Note from Black Matt: Many thanks again to Zetona who continues to step up as I take what basically amounts to a leave of absence from the blog. Take it away, Z.
A year ago, I wrote a wish list of what I’d like to see happen in Brazilian football in 2016. After one of the most eventful, tumultuous years in the national team’s history, it’s time to look back and see how much of that list came to fruition—and to throw out some end-of-year rewards!
Item 1: A complete shakeup in midfield
Verdict: A mixed bag
On the one hand, the Elias-Gustavo duo I railed against has fallen off the face of the earth, neither one has featured under Tite, Casemiro is a clear upgrade over Luiz Gustavo, and Elias’ move back to Europe has really paid off, with him playing a grand total of 234 minutes for Sporting since joining them in the summer. On the other hand, most of the players I listed as being potential upgrades either disappointed in 2016 or didn’t feature at all (*cough* Allan *cough*), and Elias departed only for Paulinho to fill the void. Personnel-wise, it wasn’t a change in personnel that shook up the midfield—Casemiro was the only big addition in that regard, and he only got promoted to the first team because Gustavo sat out the Copa America—but rather that some of the existing personnel finally came good. It took until the Olympics for him to play well in a yellow shirt, but Renato Augusto is now a key component of the midfield. Fernandinho is a new player under Pep Guardiola and he’s transferred that mojo to the national team.
On the other hand, though, Paulinho. Plus, it still irks me that Allan and Fabinho seem to have been totally ignored.
Item 2: A Year of Experimentation for the Seleção
Verdict: Can’t really be boiled down to a pithy statement
For all the big changes that occurred in the national team this year, very few were the result of deliberate experimentation. Dunga brought a radically changed team to the Copa America, for instance, but only because half of his regular starters sat the tournament out. And when he did experiment—as he did with an attacking lineup against Peru—it backfired miserably. Rogério Micale’s Olympic team didn’t really shake things up—indeed, the selection of Renato Augusto seemed almost too cautious—but clearly, he didn’t need to. Tite, meanwhile, has barely touched his core group of players and preferred starting XI since taking the job. But, again, his main job was to right the ship in World Cup qualifying, and he sure as heck did that. And the two major risky changes he did make—starting Gabriel Jesus and playing Coutinho on the right—have paid off in spades.
Item 3: Neymar Wins All the Awards
Verdict: Not really
Dammit, Neymar. We keep waiting for you to make that big jump to being genuinely considered for the mantle of World’s Best Player, but it looks like it ain’t gonna happen at Barcelona. He slipped slightly in the Ballon d’Or rankings this year, from third to fifth, and has so far proven incapable of carrying Barcelona on their (increasingly frequent) off-days.
But hey, on the plus side, he earned a Puskás Award nomination for the first time since 2013, and he’s playing some of his best football ever in a yellow shirt!
Item 4: A Clear Way Forward for Brazil’s Young Talent
Verdict: Let’s go through this player by player.
Gabigol: Showed some promise in the Copa America, before a middling Olympics display and a disastrous move to Inter scuttled any chance of him donning the yellow shirt any time soon.
Gabriel Jesus: I think we’re all amazed at just how good he’s been—there’s lots of uncertainty with this move to Manchester City, but he clearly has the goods to be Brazil’s Next Great Striker
Danilo Barbosa: 199 minutes since moving to Benfica says it all
Jemerson and Marlon: Though they’re not Seleção material yet, they had pretty decent years, and I genuinely believe Marlon’s move to Barcelona will mold him into a truly great player for club and country
Gerson: Has had a pretty promising start to his Roma career, so I’m actually genuinely excited about him
Overall, a mixed bag, but that’s hardly a departure from the norm.
Item 5: The CBF Undergoes Something Approximating Change
Verdict: There never was a night begun in darkness, nor a single day begun in light
As Al Young so eloquently put it, we can only hope that there are brighter times ahead for the CBF, because they’re still basically the same crusty, corrupt, self-serving bunch they’ve always been. The FBI’s investigations haven’t resulted in any more warrants or arrests, and with Delfim Peixoto, one of the few maverick voices in the federation’s higher echelons, among the dead in the Chapecoense plane disaster, the future doesn’t look super bright. The one plus this year is that the CBF were so desperate to hire Tite that they agreed to all his demands to let him bring on his own staff. So if the CBF highers-up have been meddling in national-team selection in service of helping certain players (or, more pertinently, their agents) secure big-money transfers (or, more pertinently, kickbacks), there should be less of that now.
Item 6: Transfers That Result In Desirable Outcomes
Verdict: *barely stifled laughter*
Gabigol played twice for Inter,
He’ll be out on loan this winter.
The Duck was not a fit for Chelsea,
(At least he’s back to being healthy).
Kenedy’s off on loan at Watford;
Maybe he could have got a game for Oxford.
Oscar’s packed his bags for China
(Not that anyone here minded),
Danilo’s Benfica move isn’t looking pretty,
and who knows how Gabriel Jesus will do at Manchester City?
And keep an eye out for my full-length sports-poetry debut, “The Rime of the Andre Marriner”, hopefully coming at some point in 2017.
Item 7: Gold at the Olympics, Despite the Coaching Situation
GUYS WE DID IT
I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE IT
HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS
WE WON THE GOLD MEDAL
AND DUNGA’S GONE
LIKE, THIS ITEM LITERALLY COULDN’T HAVE GONE ANY BETTER
Item 8: A Return to the Tradition of Great Brazilian Nicknames
Verdict: Do better, Brazilian parents
This item, on the other hand, has resulted in nothing but abject failure. Like, did you see how badly Gabriel Jesus messed up the meter in Item 6?
Real quick, a couple end-of-year awards
Goal of the Year (Symbolic): Neymar’s penalty against Germany
So here’s a story for you. The other sport I follow closely is motor racing, and since I was eight years old, I’ve been a die-hard fan of Jeff Gordon. Many years ago, I watched Jeff Gordon, wrestling an ill-handling car in the final laps of a race, try desperately to hold off a charging Jimmie Johnson. And I would rather see anybody else win than Jimmie Johnson. As Johnson closed in and my heart rate went through the roof, I grabbed my cat Chloe—who has a habit of curling up on the ironing board when it’s left open in front of the TV—and stood there for those last ten laps, holding her as tight as I could.
And Gordon won.
This summer, I was watching the Olympic football final with my parents, and at some point during the game, Chloe found her way up to the ironing board again. When it came down to a penalty shootout, I remembered that day many years ago. As I got more and more nervous with each buried kick and each near-save from Weverton, my grip on her got tighter and tighter. Finally, Weverton saved from Nils Petersen, and Neymar had the chance to win it all. I held on to my cat, lest I send bad vibes Neymar’s way.
When Neymar scored that penalty, we yelled so loudly that Chloe bolted from the room.
As Black Matt said at the time, in the thirty or so seconds when Neymar walked up to the penalty spot, set the ball down, and lined up his shot, he may have been under more pressure than any other player in Brazil history. And after so many years of waiting, so many near-misses, so many demons carried over from the last time Germany and Brazil met, and 120 nervy, woodwork-rattling minutes in the Maracanã, it was one of the most cathartic moments in the history of Brazilian football. 2016 was a pretty crappy year for Brazil the country, but at least we’ll never again wonder how we haven’t won an Olympic gold.
Goal of the Year (but from, like, actual play): Gabriel Jesus’s second against Ecuador
Yes, his first goal against Ecuador was brilliant (though some fun-suckers have chalked it as an own goal), but it was his second that really got the blood stirring. It would have been easy to chalk off one great goal as a fluke. But when, minutes later, he scored another magnificent effort… the whole world was thinking, this kid’s for real.
Player of the Year: Neymar
Weirdly, my wish list from last year really didn’t leave much room for what Neymar specifically accomplished this year, so here’s my chance to heap some praise on him. Yes, he had a pretty dismal 2016 for his club, but for Brazil, he finally seemed to break through the malaise that had hung over him ever since the 2015 Copa America. When it counted, he stepped up big-time, with commanding performances and crucial in the knockout stages of the Olympics, followed by outstanding displays in crunch World Cup qualifying matches. To cap off a resurgent year, he played perhaps his best game ever in a Brazil shirt when he tore Argentina’s right flank to shreds. Other Brazilians had better years for their clubs, but Neymar was indisputably the key man in a yellow shirt.
Honorable mentions: Gabriel Jesus, Casemiro, Coutinho
Revelation of the Year: Gabriel Jesus
Like I said earlier, I don’t think anyone expected him to be this good. Like, holy shit. He was 19, in the midst of an inconsistent club season and having just come off a slightly underwhelming display in the Olympics. He was given his first senior international start, and the legendary number 9 shirt, in Tite’s first match in charge, in one of the toughest away games on the World Cup Qualifying Calendar—and he just turned it on. His display against Ecuador was one of the all-time great debut performances in the history of international football. And he’s followed it up with one sparkling display after another. His hold-up play is outstanding, his passing and assists intelligent, and while his goals have been stunning, what’s really impressive is how many different ways he can score spectacularly. We may finally have the striker we’ve been looking for.
Honorable mentions: Renato Augusto, Luan
Are there any wishes you have for 2017, Zetona?
Yes, but they’re mostly just the same ones that didn’t get fulfilled this year. 2017 will be a much more relaxed year for Brazilian football—we have no summer tournament(s) to play, we’re now all-but assured of a place at the World Cup, and we finally have a good coach—and the main focus will be on preparing the team for the 2018 World Cup. We just have to hope that our key players remain fit and in good form and that Tite addresses the remaining weak points in the team.
 Speaking of, it’s time to hand out a dubious end-of-year honor: Best Inadvertent Contribution. Although Petersen helped hand us the Olympic gold, he just misses out to Elias, who missed a tap-in in the final seconds against Peru, squandering Brazil’s chances of making it to the quarterfinals of the Copa America, and thus finally, finally, getting Dunga fired.
 Assuming Brazil don’t get a last-minute invite to the Gold Cup or something, 2017 will be the first year in which Brazil isn’t participating in some sort of official international tournament (counting the Olympics and the Gold Cup) since at least 1995.