Brazil are always the sensible bet to win the World Cup until they aren’t any more, and that transition can be jarringly sudden. Croatia had their measure.
Things were supposed to be different, this time. Their attacking options were of the absolute highest order. They had two of the very best goalkeepers in the world, one on the bench just in case something happened to their first choice. The swagger had returned. But then again, perhaps that’s been the problem with Brazil for the last twenty years. They always look like the sensible bet until they’re not, and the transition from one to the other can be so quick that once it starts, it’s impossible for anybody to do anything about it.
The colour drained from their cheeks from the moment that Croatia scored their late equalising goal – the point at which they lost this game. As Brazil’s players stepped up to take their penalty kicks they looked terrified, as though the burden of expectation of 214 million people was suddenly resting very heavily upon their shoulders.
Perhaps this isn’t that surprising. While the ball’s in open play, the background noise can be shut out and you can just get on with the task at hand. But when the final whistle blows you have time to think, time to take in the enormity of the occasion, time for any residual self-doubt to creep into the back of your mind.
Hindsight has 20/20 vision, but it didn’t take much remove from the shootout to see the folly behind the order in which Brazil took their penalties. Rodrygo is just 21 years old and was making only his twelfth appearance for the national team. His shot was saved by the extraordinary Dominik Livakovic, whose performance throughout the previous 120 minutes had been the finest goalkeeping performance of the tournament.
Already one behind and now needing to convert all their remaining kicks, Marquinhos took their fourth having never before stepped up to the penalty spot. Neymar, who we may have considered the gold-standard penalty taker in this team, was held back for a fifth that would never even be taken.
In the build-up to this tournament, comparisons were made between the Brazil team of 2022 and that of 1982. These were well-intentioned comparisons, focused on the wealth of attacking options at their disposal, but they turned out to be prophetic in all the wrong ways. Forty years ago, Tele Santana’s team drifted through their first group scoring ten in three games, before a 3-1 win over Argentina in the second group stage meant they only needed a draw from their de facto quarter-final to progress to what looked like an eminently winnable semi-final against Poland.
What followed was a horror story for a team that had been built up as worthy successors to the team of 1970. Paolo Rossi scored for Italy. Brazil equalised. Rossi re-took the lead. Brazil equalised again. Rossi gave Italy the lead again… and this time, their opponents had no way back. By the closing minutes of the game, they were reduced to pumping high ball after high ball into the Italian penalty area in acts of increasing desperation.
It nearly worked – Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff made one outstanding save with barely a minute to play – but in the end Brazil ran out of road. It felt at times as though they were unaware of how tenuous their predicament was until it was too late to do anything much about it, and that Italy had just a little too much moxie for them.
If there is a comparison between 2022 and 1982, that feeling of having just run out of ideas at the point at which they needed them the most is probably the closest. Vinicius Junior was withdrawn midway through the second half. Richarlison departed the scene with six minutes to play, having been similarly shackled throughout the previous 84. Options which had felt near-infinite were starting to vanish all around them. When push came to shove they even managed to nose their way in front, but still didn’t quite have the guile to prevent themselves from being hurled off this particular cliff-edge.
The obvious question to ask at this particular point is that of whether beating European teams in the knockout stages of the World Cup is now becoming a psychological hurdle that Brazil cannot get past. It’s now been twenty years since they last won the tournament, and on each of these five occasions they’ve fallen to the first European team they’ve played once past the group stage. In the fulcrum of feelings and emotions that must swirl through the minds of players for this most storied of footballing nations, it’s tempting to wonder whether such an outcome might even have be starting to become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s tempting to look at this run of results and think that it says something very profound about the lack of financial equality within the game, that the widening of that gap puts Brazil at a considerable disadvantage to the European nations. But while this interpretation would work pretty effectively in club football, it doesn’t hold as much weight when considering the waxing and waning of international teams. Brazil’s players are almost entirely playing in top European leagues. They’ve been a part of this world for the whole of their careers.
There may be a case to be made that the travelling roadshow that the Brazil men’s team has become hasn’t helped them. They didn’t play a single European team in 2022 prior to their first group game against Serbia. Perhaps playing European opposition in a few friendly games would have helped. It is certainly worth remembering that in the modern era, in which all professional players are at a peak of physical fitness and preparedness, the psychological side of the game is more important than ever.
And that certainly doesn’t suit Brazil’s players at the moments that matter. Rattling four goals in the first half against South Korea amounts to nothing, if you look terrified when walking up to the penalty spot at the start of a shootout in the following game. Brazil also twice let their momentum slip in this World Cup. In losing 1-0 to Cameroon, even if they did primarily play the squad players in this game. On that occasion, they got lucky, assisted by a South Korean defence which displayed the same fear throughout the first half of that game as Brazil did during their penalty shootout.
But in Croatia they were up against something else altogether, a team as far removed from being the psychodrama that Brazil so often seem to be as it’s possible to get. They ground their way as far as the quarter-finals, and continue to grind still further. They needed more than a little luck, but they took it when it presented itself, worked hard throughout, and executed their penalties perfectly. Reducing it all to a phrase as reductive as ‘mentality monsters’ is doing a complex and often under-considered aspect of the game few favours, but it’s difficult to believe that the pressure that the Brazil players were under, when the chips came down.
In 1982, Brazil were stunningly knocked out of the World Cup because they got repeatedly careless at a time when they could not afford to be careless. That, it is often said, was the reason why the attacking, free-flowing football had to go, resulting in them becoming the first team to win the World Cup after a goalless draw, twelve years later. Where 2022 was compared to 1982, the comparison was a return to that beach football of forty years earlier, a team capable of putting on the flicks and the style and the swagger with which the entire planet associates them.
But just as the 1982 team folded, so did the 2022 team. The circumstances were somewhat different, but the sense of deflation which followed both is very similar. Perhaps it’s impossible to have the same feeling for a team in 2022 that you might have had for a team playing 40 years ago. Perhaps we’re just too familiar with the cast, nowadays.
By the time we all land in the United States of America in 2026, it will have been 24 years since Brazil last lifted the World Cup, the same as it had been when they last arrived there, in 1994. So there is hope. And there is also hope because, well, it’s Brazil.
For a handful of their players, this will have been their last tournament. Tite has already fallen upon his own sword. Whether Neymar will be back is open to question. He has spoken of retiring from international football after this tournament.
If the Croatia game did feel like history repeating itself, that’s because it was. For five straight tournaments Brazil have arrived, swept through the group stages, and then stumbled. Things were supposed to be different this time, but we’ve all been saying that for the last twenty years and some things don’t seem to change at all.