A World Cup cycle draws to a close, and before we concern ourselves with the buildup to the 2022 edition in Qatar, I thought it would be good to take a look back at the best, and worst, of Brazil over the last four years.
I’ve assembled a list of my personal choices, but I’ve also provided a poll with each category, to let you all vote on the highs and lows of the Seleção. If you have any categories you’d like to suggest, or nominees you think were egregiously snubbed, let me know in the comments.
Without further ado:
I had to think about this long and hard, but in the end, I couldn’t give this to anybody but Neymar. Yes, he had several dry spells and down periods. Yes, his antics were often an embarrassment, and occasionally cost us dearly. But when it came down to it, nobody else delivered for Brazil as often, or as spectacularly, as he did. Over the past four years, he came back from a career-threatening injury, passed Rivaldo, Bebeto, Zico, and Romário on Brazil’s all-time scorers list, and played a crucial role in securing the one footballing prize, Olympic gold, that Brazil had never won.
Still, 2014-18 was nowhere near as good a World Cup cycle for Neymar as 2010-14, and a challenger might well have stolen this prize. Thiago Silva or Casemiro would likely have won it had Dunga not unfairly snubbed them for so much of the cycle. If Coutinho had been a little more consistent, or if Gabriel Jesus had sustained his goalscoring form into the World Cup, they might have had a sniff, too. But nobody’s CV was flawless, and for Neymar, the good outshone the bad.
But I’m just one guy. Have your say in the poll. I’ve included everyone I think might have a reasonable shot of earning a vote or two.
Best New Player (i.e. best player to never get a chance before this World Cup cycle) (other than, like, games where only domestic players were selected or Brazil fielded a glorified youth team)
It turns out—who even remembered?—that Casemiro actually played for Brazil as early as 2011, and made a couple of appearances as a substitute in 2012. But those were for the Superclásico de las Américas and the preparatory friendlies for the Olympics, respectively, and I couldn’t let 36 garbage minutes spread across five cameo appearances count him out for this award. (I’ve given the same consideration to Coutinho, who played a game and a half as an 18-year-old back in 2010 and then didn’t return for four whole years.) Though he made a couple of scattered cameos during Dunga’s first year and a half, it wasn’t until the 2016 Copa América that he finally became an unequivocal starter (and, even then, it was only because Luiz Gustavo pulled out of the squad for personal reasons… huh, he never returned after that, did he?). He quickly established himself as one of the few bright spots in a drab, disappointing team, and when Tite took charge he rightly became the first choice.
What sets Casemiro ahead of the others I’ve listed in his poll was his consistency. Sure, the likes of Coutinho or Gabriel Jesus had an impact that was far more spectacular at times, but they also had plenty of games where they were off song. Casemiro never seemed to have that problem. He was always there, mopping up the midfield, shielding the center-backs, and with his passing playing a subtle but critical role in the team’s attacking play. His impact was best defined by how Brazil grew to struggle in his absence—most notably, in how brutally Belgium ripped apart the midfield earlier this month when he was suspended. That Tite didn’t choose a more suitable replacement for him than Fernandinho isn’t Casemiro’s fault; that Casemiro got the yellow cards that he did isn’t even really his fault, given how his teammates hung him out to dry at crucial moments. He’s the best defensive midfielder Brazil have had since Dunga retired, and I look forward to another four years of him doing his thing.
It was very hard to choose between Elias and Paulinho, but ultimately I had to give it to Elias on the simple grounds that Paulinho, on at least one occasion, had a good game. Sure, that hat-trick against Uruguay was probably ultimately detrimental for how it further cemented his starting role, but it was still a hat-trick in a big game. At least it was something.
For comparison, consider his competition. Elias became one of the most unshakeable starters in Dunga’s system, playing in all but four of his games in charge, despite the fact that he didn’t really do anything. He sometimes played as a central midfielder, but he wasn’t much for tackling opponents, cutting out passes, or blocking shots. He sometimes played as an attacking midfielder, but in 22 appearances under Dunga he notched just two assists, one of those in our 7-1 win against Haiti, the easiest game of this cycle. Goal.com once wrote that “his ability to time his late runs into the box should add an increased goal threat” to Brazil, and at times Dunga played him in almost a false nine role, yet he never scored a goal in 35 appearances for Brazil.
Occasionally, he’d produce a nice long ball. That was pretty much it, and yet he remained a starter for two whole years.
Don’t agree with my pick? Then vote!
Best Single-Game Performance, Team
I had to think about this a fair bit. In retrospect, Argentina were already well into their current period of being a total mess, and Brazil really didn’t take advantage of that disarray as well as they could have; had they pushed the issue, and converted some of the chances they missed, they could have easily doubled that 3-0 scoreline. But this was a game where we faced our fiercest rival and utterly demolished them, where, after a brief stretch of Argentine pressure in the first twenty minutes, we took command of the game so completely that the boys in blue had visibly given up well before the final whistle. We probably took more lessons from this game than we should have (namely, that Fernandinho can deputize for Casemiro in defensive midfield), but rarely have we made such mincemeat of an opponent, powerhouse or not.
Best Single-Game Performance, Player
Japan are Neymar’s favorite victims, and in 2014 he put them under the cosh with perhaps the best performance of his international career, tearing them to shreds in a four-goal show that could easily have been more. Only a handful of players have ever scored four goals in a game for Brazil. Pelé hasn’t. Ronaldo hasn’t. But Neymar has.
Worst Single-Game Performance, Team
Brazil occasionally (far too often for my liking) plays very badly, but very rarely are they genuinely, unequivocally outplayed for 90 minutes. This quarterfinal against Paraguay was one such time.
We weren’t in the best of circumstances going into the match, in fairness, but that was largely our own fault. Luiz Gustavo had pulled out of the tournament due to injury, and with no other defensive midfielder in the squad, Fernandinho was playing the number 5 role (gosh, where have we heard that before?) More seriously, Neymar’s antics against Colombia had earned him a four-match ban which imperiled his participation in the first two games of World Cup qualifying. But hey, all we had to do was win this game and it wouldn’t be a problem: if we advanced to the semifinals, we were guaranteed a spot in either the final or the third-place game, which would use up the rest of Neymar’s suspension before qualifiers started.
So, uh, that didn’t happen. We did actually start this game brightly, going ahead early after Robinho finished off a really nice team play, but that proved to be the last spark of inspiration or attacking intent. The next 75 minutes consisted of some of the shakiest, least confident football I’ve ever seen Brazil produce, struggling, with Fernandinho trying to anchor the midfield, to contain Paraguay’s forays forward, and seeming terrified to try and put the ball on the ground and play it forward. Somehow, it pretty much worked for about an hour, but then Thiago Silva committed a silly handball in the box, Derlis González equalized from the penalty spot, and then Paraguay, for the second Copa América in a row, kicked our butts in a penalty shootout. But with Paraguay outplaying us, outshooting us, and testing our goalkeeper more, we were lucky to have hung on long enough to take the game to penalties.
Other nominees: Our 0-1 loss to Colombia in the same tournament, which ended in the Neymar temper tantrum that saw him banned for the next four games; the 0-0 draw with Ecuador in the following year’s Copa América, an unbelievably drab game that saw only three shots on target total; the 2-2 draw with Paraguay in World Cup qualifying, where a late comeback somehow saved Dunga’s job; and the 1-0 loss to Peru in the 2016 Copa América on a Raúl Ruidiaz handball.
Worst Single-Game Performance, Player
It’s not so much that Neymar played an awful game here—indeed, look at the highlight reel and you’ll see a menagerie of spectacular dribbles, especially in the first half. But Colombia marked him tightly throughout, and when the referee carded him at the end of the first half for a handball he had no reasonable chance of avoiding (suspending him for the final match of the group stage), you could see something snap. He got notably more petulant, and less patient, after that, and his on-field product suffered even before he got himself sent off after the final whistle for kicking the ball straight into a Colombian player’s face. But he wasn’t done there, yelling at the referee in the tunnel and earning himself a four-match suspension that kept him out of the rest of Brazil’s Copa América campaign as well as the first two games of World Cup qualifying. We wouldn’t see Neymar looking like his old self again until Dunga was sacked a year later.
Other nominees (video wasn’t available for these): Paulinho missing three good chances and assisting Romelu Lukaku’s second against Belgium; Fernandinho’s grossly subpar attempt to cover for Casemiro in the same game; Elias missing a golden chance at the death in that handball game against Peru; Dani Alves getting torn to shreds in the 2-2 draw against Paraguay.
There are a lot to choose from, so I’m just going to list several of my favorites and put a poll at the end for you all to choose your favorite.
Coutinho vs. Mexico, 2015 friendly: One of the longest team plays Brazil executed this cycle, with a cracking finish at the end of it.
Willian vs. Colombia, 2017 World Cup qualifying: The finest goal of his career.
Douglas Costa vs. Peru, 2015 Copa América: Neymar produced arguably the best pass of the entire cycle to set this one up.
Coutinho vs. Argentina, 2016 World Cup qualifying: Was this the best Coutinho Special™ we got during this cycle…
Coutinho vs. Switzerland, 2018 World Cup: …or was it this one?
Neymar vs. Germany, 2016 Olympics: The most clutch of free kicks.
Gabriel Jesus vs. Ecuador, 2016 World Cup qualifying: What a way to mark your debut.
Neymar vs. Austria, 2018 friendly: THAT DRIBBLE.
Best Brazil World Cup Blog In-Joke
The Paulinho, obviously. There’s no point having a poll for this one. No other joke, from this cycle or any other—not the mythical coach Donga and his fabled midfielder Gonzo, not even the magnificence of Ali’s extraordinary knack for dark and terrible prophecies, can compare to the all-encompassing reach of The Paulinho. The Paulinho is love. The Paulinho is life.
God, I hope we never see him in a yellow shirt again.
HANG ON, HERE’S SOME CATEGORIES PEOPLE SUGGESTED I ADD
A few worthwhile categories I didn’t think to include. For these, I’m not going to give a whole spiel about who deserves to win; I’m just going to list some nominees, create a poll, and maybe give a note afterward about my picks.
This goes to the worst player to get called up, regardless of playing time. Players nominated for Worst Player aren’t eligible, otherwise this poll would be twice as long.
The nominees: Geferson, who replaced the injured Marcelo at the 2015 Copa América, never played, and now plies his trade in Bulgaria; Ismaily, surprisingly selected for this March’s friendlies after Alex Sandro and Filipe Luís were injured; Alex Muralha, a goalie widely panned in Brazil, called up three times by Tite; Rodriguinho, whom Tite knew from Corinthians; Ricardo Oliveira, called up in 2015 at age 35; Juan Jesus, called up once for the October 2014 friendlies, didn’t play, never returned.
Best Player To Get (Almost) No Recognition
Anybody who deserved a look, but either never got one, got almost no playing time, or was totally ignored by one of Brazil’s coaches, is in with a shot. I’ve excluded a few players, such as Arthur (injured or barred by Grêmio from participating for most of the run-up to the World Cup) and Fred (Tite barely played him, but he did make the World Cup squad).
The nominees, along with their records in this World Cup cycle: Fabinho (four caps, 222 minutes, all under Dunga); Dudu (one cap, one goal in the domestic-only friendly vs. Colombia, never called up again); Allan (never called up); Jorginho (switched to Italy before being called up); Luan (one cap, six minutes); Felipe Anderson (one cap, seven minutes); Lucas Moura (three caps, 53 minutes, all under Dunga).