When you look closely at the history of Brazil’s five World Cup trophies, several patterns begin to emerge, patterns that suggest there is a formula for tournament success. Some of these patterns are easy to spot:
- The Best Attacker in the World. In 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002, Brazil possessed the single greatest attacking player on the planet. This may hardly seem noteworthy, but other Cup winners can’t always boast of this. England certainly couldn’t when they won in 1966; nor could Germany in 1974 or Italy in 1982 or 2006. These are just a few examples. But Brazil, despite always fielding sides with numerous stars, have always seemed to rely upon the Hero-type player, the type of player who is universally considered to reign supreme. The type of player who can routinely (and that’s the key word) win matches on his own. In 1962, it was Garrincha. It 1970, it was Pele. In 1994, it was Romario. In 2002, it was Ronaldo.
1958 probably doesn’t fit this pattern. Pele was only 17, and Garrincha was probably a little raw as well. Didi was an aging maestro, and Vava a well-rounded center forward. You could make a case for any of these players being the best attacker in the world, but you would be wrong: the best attacker in the world was probably sitting at home. Alfredo di Stefano’s Spain had failed to qualify. Fortunately, Brazil was so stocked with talent (maybe even more than in 1970) that no Hero-type player was needed.
- Perfect Balance Between Offense and Defense. Again, this may seem like a given. But it’s not. Few countries have so consistently possessed both the world-class attack and the world-class defense that Brazil has. The cliché, of course, is that Brazil is a team of attacking anarchy, a team that takes joy in expressing itself, a team that eschews the more mundane aspects of football like defending. But for four of their five World Cup-winning sides, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1958, Brazil scored 16 goals (second only to France with 21), while only conceding 4, best in the tournament. In 1962, Brazil scored 14 goals, best in the competition. Their defense was slightly less solid, conceding 5 goals in 6 matches. However, this was still better than all but two teams who at least made the quarterfinals.
There’s always one exception, and 1970 is the exception here. Thanks to a comically bad goalkeeper in Felix, and a makeshift back four that contained two converted defensive midfielders, Brazil conceded 7 goals in 6 matches. Still, this was better than Italy or Germany, two countries who, rightly or wrongly, are often thought to be defensively strong.
Brazil’s attack, of course, was simply unstoppable. 19 goals in 6 matches. No other team would come anywhere close to this in subsequent World Cups until…you guessed it, Brazil, who scored 18 goals in 2002. (Albeit in seven matches.)
In 1994, Brazil managed only 11 goals. This seems a relatively pedestrian number on paper, until you remember that scoring fell massively in throughout the 90s, and that Brazil still came in second in terms of total goals scored. Only Sweden’s 15 were better. Brazil’s defense, on the other hand, couldn’t be faulted by even the most curmudgeonly English commentator. Only three goals conceded – three! – and two of those were to Dennis Bergkamp’s wonderful Dutch side.
And finally, we come to Felipe Scolari and his 2002 squad, which statistically speaking, has a claim to being the best World Cup team of all time. 18 goals scored, 4 goals conceded. Brazil had the advantage of a relatively easy draw, and indeed, their offense started to dry up the deeper they went into the tournament. Still, Brazil 2002 is probably the most balanced side the world had seen since 1958.
The point of all this is that Brazil is not and has never been a team that wins trophies solely because of their offense. Their defense has been just as important. On the other hand, Brazil is not a team that can rely on its defense to win tournaments either. Dunga’s squad was always considered a defense-first team, and they failed.
None of this should come as a surprise, because Brazil has been at the forefront of some of football’s greatest innovations…on both sides of the ball. Everyone knows about jogo bonito and samba style and other idealized clichés, and it’s true that thanks to individuals like Leonidas, Zizinho, Pele, Garrincha, Rivelino, and so many others, Brazil has furthered and advanced attacking technique like no other nation has. But less well-known is how much Brazil has contributed to the defensive phase of the game. Thanks to the work of writers like Jonathan Wilson and Tim Vickery (among others), the fact that Brazil introduced the back four on the international stage is starting to gain greater attention. But Brazil was at the vanguard of other developments, too. For example, take the 1958 team. While ostensibly a 4-2-4, in practice they functioned more like a 4-3-3, especially when they didn’t have the ball. That’s because of Mario Zagallo, a left-winger who became one of the first attackers in international football to routinely drop back and defend while at the same time providing cover for the full-backs. In addition, Brazil was one of the first countries to adopt the double-pivot, another defensive innovation.
In the end, Brazil owes its historical dominance not just because of its assembly line of attacking talent, but because of its traditional balance between defense and attack. There are two basic phases to the game, and Brazil has almost always excelled at both.
- Help off the bench. Perhaps the least-considered aspect of Brazil’s World Cup success is their depth. Of course, it’s no secret that almost as many deserving players don’t make the final squad as those that do, but this concept is a little different from that.
In every World Cup Brazil has won – you read that right, every World Cup – the manager has looked to his bench for major help. It’s a somewhat surprising fact, but Brazil has never finished a tournament with the same XI they started with. Observe:
1958 Starting XI vs Austria
1958 Starting XI vs Sweden
Brazil started out slowly. While they beat Austria 3-0, by all accounts it was a slightly dour performance. Vincente Feola, Brazil’s manager, promptly inserted Vava in favor of Flamengo striker Dida for the match against England, but kept Pele and Garrincha on the bench in favor of Mazzola and Joel respectively. Feola, the theory goes, was worried that Pele and Garrincha were too young and too undisciplined, and the result was a more defensive line-up (relatively speaking.) Vava struck the bar, but Didi, Brazil’s maestro, was effectively shackled and the match finished 0-0.
A change was clearly needed, so Feola turned to his bench. On came Pele and Garrincha, who of course provided the scoring (Pele) and the spark (Garrincha) the team needed to win their first World Cup.
But Pele and Garrincha weren’t the only substitutions Feola made. My theory is that Feola was very concerned with offering protecting for his full-backs and also for Didi. So in addition to the two young attackers, Feola made a tactical change. On came Zito, more athletic and with greater stamina than the man he replaced, Dino Sani. The latter was a creative midfielder, but it was steel that Feola needed to compensate for Pele’s exuberance and Garrincha’s anarchy. So in effect, Feola made a defensive alteration to his starting XI, better allowing the fullbacks to get forward while simultaneously freeing up Didi from most of his defensive duties.
So Feola’s bench saved Brazil. Inserting Pele and Garrincha was probably inevitable, but the inclusion of Zito not only played a major role in Brazil’s victory, but also laid the template for the increasingly-defensive double pivots used by Parreira, Zagallo, Scolari and Dunga in future World Cups.
1962 Starting XI vs Mexico
1962 Starting XI vs Czechoslovakia (final)
New manager Aimore Moreira selected what was basically the same side that won the World Cup four years ago. Only the center-backs had changed. This was the one time where Brazil almost used the same eleven for the entire tournament. But once again, the Seleção was forced to look to its bench. This time the change was necessitated by injury. Pele was ruled out after the second game, and on came Amarildo. Amarildo was no Pele, of course, but he made for an effective replacement all the same, scoring three goals in the competition and replicating at least some of Pele’s scoring prowess. He was especially important in the final group match against Spain, scoring both of Brazil’s goals and ensuring that Brazil not only advanced, but topped the group.
1970 Starting XI vs England
1970 Starting XI vs Italy
The 1970 team has so many famous names that most commentators usually end up missing one or two when trying to rattle them off. Pele. Jairzinho. Rivelino. Tostao. Gerson. Clodoaldo. Carlos Alberto. A star-studded lineup to be sure, and the unquestioned core of the team. But Zagallo was forced to look to his bench in only the second match, when Gerson was held off due to injury. On came Paulo Cesar, one of the unsung heroes of Seleção history. He was only 21 years old at the time, and went on to amass more than 50 caps – an enormous number back in those days
Nominally a central midfielder with an attacking bent, Zagallo stationed him on the left wing, moving Rivelino into the more central position to which he was accustomed. Cesar acquitted himself very well, especially against England. Using a mixture of pace, trickery, and unselfishness, he was one of Brazil’s few consistently-effective players during the match (Jairzinho was the other.) With only a few exceptions, he was involved in most of Brazil’s best moves, and would repeat this performance in the next game against Romania, capping off his contributions with an excellent assist for Jairzinho.
Gerson returned after that and Brazil’s attack hit new heights, but for two critical group games, Paulo Cesar was a worthy stand-in.
1994 Starting XI vs Russia
1994 Starting XI vs Italy
Carlos Alberto Parreira was at the helm, and made two key changes during the competition. One was forced upon him after Leonardo’s expulsion from the tournament. The less said about what Leonardo did, the better. The second was tactical – Mazinho replaced Rai after the group stage.
To this day, I think Brazil’s ’94 team is remembered unfairly. From Brazil’s standpoint, some of this unquestionably stems from the final. Both Brazil and Italy played fairly cautiously, and frankly, were probably exhausted. But it was a slightly better final than most people remember, a much better team than many people claim, and a far better tournament than is generally remembered.
But I digress. The chief knock on Parreira’s team was that it was too “pragmatic”, too “defensive”, too “European.” In other words, Brazil was criticized for being the very things they were criticized for not being back in the 80s. All of these complaints are overstated to a degree, but it is unquestionably true that the two changes I mentioned above made Brazil even more defensive and pragmatic than they already were.
Let’s start with Rai, probably the most technical and certainly the most attacking of Brazil’s four midfielders. Parreira relegated him to the bench after a poor showing against Sweden in the last game of the group stage. What my own opinion was at the time, I don’t recall, but I do remember the pundits on my TV expressing surprise. My memory is a little hazy, but I seem to recall most people expecting Zinho or Mauro Silva to be dropped for the knockout rounds, not Rai.
In any case, off came the playmaker and on came the athlete, the powerful Mazinho. More on this in a moment.
The second change, as I mentioned, was forced upon Parreira. With Leonardo suspended, the veteran Branco, who had already featured in two World Cups and had been a doubt to make this one, came on in his stead.
The interesting thing about these changes is that both probably harmed Brazil’s samba image, but helped Brazil’s trophy-aspirations. Mazinho, for example, was nowhere close to the technician that Rai was. Consequently, the bulk of Brazil’s play became even more counter-attacking, more down the flanks. But he also brought increased grit to the team, and in a tournament as hot, physical, and demanding as the 1994 World Cup, this was important. It certainly played dividends against Sweden and Italy. Sweden, remember, was the top-scoring side in the tournament, and gave Brazil a real run for their money in the group stage. Italy’s attack was nowhere near as potent, but it featured just the type of player who might have given Brazil real trouble, Roberto Baggio. There is no way to know whether Brazil would have won with Rai in his place, but in the end, it had been twenty-four years since their last trophy. Parreira went with substance over style, and the result was another star over the CBF crest.
Branco for Leonardo is an interesting topic. As far as bombing down the flanks, Branco liked to get forward just as much as Leonardo did. But he wasn’t as elegant on the ball as Leonardo, nor as good a passer, so he was slightly responsible for the new “Brazil is too defensive” myth as well. On the other hand, he was unquestionably better at set pieces, and it was his last-gasp free-kick against Holland that ensured passage to the semifinals.
So once again, Brazil was forced to look to its bench…and once again, its bench proved vital.
2002 Starting XI vs Turkey
2002 Starting XI vs Germany
This tournament saw one major change, when Juninho Paulista was swapped for Kleberson midway through the tournament. Unlike in ’94, I remember exactly how I felt when it happened: I was aghast. Juninho Paulista was a personal favorite of mine, and I couldn’t understand why Scolari was unsatisfied with him. To be honest, I’m still not totally sure. Juninho was an energetic, active midfielder, but also a solid passer. Removing him, I thought, would mean removing our one central link between attack and defense, putting even more pressure on the wingbacks to carry the ball forward.
Regardless of my own opinions, Scolari obviously saw something he didn’t like in Juninho, or something he really liked in Kleberson. Lately, I’ve come to think that it was actually of more the latter. Perhaps Scolari felt he needed more defensive cover for the wingbacks, something Kleberson could provide.
Whatever his reasoning, the change worked. Kleberson was a revelation, especially in the final against Germany. Shuttling from box to box with manic energy and unpredictable movement, Germany just couldn’t contain him. (Of course, it’s hard to devote too much attention to Kleberson when you have Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho to contain.) He wasn’t the passer Juninho was, but his vigor and directness was probably more important. In the final, Germany worked very hard to block Roberto Carlos’ and Cafu’s forward runs – both had very quiet games – and with Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho all either reluctant or ineffective at dropping deep, it was Kleberson’s willingness to simply race forward with the ball that paid the most dividends.
So there you have it. Three patterns, five World Cup trophies. The most important question now, of course, is whether the current side can replicate these patterns. It’s impossible to answer for certain until we have the benefit of hindsight, but let’s take a closer look nonetheless.
The Best Attacker in the World
So much of Brazil’s hopes are going to rest on Neymar’s rail-thin shoulders. And if having the best attacker in the world really is a prerequisite for victory, it would seem that Brazil’s quest will end before it even really begins. Because Neymar is not the best attacker in the world.
…at club level. While his debut season for Barcelona was mixed – a wonderful beginning, an injury-plagued middle, and a sour end – Scolari was right when he recently said that Neymar is simply a different player for Brazil. While Neymar wouldn’t even make the top 10 of best club players in the world, he certainly would if the list were solely for international teams. In my opinion, he’s actually in the top 3.
The truth is that many of the world’s best club players are extremely inconsistent for their national teams. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, so devastating in Spain, have failed to win a single senior tournament for their countries, and have underwhelmed at two straight World Cups. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on holiday; Wayne Rooney is a perpetual disappointment; Spain’s Villa is old and in relatively poor form; Mario Balotelli generates a lot of heat but too little light; Franck Ribery has never accomplished anything of note; Sergio Aguero is dangerous as hell but injury prone and plays second fiddle to Messi. Germany’s star striker, Miroslav Klose, will probably break Ronaldo’s record but is nowhere close to the player he used to be, while 2010 stars Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller either endured a hard year (Ozil) or never truly built on the promises they made in South Africa (Muller). Neymar’s fellow youngsters, Eden Hazard and Mario Gotze, aren’t even guaranteed to start for their teams. Only Luis Suarez seems to bring the same form for club and country, and Suarez is in a race to get fit.
On the other hand, Cristiano Ronaldo did steer his country into the World Cup after a virtuoso performance against Sweden, while Messi is coming off a stellar qualifying campaign. So it’s possible that they are simply late-bloomers, and that 2014 is their year.
But from all the evidence we have so far, Neymar is the premier international attacker at this point. Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, he came screaming out the gates, scoring goals and winning hardware at a far faster rate than his older rivals. Naysayers (“Ney”sayers?) will gleefully point out that Neymar has primarily played in friendlies…but his goal-scoring rate in competitive matches (6 goals in 10) is better Messi’s or Cristiano’s. Others will say that most of his goals have come against the likes of minnows…but in his first four years with Argentina, Messi scored twice against teams in FIFA’s Top Ten (Mexico in July 2007, ranked #10, and Spain in November 2009, ranked #1). In Neymar’s first four years, he’s scored against five Top Ten team (Germany, Columbia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.) Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, has been feasting against the likes of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Luxembourg for most of his international career.
What does all of this mean? Perhaps nothing. Again, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo might dominate. Or, some young player we haven’t even considered (Marco Reus, for instance) could explode and become the unforeseen star of the tournament. And Neymar might flop abysmally. There’s a ton of pressure. He’s still only 22. There are still major holes in his game. It wouldn’t, shouldn’t be, a total shock if it happens. And it might happen.
But it bears repeating: all the evidence we have so far suggests that Neymar is in fact one of the two or three best attackers at this World Cup. Time will tell whether he’s the best. Stay tuned.
Balance Between Attack and Defense
This one is a bit easier to predict, and if you were to pick a single reason why Brazil will hold the trophy come July, this should be it. Take a look at these stats:
Brazil Goals For & Against – 2013-14 (17 matches)
|Goals For||Goals Against|
|49 (all matches)||13|
|40 (Confederations Cup and on)||6 (Confederations Cup and on)|
The numbers from the Confederations Cup on are especially good, which is partially explained by Brazil’s skyrocketing confidence, partly explained by an increase in matches against subpar opponents, and also because of the increased influence of Luis Gustavo. And while it’s true that Brazil started the year off playing the likes of England, Italy, and Russia, and spent much of the latter part of the year against the likes of Australia, Zambia, and Honduras, it’s still a very impressive record.
To put it in context:
Spain Goals For & Against – 2013-14 (17 matches)
|Goals For||Goals Against|
|35 (all matches)||13|
Spain’s defensive record is the same as ours, suggesting that their defense (or more properly, their possession-based system, which I’ve always insisted is more of a defensive system than an offensive one) is okay. But their attack is fairly woeful, because that includes their 10-0 drubbing of Tahiti. Spain only scored 3+ goals one other time in 2013, when they defeated Nigeria 3-0 in the Confederations Cup. The rest of their year was filled with 2-0 and 2-1 victories over the likes of Haiti, Belarus, and Georgia.
Germany Goals For & Against – 2013-14 (14 matches)
|Goals For||Goals Against|
|36 (all matches)||15|
Germany’s record paints a slightly prettier picture…at least as far as their attacking play. 36 goals in 14 matches is better than Spain’s, though it still pales next to Brazil’s. It must be said, however, that Germany did field a number of experimental sides throughout the year, so these statistics aren’t quite an accurate reflection of Joachim Löw’s A-team.
Regardless, their defense must keep Löw up at night. 15 goals conceded in 14 matches, including horror shows against Sweden and the United States.
Argentina Goals For & Against – 2013-14 (6 matches)
|Goals For||Goals Against|
|11 (all matches)||3|
Argentina’s record is tricky to decipher, mostly because they played so few times in 2013 – only five matches in all. (The chart above also includes their 0-0 draw with Romania earlier this year.) Their goals-per-game average is okay (1.83), and their goals-conceded-per-game average is decent (0.50). But Brazil’s attack is much better with a 2.88 goals-per-game average. Brazil’s defense is slightly worse (0.76) but from the Confederations Cup on, it’s equal at 0.50. However, because we’re dealing with such a small sample size as far as Argentina is concerned, I don’t think we can really draw meaningful conclusions from these numbers.
The point, though, is that Brazil’s immediate record compares very favorably with its three top rivals, and suggests that, once again, the Seleção will go into the World Cup with an excellent balance between attack and defense.
Help off the bench
Every time Brazil wins the World Cup, it’s needed one or two key reserves to do it. The same is likely to be true this year. Fortunately, Brazil have great depth in two areas (defense and midfield). Unfortunately, they look very shallow up top.
It’s obviously impossible to know which reserve(s) will play a key role next month, but at least one of them almost certainly will. Here are my four likeliest choices:
Maicon – It wouldn’t be the first time Maicon was inserted to revive an anemic Brazil attack. He did it to great effect in the 2011 Copa America. It’s not far-fetched to imagine him doing it again, as Dani Alves’ overall ability continues to sink. Maicon brings some definite qualities that Alves doesn’t. He’s not far behind Alves as a defender (if at all) despite a marked drop in pace, but more importantly, he brings genuine width and crossing ability. Dani Alves likes to camp out in advanced positions, so much so that he’s basically just a right-sided midfielder. But Maicon is a genuine wingback who bombs up the flank, constantly looking to overlap so he can get beyond the defense and cross or square the ball. Here are some highlights:
Oh, and of course…
I could watch that one over and over.
Watching those highlights, I’m reminded of the amazing chemistry between Robinho and Maicon. If Maicon was a guaranteed starter, it might have been worth bringing Robinho for that alone, but I take comfort in the fact that Bernard seems to have a great understanding with Maicon, too.
Bernard – “The player with joy in his legs” is how Scolari describes him, and while on the surface, Bernard would be an unlikely candidate to have an impact on this World Cup, there’s something about him that seems to bring out the best in his teammates. He can play on both flanks, he’s a quick, nimble player who can both dribble and pass, and most importantly, he has this elusive, buzzing quality that just keeps the ball moving. If Hulk is off his game, or if Brazil’s attack is stalled at any point during the World Cup, Bernard might be just the person to get it going again, even if he never scores himself.
Fernandinho – If there’s one area in Brazil’s game that remains subpar, it’s their ability to build through the middle of the pitch. Neither Gustavo nor Paulinho are consistently good passers; but Fernandinho has both the range, the two-footedness, the vision, and the quickness of thought to be able to both spread the ball into space on the wings for our wide players to run onto, or thread killer passes through the middle in the final third.
What can I say, I think he’s Brazil’s best midfielder save for an in-form Oscar. I don’t expect him to start, but I will be very disappointed if he’s not a regular sub.
Ramires – I actually think Ramires may be the most likely candidate, for the exact same reasons Kleberson was in 2002.
This one is for Dude and Rivens.
So there you have it. Three patterns that worked in the past that Brazil has the ability to replicate in the near future. What do you think? Are there any patterns I missed? Leave them in the comments below. (It looks like Disqus won’t be up and running until the week before the World Cup starts.)
 It almost certainly would have been Pele had he not injured himself early in the tournament. As it was, Brazil was fortunate that they had not only the best player in the world, but the second best as well (who automatically took on the Best Player mantle, if only temporarily.)
 Pele was past his prime by 1970, being no longer the athletic marvel of his youth. But as Tim Vickery explained in a recent World Football Phone-In, he had exchanged pace for guile. Just as importantly, opposing teams still treated him like the best player in the world. No other player was marked more closely or aggressively than Pele. While this may have prevented him from scoring golaços (he came close a few times), it meant increased freedom for his teammates. Pele controlled the proceedings marvelously, pulling the strings in the final third and setting up the likes of Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto for some of the greatest World Cup goals of all time. When the dust settled, Pele had not only scored four goals himself, but had assisted four times as well.
 1962 saw the beginning of a long, slow slide in World Cup scoring. For the first time in history, the average goals per game was less than 3; it’s never been over 3 since.
 It’s also worth noting, as I have several times, that Brazil was voted the most entertaining team of the tournament in 1994. No one seems to remember this. Narratives…
 Please note the word “statistically.” Subjectively, I rate them as the third best of Brazil’s five championship teams, behind ’58 and ’70, but ahead of ’94 and ’62.
 This isn’t always the case. The ’58, ’62, ’70 teams all got better and better the deeper they went.
 See 1982 especially.
 Which in my opinion is incorrect – Dunga’s team tended to concede a surprisingly large amount of goals.
 In this case, Nilton Santos, the prototype on which all future wingbacks were built.
 Who has a case for being the most underrated Brazilian great of all time. He scored 9 goals on two World Cup winning teams, yet no one ever talks about him.
 While Pele was the unquestioned star of that 1970 side, Gerson and Jairzinho basically split the honors for Brazil’s most important player. For my money, it was Gerson, an elegant deep-lying playmaker who pulled the strings and controlled the tempo of the game with real skill. His vision and range of passing was excellent. It all came to a head during the final, when Gerson was the best player on the field. His cracking goal in the second half basically broke Italy’s spirit and opened the floodgates for Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto to score soon after.
 This is one of the most fascinating matches in World Cup history, for many reasons, and one I’ll certainly cover in a future Seleção Classics article. For now, let’s just say that it was this match more than any other that might have cemented many of the stereotypes of Brazilian football, both good and bad, that the English media – and thus, the world – has held as gospel for decades afterwards.
 You know what I would like to see some day? A book about Brazilians like Paulo Cesar – excellent players who made major contributions to the game, only to see their legacies overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries. Hell, maybe I’ll try writing it myself some day.
 Certainly better than the horror show that was 2010. By the way, compare Spain 2010 and Brazil 1994. They’re more alike than you’d think. Both teams routinely enjoyed more possession than their opponents, but the vast majority of their goals came off counter-attacks or from sheer opportunism.
 In fact, he was Brazil’s best player for the entire first half, even cracking a shot off the bar late on.
 But he’ll never replace Ronaldo in our hearts.
 The music in this video isn’t great or anything, but it’s nice to watch a football video with a soundtrack that doesn’t make me want to Tarantino my own ears.