In the end, victory eventually arrived at Brazil’s door, but the courier kept missing the address to deliver it. Those who saw the Seleção in top form under Tite during World Cup qualifying are still getting adjusted to this new reality, while the many in the country who become coaches every four years might finally see that this will not be as easy of a ride as the country’s biggest TV channel painted it to be.
In spite of their struggles against Switzerland, Tite made no changes to his starting lineup from the 1-1 debut draw. Costa Rica coach Óscar Ramírez made only one change from their loss against Serbia, replacing left wing-back Francisco Calvo with Bryan Oviedo, but stuck to the same game plan as most “minnows” have in this World Cup: dropping deep and playing on the counter. Even centre forward Marco Ureña, the most advanced player on the pitch for Costa Rica, would drop behind the ball once Brazil got past the halfway line.
It made for an incredibly frustrating first-half, especially with the failure of the midfielders, the attackers and left-back Marcelo to work out the space to break Costa Rica apart. Willian was a particular low point.
Replicating some of his worst Chelsea form and decisions, Willian found himself free plenty of times on the right side of the pitch. But instead of trying to work out plays with his colleagues, he basically gifted Costa Rica all their moments of possession in the first 45 minutes of the match.
He was not the sole bad performer however. Paulinho seemed to hide from the ball, removing himself as a passing option whenever the ball was in his vicinity. Coutinho, apart from a good long-range pass that almost set a good offensive play for Neymar, was not as accurate as expected with his long-ranged shots. And speaking of Brazil’s biggest star, old tricks must die hard and the world’s best dribbler remained the best flopper and whiner as well with constant tirades and cursing towards the referee and his opponents.
The team’s frustration was apparent, although only they themselves were to blame. Meanwhile, out on the streets, filled with people who were allowed to work a half-day to watch the game, frustration was mounting as well, with Brazil’s failure to produce even one good chance in the entire first-half. In fact, the best chance had been Costa Rica’s, with midfielder Celso Borges arriving late in the box only to miss the entire goal in front of him.
Watching the game with acquaintances, one of them a Corinthians fan, we brought up how Willian had been an awful piece for the team so far. But Tite, known to die hand-in-hand with his favoured players, would surely never make a change at half-time, especially one as obvious as that.
We were pleasantly surprised when the board went up with the numbers “7” and “19” on it, just before kickoff for the second half.
But Brazil’s biggest change in the second-half was not the introduction of Douglas Costa for Willian, but rather a change in their attitude. Where once Paulinho was missing, he was now presenting himself to the game, making the runs we have grown used to seeing him make throughout his career, and helping the Seleção create good chances. But the players were still too cute with the ball on their feet in the box.
There was always a next step-over, pass or flick to make, and so Costa Rica were allowed to close down space they may have opened and block Brazil from getting the proper shots on target. It was a great improvement from what was shown in the first half, but it was frustrating enough to have me, my friends and my entire office almost rip their vocal chords apart with screams of “SHOOT!”.
Eventually Paulinho ran out of steam, which is sadly another common sight in the competition thus far. And Tite made what I can consider a classic change in Brazilian coaching repertoire, taking the midfielder off to introduce a striker, Roberto Firmino.
It is not something exclusive to Brazilian football, of course. We saw Argentina do it repeatedly to their own great disservice the day before. Many times we see coaches in England doing the same. The results are often similar: the team loses quality in creating chances and retaining the ball, at times even losing the midfield battle and thus ball retention. Meanwhile, the goals you intended to score do not appear.
Luckily for Brazil, their new 4-4-2/4-2-4 with Casemiro and Coutinho as the midfield duo were strong enough to keep possession against a Costa Rica side who were asking their supporters to cheer them on to a 0-0 draw. But the ball was no longer being play on the ground, interchanges were no longer favoured. Instead, individual play and crosses to the penalty box were the order of the day for this edition of the “beautiful” game.
Golden boy Neymar had a better showing in the second half than in the first, but his antics remained frustrating. There is almost nothing more irritating than a bratty superstar, and hopes that he had left these habits behind from 2014 were dwindling.
It could be claimed that most of that was coming out of frustration. Despite having the world at his feet as the player with the biggest transfer fee in history (and wages to match), Neymar always wants more. He wants to be a protagonist, and join the plateau occupied by Pelé, Ronaldo and Romário, the latter whom he already surpassed in goalscoring with 56 goals for the national team. But nothing he attempted was working. Not even the run and shot from outside the box he had been so accustomed to making throughout the years, with the ball passing right by the goalpost in one occasion.
One thing almost did work. When he was brought to the ground by Giancarlo Gonzalez in the 18-yard box, falling down with his hands already pleading for a call to the referee, and the whistle was blown in his favour, it was clear he was on the verge of losing all the tension he had been carrying on his shoulders. But VAR correctly “robbed” him of this pleasure.
Still, I was ... calm. While a friend of mine took to evoking the Netherlands’ failed attempt to colonize Brazil to curse the referee, Brazil had yet to see a single shot against them in the entire second half, thanks to great work from centre-back Miranda covering up some uncharacteristic mistakes by Casemiro. The team started to work out how to play with two strikers upfront. Eventually, Costa Rica would break. I was so, so sure of it.
It took 90 minutes and several seconds, but eventually I was proven right.
A lucky goal, to be sure, as it needed Marcelo hitting a good cross for once, Firmino winning an aerial duel in the box, and Gabriel Jesus accidentally playing pivot by losing the ball on his first touch so Coutinho could finish the play he started by arriving at the box to bury the ball between the legs of Keylor Navas. They all count the same.
Back home, spirits were suddenly lifted. A plastic cup full of beer even managed to arc its way all the way up to the window of the apartment where I was watching the game, four floors from street level, but it was fine. Brazil were (finally) winning.
With six minutes added on, there was still time, and especially space, for more. Brazil tried to keep calm by cycling the ball around as Tite immediately brought in Fernandinho to replace Gabriel Jesus. Costa Rica, already tired from their constant defending and falling to the ground to waste time, were just ball-watching. The second was coming.
Firmino and Douglas Costa had already earned their starting places for most observers with their second half performances — the latter already doing more than Willian in one third of the time — but the play for the second goal cemented it, even if it was Neymar converting the chance.
Neymar’s tears post-game were justified by the player himself as something out of joy, for overcoming many hardships in life to get where he is, but this was a much better ending note to the game from him.
The immaturity from such a key player in a national team as big as Brazil still irks many people. But Brazil is just one of the many squads lacking a natural leader these days. Like Chelsea, that used to not be the case. Brazil used to have a plethora of natural born leaders to pick from for captain, even if they never quite got the chance as Cafu played the role for many years. But no one has filled that gap since his retirement.
They attempted to force that with Neymar himself, but it did not work as it does not fit his profile. So now the armband floats from one player to another, rotating between the most veteran figures, none of whom are truly leaders. Perhaps out of his own volition, he will decide to use this moment to steady himself onto the winning course. But it is unlikely.
Thus the team will have to “rely” on collective play, since their biggest hope will unreliably blow hot and cold. Luckily, Brazil do have a strong enough team to do just that this time around (unlike in 2014). They only need to actually show it more often from now on.