Brazil’s players repeatedly shook their stuff during Tuesday’s 4-1 win with the coach, Tite, even joining in after Richarlison scored the third goal, cavorting like a pigeon in reference to the Tottenham striker’s nickname.
Yet Keane took exception to the continuous dancing after Brazil’s goals. “I don’t mind the first kind of little jig – whatever they’re doing – but they’re still doing it after that, and then the manager getting involved with it,” the Irish commentator grumbled on ITV. “I’m not happy with it, I don’t think it’s very good at all.”
In Brazil those comments went down like a 7-1 defeat by Germany and transformed Keane into an immediate hate figure for dance-loving football fanatics. “Brazilian football is the embodiment of happiness. Roy Keane be damned,” wrote the sports columnist Julio Gomes, one of many citizens who took exception to the former Ireland midfielder’s remarks.
In an article for the website UOL Esporte, Gomes said Keane’s attack was merely the latest example of arrogant and clueless Europeans getting their knickers in a twist over the delight of others. “They think they are the best at everything and have the right to judge anyone,” Gomes said. “They think they are the masters of what is right and what’s wrong, and that the entire world must follow their behavioural manual.
“Brazilian footballers like to dance when they score. Full stop. Respect it and deal with it. It’s hard to explain an authentic demonstration of happiness to someone who doesn’t know how to express happiness.”
Others offered even blunter critiques and wondered how the man behind the vicious tackle on Alf Inge Haaland in 2001 thought he was in position to lecture others on disrespect. “I think Roy Keane … should get fucked,” the screenwriter Antonio Tabet told his 3.1 million Twitter followers, before adding: “Ireland’s Roy Keane complaining about goal celebrations at a World Cup is like Ronaldinho disapproving of bobsledding at the Winter Olympics.”
There was criticism from the world of football too. Luís Castro, the Portuguese coach of Rio de Janeiro side Botafogo, told the Brazilian channel SportTV: “Roy Keane doesn’t understand Brazilian football culture. He doesn’t understand the Brazilian team.
“We all know that [the dance] isn’t disrespectful to anyone … it just shows real unity between the coach and the players. The world of football shouldn’t worry about this because we’ve become accustomed to Roy Keane’s inelegant and sometimes very arrogant statements.”
One of the Brazil players, Lucas Paquetá, denied his team’s dancing was designed to offend opponents. “We’re celebrating because it’s our moment. We scored a goal and Brazil is celebrating,” he said. “If he [Keane] doesn’t like it, there’s not a lot I can do for him. If we score another goal, we’ll carry on celebrating like this.
Tite told reporters his players were always likely to face disapproval from “ill-disposed” critics but defended their right to boogie. “It’s a show of joy,” the coach said.
Gabriel Jesus could be out for three months after having knee surgery The Arsenal forward sustained the injury playing for Brazil at the World Cup and his club said the operation had been a success.
Jesus has been a major part of Arsenal’s early-season success, scoring five goals and providing five assists to help the team establish a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League before the break for the World Cup.
The injury is more serious than initially thought and a three-month absence would keep the 25-year-old out of 11 league matches. Eddie Nketiah is the natural understudy but Arsenal will step up attempts to sign a versatile forward in January.
“Gabby will now begin his rehabilitation programme,” Arsenal said. “Everyone at the club is supporting Gabby and will be working hard to get him back on the pitch as soon as possible.”
Brazil’s manager, Tite, reacted angrily on Sunday to reports that he knew there was a risk in fielding Jesus. “I don’t like hearing lies, said with bad intent,” he said. “We never put a player at risk. The liars, the haters, can go and do something else and stop giving fake news.
“Arsenal have a great medical department, we have a great medical department and we are responsible and ethical. I didn’t want this to happen and we’re very sorry for him.”
“I was afraid of playing football because I had often seen a black player get struck on the pitch for committing a foul,” said Domingos da Guia, a defender who played for Brazil in the 1938 World Cup. “But I was a very good dancer and that helped me on the pitch. I invented the short dribble by imitating the miudinho, a form of samba.”
Roy Keane did not like it but when Brazil’s players – and the coach, Tite – celebrated scoring against South Korea in their last-16 victory on Monday by performing Richarlison’s trademark pigeon dance, they were following a historic tradition that represents the very soul of the Seleção. Samba, which has its roots in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo via the African slave trade, and football were adopted by Brazil’s working classes just as Da Guia was making his international debut in 1931.
According to Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the distinctive style of play Brazil has become known for comes from the indelible link between the two. “In football, as in politics, a feature of the Brazilian racial blend is a taste for bending the rules, an element of surprise or frills that calls to mind dance steps and the Capoeira,” he wrote in the 1940s.
When a 17-year-old Pelé and the winger Garrincha inspired them to their first World Cup victory in 1958, the song A Taça do Mundo é Nossa – The World Cup is Ours – left no doubt about the vital importance of music to the team’s success: “The Brazilian has shown off true football abroad; he has won the World Cup dancing the samba with the ball at his feet.”
Those lyrics were slightly rejigged after the repeat victory four years later to include the line “the Brazilian this time in Chile. Showed football the way it is.”
According to legend, the celebrated samba singer Elza Soares fainted in the stands at the end of Brazil’s 3-1 win over Czechoslovakia in the final but recovered in time to perform a song in honour of her future husband Garrincha in the changing room.
Pelé was among those to pay tribute to Soares in January after her death at the age of 91, describing her as a “legend of our music, historic, genuine, unique and unparalleled”.
Two decades after their triumph in Chile – with Brazil having won a third World Cup in 1970 – Júnior celebrated scoring the third goal against Argentina in Spain 1982 with some impromptu samba steps but they were surprisingly beaten by eventual winners Italy.
However, the tradition of celebrating goals with dance routines is generally a more recent phenomenon that has not been restricted to Brazilians. Roger Milla’s corner flag wiggle at Italia 90 and again at USA 1994 were inspired “by his own imagination” according to the Cameroon striker, while Papa Bouba Diop celebrated his goal against France, the holders, in 2002 by removing his shirt and performing a mbalax dance with his Senegal teammates. But after Bebeto and Romario’s cradle‑rocking routine in 1994 that was a tribute to the former’s newborn Mattheus Oliveira – now 28 and playing in the Portuguese second division – it is Brazil that has always had the strongest tradition to uphold.
“Dance is the symbol. We symbolise the joy of scoring a goal. We don’t do it to disrespect, we don’t do it in front of the opponent,” said West Ham’s Lucas Paquetá after the South Korea match. “We get together, you can look. Everyone is there and we celebrate. It’s our moment, we scored the goal, Brazil is celebrating.”
For Vinícius Júnior, who scored the first goal against South Korea, the criticism will have had particular resonance. In September, the Real Madrid forward was accused of not respecting his opponents and told to “stop playing the monkey” by Pedro Bravo – a leading agent and president of the Association of Spanish Agents – on live television after celebrating his goals by dancing.
Vinícius was then targeted with monkey chants by Atlético Madrid supporters in Real’s 2-1 victory, having said in a post on Instagram he would keep dancing despite being warned there would be “trouble” by the Atlético captain, Koke, if he did.
“They say happiness upsets. The happiness of a black Brazilian successful in Europe upsets much more,” Vinícius wrote. “Weeks ago they began to criminalise my dances. Dances that are not mine. They belong to Ronaldinho, Neymar, Paquetá, [Antoine] Griezmann, João Félix and Matheus Cunha … they belong to Brazilian funk and samba artists, reggaeton singers, and black Americans. Those are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world. Accept it, respect it. I’m not going to stop.”
Neymar has admitted he feared his World Cup was over after spraining his ankle two weeks ago and paid tribute to the Brazil medical staff as he made a goalscoring return in their 4-1 rout of South Korea to help earn a quarter-final date with Croatia on Friday.
Goals by Vínicius Júnior, Neymar, Richarlison and Lucas Paquetá helped Brazil into a four-goal lead within 36 minutes before a second-half thunderbolt by Paik Seung-ho proved a consolation for South Korea, whose manager, Paulo Bento, announced he is quitting following their last-16 exit.
At full time, Neymar, who converted a first-half penalty to move within a goal of Pelé’s goalscoring record, carried a banner bearing the Brazil legend’s name on to the pitch. Pelé is in hospital but one of his daughters has denied the 82-year-old is under palliative care. “It’s hard to put it into words,” Neymar said. “I wish Pelé the best. He will become healthier very soon, I am sure.”
Neymar worried about his tournament after sustaining injury against Serbia. “I was thinking of a million different things,” he said. “I was afraid of not being able to play in this World Cup again but I have the support of all of my colleagues, my family and I tried to look for strength where I could not find it. When I was reading all of the messages of encouragement, it helped my recovery.”
After scoring, Richarlison headed for the Brazil bench to celebrate with Tite, who joined his players for a Samba dance, which the 61-year-old head coach practised at the team hotel. “I try to adapt to my players,” Tite said.
“They are very young and have a love of dancing, joking and making moves. They said I had to learn how to do the moves. They’re very tight and difficult, but we kept playing around. Richarlison was there and I said: ‘What’s that dance?’ I said: ‘If you do it, then I’ll do it.’ There are various people who will say it was disrespectful. I know there’s always a camera and I didn’t want it to be misinterpreted.”
Tite made five changes during the game, including the introduction of Weverton in place of Alisson with 10 minutes to play. As a result, all 26 members of the Brazil squad, including three goalkeepers have now featured in Qatar, becoming the first team in World Cup history to use as many as 26 at a finals. “It is very difficult to substitute a goalkeeper but when we have the opportunity it is very good because it makes the whole team happy,” Tite said.
Bento said he will resign following their exit, with the Portuguese confirming he made his mind up in September to walk away after their World Cup campaign concluded. “I have just announced to the players and to the president of the confederation that I had already taken [the decision] since September,” Bento said.
“This was a decision that was set in stone and today I have just confirmed it. I have to thank them for everything they [the players] have done and they have given their very best. I’m very proud to have been their manager.”
It was a still and sultry night in Qatar’s capital: the grass a little greasy to the touch, the stadium bouncing and jiving, the football from a brighter and less troubled world. And there were times when watching Brazil’s symphonic demolition of South Korea when it was briefly possible to leave behind earthly cares, partake of the simpler pleasures in life, lose oneself in the pure, riotous joy of football.
Brazil really were that good. For the first 40 minutes, as they waltzed and wove their way to a four‑goal lead, they played the sort of football we have not seen from them for many years: special-effects football, computer-game football, football so filthily good you needed a cigarette and a shower after watching it. For 40 minutes Neymar and Richarlison and Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Paquetá blazed little triangles, quadrilaterals, shapes that didn’t have a name yet, shapes embroidered and gilded with wicked flicks and outrageous stepovers.
The crowd bayed for more, not because they wanted to see the Koreans humiliated, but because how could you possibly want this to end? It was a reminder, perhaps, that while football may have been invented on the public school playing fields of England, it was perfected on the pampas and praias of Brazil. And it was possible to imagine, watching on a hospital television somewhere in Sao Paulo, an 82-year-old cancer patient called Pelé watching this mesmeric blur of yellow shirts and offering a quiet nod of approval.
Does this bring that fabled sixth World Cup within reach? Yes, but only one game closer. The tightly wound fist of Croatia, who await them in the quarter-finals, will offer a different flavour of test entirely to the cavalier South Korea.
Coach Tite may just raise a qualm or two about some of the defending, with Paik Seung‑ho claiming a late consolation and Alisson required to make at least two magnificent saves. But really, this was not a night for cold realities.
That much was clear from the moment Vinícius Júnior opened the scoring with an incredible, improvised practical joke of a finish: a little punt of the toe, Ronaldinho-like in its cheek. It was Raphinha who set up the chance with some brilliant skill on the right. The clock showed seven minutes. Already you got the feeling it was going to be a long evening for South Korea.
The returning Neymar scored with a penalty six minutes later, sending Kim Seung-gyu the wrong way with a little comedy shuffle. Richarlison, who had won the penalty, would go on to score the best goal of the game on 28 minutes: dribbling the ball three times on his head, laying it off, getting it back, and finishing with an affected coolness. Even Tite did a little jig on the touchline this time.
South Korea went for it. What else could they do? Alisson made two good saves from Hwang Hee-chan, but every Korean attack left them ever more vulnerable to the speed of the break, and shortly before half-time one such counter led to a dinked cross from Vinícius Júnior, finished with a scathing finality by Paquetá on the volley. Brazil could conceivably have been six or seven goals up by half-time.
And that was enough, really. Had they simply called off the game and rolled the credits after 45 minutes, everyone would have been happy. And yet due to competition regulations Brazil were still contractually bound to play the second half, a half that unfolded with roughly the same pace and intensity as a money-spinning pre-season friendly in Charlotte. The luckless Son Heung-min curled a shot just wide. Later he would be denied by two brilliant blocks from Marquinhos and a fingertip save from Alisson.
But the Koreans deserved something for their presence, even if it was only the footballing equivalent of a party bag. Paik’s goal, smashed in from long range after Casemiro headed away a free-kick, was a welcome point of catharsis for the Korean fans, who have been so memorable this tournament. Brazil continued to twiddle and fiddle away, desperate to crown this triumph with one last Instagram-worthy moment. But it was not to be.
And so Asia’s World Cup has lost its last Asian team. South Korea have certainly had their moments in this tournament, not least their dramatic win over Portugal, and in particular those few minutes after the end when the entire squad hunched around a tiny mobile phone screen to watch the climax of the Uruguay game. The bulk of their squad probably has one more World Cup in them – Son will be 33 – and in the striker Cho Gue-sung they have unearthed a real talent who may well soon be taking up residence in the UK as a new signing for Celtic.
But it was Brazil’s night, even if it was not theirs alone. Up in the stands, his bald features framing a thin smile, the Fifa president Gianni Infantino gazed upon the spectacle he had brought into being, the monster he created that turned out could sing perfectly in tune. In a way, this was the sort of unforgettable entertainment content he had been craving all along from this tournament: the point when all the awkward moral questions and irritating Western provocateurs could simply melt away, buried under an avalanche of Brazilian pizzazz. So yes, this was Brazil’s triumph. But in a way, it was also Qatar’s.
Football is a whole world in itself, a democratic sport that brings some feelings that are impossible to describe to people who do not follow it. Within football there are also things that are passed down from generation to generation, just like in a country in the real world.
Each great football country has its own characteristic, its own way of seeing football and that, in turn, forms how football is being played in that country, how a national team relate to their supporters, how the media analyses the games and much, much more. But one thing is for sure: it does not matter how long football has been around, no one in any country will ever understand football 100%. There is always something new to teach us, in every single country, no matter how good or poor or passionate.
Despite the many differences between these countries there are also many similarities. All of the great nations play to win the World Cup and all want nothing more than to lift the trophy in front of their fans. The funny thing with football is that there can only be one winner – but that doesn’t mean that the losing finalists or a team that have gone out in the semi-finals have done something wrong. They may have done everything in their powers but just not had the necessary quality.
For a football team to be successful, just in a developed society, you need its people – ie, players – to work together to achieve something special. In real life you need people to collaborate to evolve. That goes for every country. But in Brazil we have something different that I cannot see in other countries.
There is an enormous amount of passion around football in Brazil and the way everyone in the country analyses the national team is radical, at times simplistic and often overwhelming when it comes to criticising the players and the coach, making it seem as if football is very easy for those who play, especially if they are professional players. In Brazil it seems to be difficult to accept that football, as well as life, evolves.
And so Brazil are under enormous pressure before their last-16 game against South Korea after losing their third group game against Cameroon. They also lost two more players to injury, Alex Telles and Gabriel Jesus, but Neymar should be fit again. The fact that they are playing South Korea, who everyone thinks they should beat, only adds to the expectation, the pressure and the sense that Brazil have to go through. It would have been different if they were facing Portugal or Uruguay from that group.
In Brazil, in fact, victory against South Korea is seen as an obligation and that is a great weight for the coach, Tite, and his staff to be carrying and in their discussions with the players. This team would not be forgiven if they were eliminated in the last 16 by South Korea. It may seem to the people in front of the TV that this is the kind of pressure Tite and the players should be able to cope with but it is, in fact, the biggest problem they are facing.
That does not mean that the players are afraid. Of course not. On the contrary they will be looking forward to it. To reach the level they are at they have had to work extremely hard and overcome many, many challenges. They are professional players but – and here is the thing – unconsciously they will be aware that they cannot afford to make a mistake. That can be enough to stop you from making the right decision in the game, to make you avoid doing a one-touch pass because of the fear of making a mistake. Somewhere the brain tells you: “You cannot make a mistake!” whether you want it to or not.
With confidence and with all their key players fit, I would say that Brazil are the best team in the world, but the weight of that national team jersey is often very, very costly for the players, their personal life and even for their families.
In Brazil an 18-year-old can make his professional debut for his club and be booed by the entire crowd 15 minutes into the first half, just for making a wrong pass or something else that is detrimental for the team and even be taken off because of the supporters’ anger. This will hopefully make that 18-year-old stronger, but it comes at a price too. Some players cannot cope.
We learn in Brazil that second place is the same as finishing last and that is not fair. That is a tough environment for a player (and that includes the Brazil Olympic team) and puts a very high bar around the analysis of the national team. It makes it very, very demanding.
On the other hand we are obsessed by winning. As a consequence we would never see what happened with Belgium, for example, who did not believe they could win the tournament. That is incomprehensible for a Brazilian. We enjoy every second of the World Cup and we want it to pass very slowly. We would never do what Belgium did and I am proud to say that. We would play to win, even if our mothers were on the other side.
Brazil have reached the last 16 of a World Cup and as a former player I know how important it is to respect the opponent, especially one as good as South Korea, who have an exceptional player in Son Heung-min. That respect is fundamental to go further.
I hope Tite is able to pick the 11 best players currently at his disposal and that he is clear and precise in his analysis and instructions to the players to ensure that they take another step towards a possible sixth World Cup.
The A Team will be back on telly for Brazil on Monday night. Defeat in their final group game cut deep, with the criticism for fielding a heavily weakened team unexpectedly fierce back home. But the Brazil coach, Tite, insists he did the right thing and, never mind Lusail, it is the 974 Stadium that should provide the proof. He has also turned on the “lies” accusing him of knowingly risking the Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus, and revealed that Neymar could start. If judgment was to be reserved then, now it will be real as the seleção meet South Korea in the last 16.
Despite dominating against Cameroon and racking up 21 shots, Brazil conceded a 92nd-minute Vincent Aboubakar goal to lose 1-0, their first defeat by an African side at the World Cup. They did so with a starting XI that included only two regulars and Alex Telles and Jesus were forced off, joining Danilo, Alex Sandro and Neymar on the injury list. Of the final three, though, only Sandro will definitely miss the Korea game. Brazil, already through, also came unexpectedly close to losing first place in the group.
The captain, Thiago Silva, insisted “we took risks, yes, but we think it is worth it”. The coach meanwhile explained why and even called on his assistant César Sampaio to provide the statistical evidence. In short, he had rested his players. Not one Brazil player has started all three matches and it is possible that of the starting XI against Cameroon only Éder Militão and Fred will line up against South Korea.
One man who will not do so is Jesus, who sustained a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for about a month. Tite reacted angrily to reports that he knew there was a risk in fielding Jesus. “I don’t like hearing lies, said with bad intent,” he said.
“We never put a player at risk. The liars, the haters, can go and do something else and stop giving fake news. Arsenal have a great medical department, we have a great medical department and we are responsible and ethical. I didn’t want this to happen and we’re very sorry for him. We have spoken to him. I’m not saying we can take the pain away but we have tried to make him feel better, to give him strength and to have him participate as much as possible.”
On one level, the injury to Jesus served to justify Tite’s decision to protect his starters, with Richarlison, Vinícius Júnior and Raphinha starting on the bench against Cameroon and on Raphinha coming on. The decision was not widely welcomed, though. “I’m not here to start a fight,” Tite said. “I accept criticism for fielding a team that was different. That’s part of life, part of my job. There are different ideas? Of course! But this World Cup has elements that make it different: heat, intensity, short recovery time.”
There were only two full days between Brazil’s last group match and this knockout tie and, using Poland as the example, Tite explained that their fitness analysts had seen a 40% drop in intensity in the third game, and that eight players had physical problems. “It’s very tough for the human body,” he said. That rest allowed his players to come into this tie with almost a week’s break between starting games, with the added prospect of getting Neymar and Danilo back. If declared fully fit, Neymar will start.
“We will never take a risk with his health: Neymar depends on the medical department saying OK,” Tite said. “I want to make that very, very clear. If he practises and he’s OK he will play.”
It may not have been his intention, but the best defence of Tite’s approach probably came from the South Korea coach, Paulo Bento, who would have welcomed the chance to do something similar. His tone was that of a curiously pessimistic man.
“I am a realist,” he said. “I’ve told the players that this is a tough objective but we have to try. After the physical and emotional fatigue of the Portugal game we decided to let them rest. They’ve only trained once. Seventy-two hours between games is too little; I doubt any team can do that. I watched 2018 and I don’t remember that. The space between matches was always longer. It’s a burden and we obviously have an additional burden compared to Brazil, because they changed their lineup. They did something we couldn’t do.
“It is hard to play against Brazil, one of the teams most likely to win the World Cup, and our task will be very difficult but we won’t give up. We know we will suffer a bit. We haven’t had the time to practise on [their weaknesses] but we will do it from a theoretical point of view. I told the players that if we played Brazil in many matches, they would be champions but it’s one match and we have a chance.” He said if they “compete and fight to the last whistle … it will be a victory no matter what”.
Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?
To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?
Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.
At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.
For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.
Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.
It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.
In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?
It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.
Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.
Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.
Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.
Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.
But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.
Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.
Cameroon’s highlight of the evening appeared to arrive before the actual game when high spirits had them sashaying down the corridor to the dressing room in vocal form. From here their night nosedived until the 92nd minute when a beauty of a header from Vincent Aboubakar made history as the Indomitable Lions claimed a first win over Brazil.
It was followed by the captain ripping off his shirt in jubilation and being sent off for a second yellow card for the offence and with Switzerland taking three points in their showdown with Serbia Rigobert Song’s side were knocked out.
Brazil ended as Group G victors – on goal difference only – and face South Korea next yet the high-spirits that had Tite’s men arriving at Lusail Stadium singing and dancing too were punctured. If the sight of them jigging and (literally) rocking their coach on arrival had been read by any serious rival as the world’s No 1 side believing it is their destiny to claim a sixth World Cup arrogance may now be the accusation, especially as their talisman, Neymar, was again missing and his injured ankle should rule him further.
Which team, though, would not be relaxed when the coach can make nine changes and four of those drafted in still be Antony, Gabriel Martinelli, Rodrygo and Gabriel Jesus, and the truth here was that Brazil never got out of second gear.
While only Fred and Éder Militão were retained from victory over Switzerland, the headline fresh name was Dani Alves, who at 39 added winning cap No 125 (drawing level with Roberto Carlos as Brazil’s second highest appearance maker) and becoming his nation’s oldest World Cup captain to the CV of one of the great careers.
Alves enjoyed himself, pitching in free-kicks, ordering teammates about and drifting inside when his side advanced such as when linking with Fred for the latter to drop a ball to the far post where Martinelli’s leap-and-header had Devis Epassy in acrobat mode to repel.
Fred did his own elastic man-thing when pivoting to hit a volley at Epassy’s goal: a deflection meant a corner, Rodrygo’s initial stab in went for a second, and, again, Cameroon escaped.
Until the late winner, this was what Cameroon did: cling on. Brazil, in their blue strip, encircled their area with men and in one clever move Antony somehow saw Martinelli dashing for the penalty spot but the Arsenal man was blocked off.
A booking for Pierre Kunde for clipping Rodrygo, whose after-burners zipped along a diagonal, was Cameroon’s issue in a nutshell: hurtling at them was pace, trickery, invention, and directness. And so it was that a wheezing Collins Fai was the next to see Ismail Elfath’s yellow card waved at him, the referee chuckling mildly at the right-back’s protestations. The foul, once more, was on Rodrygo, Alves’s free-kick poor, but Brazil’s one-way traffic was veering into roadblock territory as Cameroon were trapped at every turn.
When Fred steered the ball to Antony, who was inside Cameroon’s area, regular Manchester United watchers expected the latter to cut inside onto his left and shoot – he did – but the effort lacked direction and could be clutched by Epassy.
Missing from all this ball-hogging act was a Brazil goal. Possession was at 68.4% for them but Tite’s close-to-second string lacked, thus far, cool execution near the posts. Cameroon would love to have this problem. As the interval beckoned an Aboubakar dink into the area that Ederson cleaned up was being written up as one of the (very) few moments they were allowed close to the Brazil No 1. But, then, in virtually the last play of the half they gave Brazil a fright.
The ball was chipped in from the left from Moumi Ngamaleu and Bryan Mbeumo’s header went into the turf first and skidded up enough for Ederson to have to fly right to prevent the goal.
Before, Martinelli had skipped along the Cameroon area from the left and blazed at Epassy’s goal, the keeper, impressively, saving at a high angle but when the sides reassembled after the break Cameroon still had the chance of the win required to have any chance of last-16 football.
The claiming of a corner by Mbuemo off Bremer was the best way to commence what they hoped would not be their last 45 minutes of Qatar 2022. No dividend was yielded from the kick, though. Better, was an Aboubakar swivel-and-strike that flashed by Ederson and narrowly missed.
Brazil had become a touch complacent, Fred’s mis-control in the centre circle indicative. But now came Martinelli, who seems to have a glide button which he pressed to take him through on goal as if Cameroon’s defence were awol (they weren’t) and only Epassy again stopped the goal. This meant yet another corner and when Militão struck the delivery Epassy this time fumbled and recovered in a heart-jolting moment for the keeper.
On view was one team fine-tuning their reserves for the battles ahead and the other hoping to dodge oblivion via the miracle of a win and Switzerland giving up their lead. The latter did not happen but the former did but it was not enough for Cameroon.
Brazil’s players limbered up for their second Group G game with a trip to Doha’s Souq Waqif. They emerged unscathed, with wallets still largely intact but, for a long time here, Switzerland threatened to rob Tite’s side of their cloak of invincibility.
Ultimately Casemiro’s wondrous half volley, dispatched with the outside of his right foot, propelled the pre-tournament favourites into the knockout stages but much of the action emphasised precisely why all the pre-match focus had centred on a man who was never going to be able to strut stuff on the pitch.
Neymar divides opinion in Brazil – and not just because of his apparently far right leaning politics – but a well drilled Switzerland provided ample evidence of his importance to Tite’s team. It is no exaggeration to say his ankle injury induced absence was keenly felt.
Tite compensated for the loss of his attacking talisman by advancing Lucas Paquetá into the front three from midfield with Fred joining his Manchester United colleague Casemiro in Brazil’s engine room.
Xherdan Shaqiri has so often been Switzerland’s creative inspiration but his manager, Murat Yakin, could only find the former Liverpool winger – now with Chicago Fire – a place on the bench following an indifferent display in the opening Group G win over Cameroon, preferring Fabian Rieder instead.
Switzerland arrived at Stadium 974 slightly late after being involved in a minor road traffic accident en route from their hotel. It seems the driver of their team bus allowed his mind to wander as traffic near the ground slowed to a crawl and ended up crashing into the back of the police escort car in front. That collision in turn left the vehicle travelling immediately behind Switzerland’s coach unable to brake in time before hitting its back bumper.
Mercifully no one was hurt and, to Brazil’s dismay, Switzerland’s concentration appeared unaffected.
Silvan Widmer had played well against Cameron and Yakin’s right back started well here, taking no time at all to unceremoniously halt a rather offended looked Vinícius Júnior in his tracks.
Although there were some gorgeous cameos of sharp, slick, imaginative and, sometimes gloriously improvisational, one and two touch football from Brazil their final ball initially lacked incision against a deep sitting Switzerland.
Even worse for the massed ranks of yellow shirted Brazil fans packing the 974 there were other interludes when Tite’s players turned a little slapdash and lost their customary fluency.
Yakin’s well structured, efficiently organised, team had been set up to play on the counterattack and their attacking pace sporadically posed Tite’s rearguard a few problems. Indeed Casemiro was a little lucky not to be booked after catching the accelerating Breel Embolo, late from behind.
With every passing minute Neymar’s value to Brazil seemed incrementally enhanced. Significantly almost half an hour had passed before Yann Sommer was required to make a save.
When, courtesy of Raphinha’s left footed cross from the right, that opening finally arrived, Switzerland’s goalkeeper proved fully equal to the challenge, parrying a slightly scuffed half volley from the unmarked Vinícius Júnior.
It was Brazil’s first shot on target – a statistic that reflected Tite’s players’ struggles to translate possession into actual chances. Sommer cannot have expected to have had so little involvement. Was history about to repeat itself and two countries who had drawn both of their previous World Cup meetings – in 1950 and 2018 – complete a statistical trilogy?
Certainly a mood of mutual respect was emphasised as the first half ended with Embolo, who had just won a corner which had come to nothing, and his marker, Marquinhos embracing warmly as they headed towards the tunnel.
Paquetá did not emerge from it for the second period, having been replaced by Real Madrid’s Rodrygo, a young forward many Brazil fans believed should have deputised for Neymar in the first place.
Before Rodrygo had time to get going, Switzerland nearly scored when Widmer’s cross resulted in Vinícius Júnior blocking Djibril Sow’s goal bound shot.
Although Vinícius Júnior subsequently conjured a lovely, defence deceiving, curving cross, Richarlison could not quite connect with it and the moment was gone.
The time had arrived for change and Tite altered his midfield, replacing Fred with Newcastle’s Bruno Guimarães whose passing and movement immediately began raising the tone and asking Switzerland questions they could not always answer.
It was a pass from Guimarães – albeit slightly over hit – that initiated the sequence of events which led to Vinícius Júnior receiving Casemiro’s pass, riding Nico Elvedi’s challenge and squeezing the ball just inside a post with Sommer beaten.
Brazil’s entire bench raced to the touchline to celebrate but a VAR review spoilt the party after detecting that Richarlison, who played Casemiro in, had been offside. After being integral to last week’s defeat of Serbia, Richarlison had been shunted to the margins by a Swiss defence offered further protection by Granit Xhaka’s central midfield presence.
Yet, as the game worked on, Brazil increasingly stretched Yakin’s defensive elastic. It finally snapped when Casemiro applied the outside of his right boot to the ball and sent a glorious half-volley swerving into the net leaving a wrong footed, static, Sommer – possibly deceived by the gentlest of deflections off Manuel Akanji – helpless.
Switzerland’s World Cup destiny now hinges on their final group game against Serbia.