Brazil has nowhere left to hide.
The news came down yesterday that Neymar has been suspended for four matches. There are lots of things we could talk about in light of this unwelcome development. We could talk about Neymar’s attitude. We could talk about whether the punishment fits the crime. But let’s put those things aside for a little bit and talk about something that, in the grand scheme of things, is much more important.
Every country has always relied on its stars to carry them to greatness, and Brazil has never been an exception to this rule. But increasingly, gradually, we have seen Brazil’s reliance transform from something natural into something pathological. Whereas in the past, Brazil’s brightest stars may have been expected to provide that extra bit of quality in the final third, or the last psychological shove needed to cross the finish line, they weren’t expected to drag the team the entire distance.
The great Brazil sides of the past are most remembered for their stars, but almost as notable was the amazing lack of what I like to call “passengers” on the pitch. What is a passenger, exactly? A passenger is someone who’s just along for the ride. Someone who can only do one or two things on the pitch (at least with any consistency) and no more. Someone who can only operate effectively in a certain way under certain conditions. Someone who may pop up from time to time, but otherwise can go long stretches without contributing anything of note. To put it another way, a passenger is the kind of player who plays a back-pass seven times out of ten, who can’t be relied on to control the ball in a tight space, who never seems to make a decisive decision at the decisive moment, who might rarely make a major mistake but just as rarely plays a major role. They might well be part of a winning team, but it was largely because others carried them.
The 1958 side glittered thanks to the likes of Didi, Garrincha, Pele, and Vava…but watch the tapes and you’ll see that Gilmar, Bellini, Zagallo, Nilton Santos and Zito more than carried their own weight. It was a similar story in ’62, especially when one star, Pele, went down with an injury, and another, Didi, was no longer in his prime. People rightly remember Garrincha for what he did in that tournament, but equally important were the contributions of a Djalma Santos, an Amarildo, or a Zito. The 1970 team actually did have a few suspect figures in Felix, Brito and Piazza, but that team could have played with 10 men and still won most of their matches.
But over the last two decades, Brazil has increasingly relied on individual brilliance over collective brilliance – assuming that the genius of its stars could and should be supported by a less than stellar cast of purely functional players. In other words, Brazil has increasingly trotted out players whose job is mainly to not screw up…so that the star players, whoever they might be, have the latitude to do their thing.
To be fair, this formula has worked more often than not. Take Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 squad. This team, as I’ve said before, were far more attacking and brilliant to watch than they’re given credit for. I recently re-watched the semifinal against Sweden in preparation for an article on Dunga, and was amazed at some of the attacking moves on display. But even then, you could see a few problems. So much of what Brazil did hinged on the abilities of Jorginho, Romario, Bebeto (and yes, Dunga). The rest of Brazil’s spine, namely Mauro Silva, Mazinho, and Zinho, were a notable step down in quality. They were all fine players in their own rights, and critical to the success of the team…but their roles were far more specialized. Far more narrow. As a result, they could go long stretches without truly influencing the game.
To repeat, their formula was essentially this: wait for Romario to work his magic, and in the meantime, make sure nothing bad happens.
The 1998 team has a lot of rightfully famous names, but re-watch their matches and you’ll see how incredibly dependent they were on Ronaldo’s brilliance. Zagallo’s team had two main tactics: let Ronaldo drop deep to receive the ball, turn, and create (see the Denmark game), or else thump the ball long and let Ronaldo chase it. Both tactics were devastatingly effective, and helped Brazil get to the final. But when the final came and Ronaldo was nowhere near his best, Brazil was like a mighty ship that had lost its rudder. It still looked impressive, but it couldn’t go very far…and when the day of reckoning arrived, many of its crew were revealed to be merely passengers in yellow uniforms.
2002 delayed the trend to a large degree – though again, the team relied on 5-6 players (the R-R-R trio, the Cafu/Carlos duo, and Kleberson) to consistently inflict damage on the enemy. In 2006, Brazil had the opposite problem: too many captains and not enough carpenters. But the good ship Seleção would resume its treacherous course four years later. Dunga’s team was tactically fascinating, disciplined (until the end), and worked together as a unit…but again, relied on 3 or 4 players to do most of the real damage. Unfortunately, when the tournament came around, two of those players were unfit in Kaka and Fabiano. The team still scored some fabulous goals, and was probably the second best side in the competition, but they rarely dominated their opponents like you felt they should.
And of course…2014.
Like a drug addict, Brazil’s reliance on star power had reached an alarming level of dependency. And like a drug addict, who eventually needs a hit not to feel good, but to feel normal, the team’s habits finally paid the consequences. Now there was no handful of stars, but only one. Scolari’s side was simply rife with passengers. Solid players, perhaps, but limited. Save against Croatia, when Oscar experienced a brief resurgence, Brazil’s hopes were limited to set pieces…and Neymar.
This was summed up at the beginning of the Germany match when David Luiz held up Neymar’s shirt. A touching gesture, yes, but also emblematic of a larger problem. No one held up Pele’s shirt in ’62.
Fast forward to last Sunday. Before Neymar had kicked a ball in anger, head-butted an opponent, or even been yellow-carded for handball, I remarked that the team just had too many passengers. They simply could not consistently advance the ball into dangerous areas. Keep it, maybe. Circulate it, yes. But consistently do damage with it? No.
Things changed a little bit in the second half as Colombia tired and Dunga brought on more aggressive players in Coutinho and Douglas Costa. But even if Firmino hadn’t blazed his chance over the bar, a Brazil draw would have still felt like a loss. The performance just wasn’t good enough.
And that’s when the ship finally ran aground.
Neymar is gone. He likely won’t feature in this tournament again. We could focus on that and call it a shame…which it is. Had he acted more mature, not just in terms of temperament but in terms of decision making, I expect Brazil would have actually gone on to win. Contrary to what the media says, James Rodriguez and co. are not a truly great team, and Neymar was ready to make this tournament his own. That, coupled with the aftermath of his Champions League performances, would likely have catapulted him into a top-3 finish for the Balon d’Or. After the Peru game, Neymar enjoyed more goodwill and praise from the international community than ever in his career. His antics against Colombia destroyed all that.
But I don’t think that’s really the story here. The story, now and always, is Brazil as a whole.
Brazil has nowhere else to hide. No longer can the team afford to be “Neymar and the Brazillettes.” No longer can they afford solely to trade on the legacy of their predecessors. No longer can they assume to be contenders based solely on the color of their shirts. No longer can they be content to be passengers.
But here’s the good news. Chaos is a ladder.* Crisis is an opportunity. Greatness is only achieved in the face of adversity. And that’s the objective: greatness. The real goal isn’t to win a solitary tournament. In a sense, it’s not even to win the World Cup in 2018. The real goal is for Brazil to truly recover what it has lost. I’m not talking about jogo bonito or samba football. I’m talking about greatness. For decades, Brazil was a great team. It was more than the sum of its parts. It was dominant.
To become dominant again, Brazil must stop relying on a single star to save them.
That’s why Neymar’s suspension may prove to be a blessing in disguise.
For the first time in my memory, Brazil will be forced to play a significant stretch of competitive games without a single superstar on the pitch. Even when Ronaldo went down injured in 2000-01, the team still had Rivaldo. The closest comparison is the 2007 Copa America team, who were missing Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Adriano. But that team still had Robinho. Robinho is no one’s idea of a superstar, but back then, he looked on the verge of becoming one…and for the most part, played like it.
But now, no one. The three closest are Coutinho, Firmino, and Willian. But of those three, Coutinho and Firmino are still developing and are not major goal-scorers, and Willian is essentially a very valuable workhorse. (And as I’ve said many times before, has never been a goal-scorer, not even at Shakthar.) So what does this mean for Brazil?
For one, it probably means kissing the trophy goodbye. But it might – MIGHT – mean something else, something bigger, something more meaningful. It means that all these passengers are now without a captain, and if they want the ship to move, one or all of them must step up and find within themselves the ability to sail.
Brazil has too often had a “play not to lose” rather than a “play to win” mentality. But now they are expected to lose…and what’s more, have none of the pressures of a World Cup semifinal to contend with. Now, they are placed in a situation where each player is forced to rise just a little higher, give just a little more effort, play with just a little more focus, and be something they are not usually required to be. That old formula of “don’t screw up and let the star do his thing” is junk, because there is no star anymore. The chance here is that for the rest of this tournament, and maybe even into the WC qualifiers depending on how things go, the team learns how to play as a collective again, with each man shouldering a larger burden and a new reliance on system over star. If the team can do that, then maybe, just maybe, a new formula will be created. A formula that launches a new era of Brazilian football.
Understand, I’m not asking for jogo bonito in the Nike sense. I’m not even asking or expecting this team to win. What I’m asking for, what I’m expecting, is a communal shift in quality. I’m asking for the entire team to play a little faster. A little hungrier. A little more unpredictably. A little more collectively. I’m asking for each player to be that actor who, when the leading man just doesn’t have it, puts in a little more verve into his own performance because the show must go on. I’m asking for the team to finally, finally, be more than the sum of its parts.
What I don’t want to see is one individual taking it upon himself to be the hero. I don’t want to see Coutinho attempt a curler on the edge of the box every time he gets the ball. I don’t want to see Willian attempt to dribble through the entire team. I don’t want to see Fred or Douglas Costa drive down blind alleys in a desperate attempt to create something out of nothing. I want to see a commitment to move the ball, to move without the ball, to make those tireless runs over and over again even if no one rewards you. I want to see the midfielders reward those runs. I want to see every man dialed in and focused, so when the ball falls to him in the penalty box, they’re ready to shoot no matter what minute the game is in. I want to see every player tracking back like a madman. I want to see every defender not just hoof the ball long but be aware of where their nearest teammates are.
I want the team to remember that those old Brazil sides were great not because Pele or Garrincha were always brilliant…but because they didn’t always have to be.
Maybe none of that happens. Maybe they play with their heads down, already defeated mentally. Maybe they play with an unwarranted arrogance, assuming that Venezuela is too, well, Venezuelan to beat them. Maybe they play nervously, selfishly, or any other of a dozen ways. All I know is that Neymar is out, and the Copa America is probably lost.
But maybe – just maybe – Brazil can win something better.
Its own footballing soul.
 If Brazil 2010 and Holland 2010 were to play a best of seven series, I still believe Brazil would have won in 6.
 Or two, if you count Thiago Silva.
* For all you ASoIaF fans out there, let it be known that while I’m quoting Littlefinger, I’m totally a Team Varys guy.