatar with a well-balanced squad. Football-wise, that is. A solid and experienced defence, a combative as well as creative midfield, and an attack of the highest technical ability made up of players who complement each other well. All this gives the head coach, Tite, a wide range of possibilities of how to set up.
However, a World Cup is not just about the football, as we have seen in Qatar over the past few days. And for Brazil, going in to this tournament, the political situation matters too.
Parallel to the countdown to the World Cup there was the election in which the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to power, beating Jair Bolsonaro. It meant the country took a decisive step towards restoring its young democracy, which had been under threat since the 2016 coup that forced the former president Dilma Rousseff from office and paved the way for the rise of Bolsonaro’s far-right government in 2018.
Four years of erosive leadership, followed by a heavily polarised election, has left Brazilian society deeply divided. To make matters worse, Brazilians have had to watch as the national team’s captain and star player, Neymar, turned his back on the more than 30 million hungry Brazilians and the 120 million who live on the cusp of food insecurity and backed Bolsonaro as part of a supposed fight against a non‑existent communist threat.
Having had such success, the former Santos player with the humble background has clearly lost touch with his roots, as well as the plight and needs of the majority of the population that will cheer for him during the World Cup. It is a sad state of affairs.
Every four years, the presidential elections and the World Cup coincide in Brazil, sending shockwaves across the societal landscape. After Russia 2018, the political hijacking of the historic and highly respected yellow Brazil national team jersey, designed to boost Bolsonaro’s nationalist movement, made millions of Brazilians disown and refuse to wear it, even for a World Cup.
Despite all this there is hope for better days ahead, with many in Brazil supporting the national team and hoping that a successful World Cup can bring the country closer together, kick-starting a sense of reconciliation in a nation with painful, fresh wounds. The process of recovering a Brazilian identity has already started with Lula taking to the international stage during Cop27 in Egypt, showcasing Brazil’s renewed commitment to global diplomacy and environmental leadership. That process will continue on the pitches in Qatar.
Football-wise then? As I said, Brazil are in good shape before their opening game against Serbia on Thursday. They flew through the qualifiers, winning 14 and drawing three of their games, scoring 40 goals and conceding a mere five. Some Europeans may be under the illusion that South American qualifying is easy, but they could not be more wrong. Facing teams such as Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela away is anything but easy, believe me. Add to that Bolivia, where you have to play 3,400 metres above sea level.
Brazil are one of the favourites to win the World Cup but that is not to say there aren’t weaknesses. The best way to put this Brazil side under pressure is to attack the flanks. Tite took his time selecting the full-backs for this squad and I think their opponents may go for two forwards – whether that is in a 4-4-2 or in a 3-5-2 formation – to put pressure on the Brazil defence by getting the ball out wide and put crosses into the box. The danger zone for Brazil is between the defence and the goalkeeper, whether that is on the ground or in the air.
Dani Alves was included in the squad but he is 39 now and playing in Mexico with Pumas. But he should not and probably will not be a starter. He brings experience and an unmatched ability to win trophies but defensively he is too fragile to be in the starting XI. Danilo, the 31-year-old Juventus player, should play there instead, and now is his time in the national side despite not having established himself fully at Manchester City and Real Madrid. He is, however, better going forward than defending.
And this is where Tite’s deep squad comes in. He has two excellent solutions that probably no other country can match. Option one is to play Fabinho there. The Liverpool midfielder is a much better defensive solution than the two full‑backs already mentioned. Or he can move Éder Militão to the right, the Real Madrid defender being versatile and having played as a full‑back early in his career. Physically a beast, tough in duels, resilient and competitive, the 24-year-old Militão could prove crucial in repelling opponents’ aerial threats.
In the left full-back position Alex Telles, the 29‑year‑old at Sevilla, has a wonderful left-foot, is skilful with the ball and a good passer. He does not, however, have an abundance of international experience and is in a race to start with Juventus’ Alex Sandro, who is not the most elegant of players but has solid technique and years of experience of European club football. He is a good left‑back and will probably start but he is not consistent and can mix great performances with poor ones.
The truth is that Roberto Carlos, the best left-back in Brazilian history, played at such a high standard that it has been impossible for his successors to reach that kind of unmatched excellence. Just as Cafú and a younger Dani Alves have done the same for the right-back spot.
The first game should go some way to displaying whether the defence can match the quality in midfield and attack. The Seleção are in a state of optimistic and tense energy. The whole of Brazil and, indeed, the whole of the world is asking: which Brazil will we see in this World Cup? Only the players and the coach can decide that. Over to you.