After a disappointing performance and dramatic win over Chile on penalty kicks, Brazil’s World Cup campaign has been limited to only one thing—winning the cup no matter what.
Brazil’s group-stage matches showed progress for the Selecao. They went from beating Croatia with the help of a controversial call by the referee, to drawing against Mexico who had in Guillermo Ochoa a true World Cup savior, to demolishing the weakest team in the group. Looking beyond the final scores, the team game did improve.
All the improvement in the first three games went off the board after being unable to beat Chile in 90 minutes or even in extra-time. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team had the most trouble of any Brazilian squad to go through the round of 16 since Italy ’90, when they actually lost to Argentina.
At this point, it is clear that even if you thought Brazil’s current talent isn’t the best in their history, some of its players are not contributing to the real team potential with their poor performances.
How could it be possible that full-backs who have been considered as starters at football giants Barcelona and Real Madrid are not able to produce effectively and constantly up front or stop any of their four opponents'—so far—wingers?
How is it possible that a forward worth tens of millions to a Russian side is unable to score or even have a relevant performance for his team?
How can a young, promising playmaker from Chelsea carry Brazil in its opener against Croatia and then manage to disappear in the subsequent three matches?
And the list of questions can go on and on regarding most of Brazil’s players’ performances. Surely Scolari is asking them himself.
What keeps this Brazil alive are four players who have been tested over and over, not only by their rivals but by their teammates' lack of assistance as well.
Thiago Silva and David Luiz have managed to save a numerous quantity of plays created by their rivals that see little opposition from Brazil’s wingers and defensive midfielders. And they have also contributed to the attack with long balls or from set pieces.
I personally, as many did, thought that Brazil’s weakest player was its goalkeeper. Julio Cesar has proved everyone who doubted him wrong. The Queens Park Rangers (on loan at Toronto FC prior to the World Cup) goalie has been there to save the most important shots from the opponents, obviously including the penalty kicks against Chile.
One of Brazil’s many problems is that only Neymar has been constantly carrying the weight of the Canarinha’s offense. Neymar has shown that he is up to the expectations and even had the courage to take Brazil’s last penalty kick after been visibly cramped or injured at the end of the 120 minutes against Chile.
To make it even worse, Brazil has not only relied on those four players heavily but on luck itself. And I’m not talking of any regular luck.
All FIFA conspiracies apart, the referee's penalty kick call against Croatia, Gonzalo Jara’s unfortunate own goal and hitting the post in the decisive penalty kick, and last but not least, Pinilla’s shot hitting the crossbar in the last minute of extra-time can all be considered lucky plays.
A dose of luck is part of the game, but in this tournament it seems like Brazil’s luck tank is already empty.
We know this Brazil’s potential is higher than what they have shown; we all saw how convincing they were in last year’s Confederations Cup. Among other things that have changed since last year’s summer is pressure, which is higher and seems to be eating them.
Only by seeing the look on their faces when the national anthem begins, the look on their eyes as minutes go by and the tears after beating Chile, it all seems clear that the pressure has gotten to them.
A player like Willian, who has been favored by fans to be in the starting lineup and is one of the most talented in this Selecao, miserably missed the goal in his penalty kick attempt and couldn’t hold his emotions as teammates had to almost carry him back to the midfield. Only pressure can explain such an event.
Some of the few to transform that pressure into motivation to perform or even over-perform have been Julio Cesar and Neymar.
Despite all of Brazil’s issues, few have been adventurous enough to pull out the Selecao’s favourite-to-win-it-all tag. Not even when the next rival has been arguably the best in the tournament is the Pentacampeon taken out of consideration.
Even when it is imperative that Brazil raises its game—or Colombia considerably diminishes its own—to win do people discard the host country.
Brazil is only three games away from winning the World Cup and leaving behind the 1950 episode. But by now, no one is really expecting them to suddenly start playing beautifully. All that is left for this Brazilian team to not end up being marked by what will be deemed as nothing less than a failure is lifting the cup in Maracana.
That is the only path left for Scolari’s team—winning at whatever cost with no excuses allowed.