Happy New Year, everyone!

For not being a (men’s senior level) World Cup year, 2019 is shaping up to be as hectic as it gets in international football. If all goes well we can look forward to cheering on Brazilian teams in up to seven international tournaments over the course of the year, and in between we’ll have a wealth of club and friendly games, transfer sagas, and the beginning of 2022 World Cup qualifying (!) to look forward to. 

Here are a few of the biggest Brazilian football stories to keep an eye on in 2019:

Can the U-20 side get its act together?

The first major event for Brazilian football in 2019 begins barely two weeks from now, when the under-20 team will tackle the Sulamericano, the South American Youth Football Championship. At stake is a place in the U-20 World Cup, held in Poland in May, and the Pan-American games in Peru in July—but not, for the first time since 2004, the next Olympics, which might be for the best. 

See, Brazil does not have a very good recent record at the U-20 level. Since winning both the Sulamericano and the World Cup in 2011, the results have been pretty dire. Only in 2015 did Brazil qualify for the World Cup, and that was by scraping a fourth-place finish, the last qualifying spot, in the six-team final round (though they went on to reach the finals of the World Cup itself). In 2017 the team missed out, finishing fifth in the final round, and in 2013 the team crashed out of the first round. (All they had to do to make the final six was finish in the top three in a five-team group!)

The reasons for this underperformance vary. Many of the players in the 2017 side, like David Neres, Richarlison, and Lucas Paquetá, have already gone on to impress at club level and/or get called up to Brazil’s senior team. But two years ago, they were all far more raw and inexperienced, none of them (except for Neres, whose shooting let him down) played well, and a leaky defense coughed up the lead in the closing stages of several games, ultimately costing the team a top-four finish. The result led to the sacking of Rogério Micale not six months after he delivered Brazil’s first Olympic gold medal, but I maintain that he wasn’t the problem; he was dealing with a weak side whose big talents were still too raw to be truly effective. 2015 was more a good side underperforming, and perhaps the coach Alexandre Gallo alienating some of his players; Gerson later turned down a call-up to that year’s World Cup, which prompted Gallo’s sacking. 2013 was all on the coach: Emerson Ávila had a solid squad that included future stars Rafinha Alcântara, Felipe Anderson, and Fred, didn’t start them consistently, and lost embarrassingly. 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it’s because I’m worried the same thing is about to happen again. In recent friendlies Coach Carlos Amadeu has struggled get his team scoring goals, drawing five games in a row despite being able to count on rising stars like Vinicius Júnior, Mauro Júnior, Good Paulinho, and Matheus Cunha. What’s worse, not one of the players I just listed was released by their clubs for this tournament, so Amadeu will have to make do with replacements of lesser quality. He’s still got a few stars he can call upon, like Rodrygo and Lincoln, and the absences let him bring in the delightfully nicknamed Papagaio (“Parrot” in Portuguese), but if he couldn’t win games with all of Brazil’s biggest rising stars, can he possibly start winning with only a couple of them? 

The good news is that, on paper, qualifying for the World Cup isn’t too difficult. Brazil’s first-stage group also includes Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Even in their current form, they can certainly finish in the top three of that group. Then it’s just a matter of finishing in the top four in the final group of six—top three, if we want to also qualify for the Pan-American Games. Doing that should be easy for Brazil. But we also thought that in 2013 and 2017. 

As it stands, it seems like it’s for the best that CONMEBOL went back to having a separate tournament to decide who would qualify for the Olympics, after a decade of giving the spots to the top two finishers in the. It means that if Brazil crash out of the Sulamericano, there’s a solid year to right the ship before a spot in the Olympics is on the line.

Whatever happens, Brazil’s first game is on January 17. 

Can Tite get the senior side back on track—and if he can’t, how long will he last?

Tite built up a huge amount of goodwill during his first two years in charge of Brazil. He was popular beforehand, he was open and articulate with the media, and the results and performances largely spoke for themselves. 

In the last six months of 2018, it feels like used up most of that goodwill. 

First was the disappointment of the World Cup, which owed a lot to Tite’s mistakes, particularly sticking with underperforming players like Willian, Bad Paulinho, and Gabriel Jesus, as well as choosing Fernandinho as Casemiro’s backup rather than bringing in another defensive midfield specialist. Yes, even so, Brazil were unlucky to lose to Belgium, but their play all tournament, particularly in attack, had been lacking, and Tite did very little to address that. 

Since the World Cup, the mood around Tite has soured further. Partly it’s because he didn’t clear out players who’ve underperformed or will be far too old by the time the 2022 World Cup rolls around. Players like Willian, who are guilty on both counts, have been regulars in the squad, at the expense of younger, more promising players in the position. Even those who seemed initially like they were gone for good, like Bad Paulinho and Fernandinho, have either gotten their second chance already or received a public promise from Tite that they will be called up again. 

That might be excusable if the team had played well, but it really hasn’t. With the exception of an enjoyable 5-0 romp over El Salvador (and let’s be frank, anything short of a goleada would have been a disappointment against opposition like that), the six friendlies since the World Cup have been roundly disappointing. Despite having an experienced, cohesive core of players very familiar with both each other and Tite’s style of play, Brazil opened the post-World Cup era with a rather unambitious 2-0 win over a USA side in complete disarray (and which Brazil had beaten 4-1 in both 2012 and 2015). That was followed by the El Salvador game; a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia (who’d lost 5-0 in the opening game of the World Cup, remember) in which the opening goal was questionably offside and the second goal came at the death after the Saudis had been reduced to 10 men; a 1-0 win (with the goal coming from a corner in the final minute of second-half stoppage time) over a Messi-less Argentina side under a caretaker coach; a 1-0 win over Uruguay thanks to a dubious penalty in the closing stages; and a 1-0 win over Cameroon, a side that even that year’s awful Brazil team had stomped 4-1 at the 2014 World Cup. 

And it’s not like Brazil played well in these games and just didn’t find the goals because Gabriel Jesus was out of form or whatever. By and large, they played dull, unambitious football, not creating many clear-cut chances. Against Uruguay, for instance, they didn’t have a clear sight of goal until the questionable penalty call. In the Saudi Arabia game, I remember seeing Tite prowl the sidelines, unhappy with what he was seeing but reluctant to change anything, until Neymar came over for a brief chat; after that, the team quickly perked up and scored the first goal. Maybe Tite, a defense-first coach, has run out of ideas about how to make a team attack well. Maybe the players have stopped listening to him for some reason. Maybe they’ve lost the passion that comes with playing for Brazil and now can’t be bothered. 

Whatever the reason, there’s a lot riding on the Copa América in June. Rumor has it that Tite’s job is riding on the outcome. I’m not sure how plausible that is (other than Renato Gaúcho, are there any Brazilian coaches who even deserve to be considered for the Seleção right now?), but considering that Brazil has won every previous Copa América held on home soil, anything less than another title would be a disappointment. 

Tite himself has said that he’s more concerned with playing well than necessarily winning the tournament, but he finds himself in a bind. He’s retained the aging core of his World Cup squad in large part because he believes that continuity will help win the Copa América, with the promise that afterward he’ll begin bringing more young and up-and-coming talent into the fold. As a result, his team is now neither playing very well nor looking particularly like a contender, and he’s passing up the opportunity to blood a bunch of youngsters ahead of the 2022 World Cup. 

If this summer really is make-or-break for Tite, he doesn’t have much longer to get Brazil back on track. He only has one more week of friendlies, in late March, to make tests and bring in new players before he has to select his squad for the Copa América. Even if the Copa isn’t make-or-break, Tite’s going to have to get the team playing better, particularly in attack, before the end of the year. World Cup qualifying starts in October, and it’s naïve to think that Brazil can keep playing badly and still squeak out 1-0 wins. Argentina’s likely to improve with time under a new coach, regardless of whether or not Lionel Messi returns to the fold. Brazil can’t always count on questionable penalty calls putting them over the top against Uruguay. If Tite doesn’t get the team playing better, the results are eventually going to suffer, and if that happens in World Cup qualifying, he’s not likely to last long. 

Can Brazil finally win the Women’s World Cup?

Even if all the men’s teams disappoint us this year, there’s still a chance that Brazil will have something to cheer about in soccer. The Women’s World Cup kicks off about a week before the start of the Copa América, and Brazil will travel to France in search of their first ever world title in the women’s game. 

Can they win it? The answer, unfortunately, is pretty likely “no”. Even with Marta, the greatest women’s player of all time, who in 2018 was once again named the best in the world after a seven-year drought, Brazil doesn’t look like a true title contender. 

There’s several reasons for this. First of all, there’s the simple fact of Brazil having recently played some of the powerhouses they’ll likely have to beat to win the World Cup and getting blown out, losing 4-1 to the USA and 3-1 to Australia. (They did beat Japan, who were finalists in the last two World Cups, so that’s something.) It doesn’t help that Vadão is the coach, either. His record isn’t great: in the 2015 World Cup, Brazil won all their group stage games but didn’t look convincing at all, scoring just four goals, and immediately crashed out in their first knockout game with a limp 1-0 loss to Australia. In the 2016 Olympics, Brazil started spectacularly, scoring eight goals in their first two games, only to lose star striker Cristiane to injury and not score again until the 79th minute of the third-place game, which they lost. (That’s three full games, two that went to extra time, and most of a fourth without a goal—over 400 minutes total.) He got the sack shortly after that and was replaced by Emily Lima, the first woman to ever get the job, but she got sacked herself in 2017 after a run of poor results, which prompted several stars, including Cristiane, to retire from the national team. And guess who they brought on in her place? None other than Vadão. 

So, to sum up: Brazil’s going to the World Cup likely without several of their best players and with a coach who both hasn’t been very effective and may not be very popular with his players. But hey, they’ve got the GOAT on their side! 

Will anybody come good in the positions where Brazil is desperately short on talent?

Brazil is currently enjoying an unusual glut of talent in what recently have been problem positions. Alisson, Ederson, and Neto bring tremendous depth and impressive ball-playing skills to the goalkeeper position, where just four years ago the team had to make do with Victor, Jefferson, and the past-it Júlio César. There’s also arguably the best class of midfielders in over a decade, with the likes of Arthur, Fabinho, Casemiro, Allan, and Lucas Paquetá offering impressive offensive, defensive, or playmaking qualities. 

But the flipside of this is that there’s a strange lack of quality coming through elsewhere. It’s not clear who’s going to emerge as the successors to Thiago Silva and Miranda in central defense, for example. There’s Marquinhos, but he’s playing more and more as a defensive midfielder as Tomas Tuchel attempts to make up for the massive balance problems in Paris Saint-Germain’s expensive but ill-assembled squad. Other promising young center-backs, like Marlon Santos and Rodrigo Caio, have either struggled to impress at club level or have been hampered by persistent injury troubles. There’s a similar story at right-back, where, after two decades of Cafu, Maicon, and Dani Alves, suddenly there’s… pretty much nobody. I’m not much a fan of Dani Alves, and I don’t think he’s ever performed very well for Brazil, but it’s telling that in the last two years, even as he pushed well into his mid-thirties, he became clearly Brazil’s best option in the position. His absence through injury undeniably hurt Brazil’s World Cup team, and since the World Cup Tite has relied primarily on the perennially-injured Danilo (who’s always been a much better attacker than defender) and the hasn’t-played-as-a-right-back-for-like-two-years Fabinho. Unsurprisingly, neither has looked like the answer.

However, where this dilemma is most complex is up front. The last three years have seen several young and promising strikers emerge as the potential solution for Brazil’s longstanding lack of number 9s, but each has stumbled in some way or another. Gabriel Jesus had a spectacular start to his Brazil career, but he lost his form shortly after moving to Manchester City and has yet to recover it. Roberto Firmino just became the top-scoring Brazilian in Premier League history, but he’s more of a false 9 or second striker, and has looked like a square peg in a round hole when played as a more traditional forward for Brazil. Gabigol just had the best season of his career, and was the top scorer in the Brazilian league in 2018, but he’s about to return to Europe, where his career went off the rails in 2016. Richarlison has had a spectacular last six months and seems to be a really gifted finisher, but there are major question marks about his first touch as well as whether striker is really his best position. 

Following the development of all these players—and seeing whether any new ones emerge—is likely to be a throughline for 2019, then. There’s a narrative for every player. Can Gabriel Jesus recover the form he had in 2016? Could Firmino work in Brazil’s setup? Will Gabigol find success in Europe? Can Richarlison score 20 goals in the Premier League, and if he does, will that make him too good to ignore? Similar concerns abound in the other problem positions. Might Marquinhos return to the defense if PSG sign a midfielder this month? Will moving to Flamengo revive Rodrigo Caio’s Seleção prospects? Is Tite going to call up Dani Alves again now that he’s healthy, or will he look to someone younger, like Mayke? Éder Militão is one of Brazil’s best prospects at both center-back and right-back; which one will he end up playing regularly, and will it be the one where Brazil needs him most? 

But there’s no guarantee we’ll be stuck with these same players. Nobody knew about Éder Militão at the start of 2018. It took one summer for Gabriel Jesus to go from “promising winger” to “maybe the striker Brazil’s been looking for”. Richarlison is undergoing a similar journey right now. Who knows who’ll break through this year?

(God, I hope it’s Papagaio. Brazil needs a good nickname.)

Will we see a club coaching breakthrough? 

Since Leonardo left Inter at the end of the 2010-11 season, no Brazilian has coached a club in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues. There are many reasons for this, not least how Brazilian tactics have failed to evolve, but here’s a big one with a simple solution: for years, UEFA didn’t recognize the CBF’s coaching licenses. Only recently has that changed, thanks to the CBF’s new PRO License.

Yes, it’s possible that we might, in the near future, actually see a Brazilian coach at a top club in Europe. There is one snag, however: as I understand it, UEFA will only recognize coaches with five years on the job since receiving a PRO license, meaning that we’ll have to wait until 2021 before the first cohort of licensed coaches is eligible to go to Europe. Even so, it’s a big step in the right direction long-term, and perhaps the intensive classes involved will give Brazil’s coaches some newer and more modern ideas. Combined with plans to provide coaches with more stability so that they’re not axed after six weeks on the job, the CBF might actually be doing a good thing here?

In the meantime, there are other storylines to keep an eye on in the domestic game. Tite, of course, will remain under a microscope until he rights the Seleção ship, and if Renato Gaúcho can keep playing attractive football with Grêmio, he may find himself riding a wave of public support to take the national team coaching job. Meanwhile, we’re likely to see some of Brazil’s most interesting and idealistic coaches land jobs throughout the year. Tiki-taka fanatic Fernando Diniz has already signed with Fluminense for 2019, and folks like Rogério Micale are likely to make the news at some point or other. And even if they can’t coach in Europe, we might see a Brazilian land a high-profile coaching job abroad, given that the Colombian national team has reached out to both Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari about taking over as head coach. 

What will happen with Neymar and PSG? 

Neymar is in something of a bind. He moved to Paris Saint-Germain at exorbitant cost in 2017 in order to get out of Lionel Messi’s shadow. Problem is, PSG is imitating Real Madrid’s old Galacticos policy, where you splash exorbitant cash on a bunch of really talented attacking players while letting the rest of the team stagnate, sell your best defensive midfielder, and then wonder why you can’t win the Champions League. Not only that, but in the wake of France’s World Cup triumph, his teammate Kylian Mbappé has begun to overshadow him, at least according to some pundits. Never mind that Neymar is the creative fulcrum of PSG, nor that in his first season with his new club, he averaged more goals+assists per 90 minutes than Messi did at Barcelona. He’s still not taken seriously as a truly elite player, and as his teammate Gianluigi Buffon said, that should make him furious

But let’s be honest: fair or not, the best way for him to win some of that respect would be for him to lead his team to a Champions League title. Not as part of Messi’s team, as he did in 2015 (never mind that Ney was the tournament’s top scorer or that he became the first player to score in every game of the quarterfinals, semifinals, and final), but as the key man. Whether that can happen with PSG is uncertain. The team is so badly constructed that it makes even Thiago Silva look bad: with no proper defensive midfielders in the squad, the back line is constantly exposed, and the team’s inability to compete in the middle can leave the attack hamstrung. Maybe they’ll buy the midfielder they so desperately need in the winter transfer window, maybe Thomas Tuchel will get Marquinhos to play out of his skin, who knows. But right now, I wouldn’t bet on them beating any of the powerhouse teams in Europe. (Even if they did, the pundits might still just fête Mbappé instead of Neymar.)

Rumors abound that Neymar wants out of Paris, and I can’t say I blame him too much. No matter how good you are, the odds of winning the Champions League with a club that dysfunctional are pretty low. If PSG are really so cash-strapped that they can’t bring in any decent reinforcements this transfer window, then they might be willing to sell him in the summer if things don’t go well. Would he really go back to Barcelona, back into Messi’s shadow? That doesn’t strike me as a wise move; the optics would be terrible, and it’s not like Barcelona is particularly functional itself right now. (#FreeMalcom.)

SAVE THE DATE: the Seleção’s calendar for 2019

January 17 – February 10: South American Youth Football Championship (U-20)

February 23 – March 19: South American U-17 Championship (top four teams qualify for U-17 World Cup)

May 23 – June 15: U-20 World Cup (if Brazil qualifies)

June 7 – July 7: Women’s World Cup

June 14 – July 7: Copa América (imagine if the men’s and women’s teams both reach the finals of their respective tournaments…)

July 26 – August 11: Pan-American Games (if Brazil qualifies)(men only; the women are playing in the World Cup instead)(same eligibility rules as the 2020 Olympics: players must be born on or after January 1, 1997, with three overage players allowed) 

October 5 – 27: U-17 World Cup (if Brazil qualifies)

October 7 – 15: FIFA date that should mark the start of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying (yet to be confirmed)