There’s something undeniably romantic about the sight of Brazil at a World Cup. Like Roger Federer on grass or Usain Bolt at the Olympics, it’s just right. Certain qualities are expected of the Selecao. Not only have they won more World Cups than any other nation, they are the team of Joga Bonito. The team of sexy football. They are expected to win and win with style.
Brazil haven’t been Brazil at a World Cup for a long, long time, though. 2002 was the last time they added to their tally, meaning the Selecao have now gone 16 years without winning the tournament they have come to define themselves by. For most countries, this wouldn’t be something to be too concerned by – Argentina’s last World Cup win was 34 years ago, for instance – but Brazil aren’t like most footballing countries.
In 2006, they fell well short. In 2010, they were boring. And in 2014, a tournament hosted by Brazil, the fervour of their own fans could only carry them so far. The 7-1 semi final defeat to Germany is still remembered as something of a national travesty, a dark day in the country’s history. It was reported that in the days after that loss national productivity across Brazil took a nosedive. Investment in the country also declined. When the Selecao took a hit, so did Brazil in general.
Brazil is a country at a critical point in its geo-political history. Like so many other nations around the world, they have used sport as a way to secure status. Brazil hosted the World Cup in 2014, with Rio de Janeiro welcoming the Olympics in 2016 too. Protests greeted both sporting events, with the public outraged at the colossal sums being splurged on stadiums and venues, but the Brazilian government believed it to be a worthwhile investment, underlining the country’s status as a true global player.
This sort of geo-political flexing extends to the national team. The Selecao is one of Brazil’s greatest exports. They command upwards of $2 million to play friendly matches around the world. It’s in the interests of Brazil as a whole that their national team does well, that they maintain their image as the most charming side in international football. That’s why their upcoming World Cup quarter final against Belgium matters so much.
The Brazil we have seen at this World Cup are much closer to the stereotypical Brazil side we have come to expect. While the Selecao might not have hit top form just yet, there is a verve to their play. Four years ago, the hopes and dreams of the entire nation were heaped on the shoulders of Neymar, their only world class talent. Now, he is surrounded by players of a similar ilk – Philippe Coutinho, William, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino, to name a few. They are the Galacticos of the World Cup.
On paper, this is Brazil’s best group of players in a generation, just four years after their team was labelled the worst in a generation. The turnaround has been remarkable, but there is still plenty work to be done. Despite winning three of their four games played so far, drawing the other one, Brazil have toiled at times this summer. There is swagger, but not much in the way of style.
Regardless, glory in Russia this summer would maintain a very valuable brand for Brazil. The team that won the 1994 World Cup weren’t the most exciting, coming out on top thanks to their functionality more than anything else. There are parallels to be drawn between that side and Brazil’s current side. A World Cup always matters to Brazil. While this one might not weigh quite as heavily as the last one did, the wider significance of what happens in Russia this summer should still be noted.
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Also published on Medium.