Fifa has opened disciplinary proceedings against Serbia on three counts relating to their stormy group-stage defeat by Switzerland.
Serbia lost Friday’s game 3-2 and were eliminated from the World Cup. They are already under an existing investigation for displaying a flag that included Kosovo in their nation’s territory in their dressing room before facing Brazil eight days previously; now the governing body has begun a new set of cases for incidents that occurred during and around a match whose tensions steadily ramped up.
A Fifa statement read: “The Fifa disciplinary committee has opened proceedings against the Football Association of Serbia due to potential breaches of articles 12 (misconduct of players and officials), 13 (discrimination) and 16 (order and security at matches) of the Fifa disciplinary code related to incidents during the Serbia v Switzerland World Cup match that took place on 2 December.”
A public address announcement in the 77th minute of the game had asked the crowd to refrain from “discriminatory chants and gestures”. An eyewitness later alleged to the Guardian that Serbia supporters had displayed fascist slogans and aimed racist chants towards ethnic Albanians at Stadium 974, and claimed to have been set upon by a group of fans.
Eleven players, seven of them Serbian, were booked during a game that overspilled after a confrontation involving the Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka. He appeared to grab his genitals in front of the Serbia bench after they had appealed for a second-half penalty, causing tempers to flare on both sides. Xhaka was also involved in a late confrontation with the Serbia player Nikola Milenkovic that sparked a similar fracas.
The Guardian understands no proceedings will be opened against the Swiss football association in relation to what unfolded.
Serbia supporters displayed fascist slogans and aimed racist chants towards ethnic Albanians during their side’s match against Switzerland on Friday night, according to an eyewitness account given to the Observer.
The scenes at Stadium 974 in Doha, where Switzerland won 3-2 to secure a last-16 place in a match that spilled over during the second half, raise questions about Fifa’s stewarding and in particular its apparent tolerance of offensive insignia. Hasan Rrahmani arrived at the match wearing an Albanian flag around his neck but says he had it confiscated at the entrance while derogatory nationalist symbols were allowed through. He says he was shown a WhatsApp message that Fifa had sent to security staff containing pictures of items, pictures and phrases that were not allowed.
“I was completely dumbfounded to see the number of fascist slogans, T-shirts and flags,” Rrahmani said. He has shown the Observer photographic evidence of a supporter wearing a green hat closely associated with atrocities committed in the Kosovan and Bosnian wars, and says the man was part of a group in the same attire. Among other items of clothing worn freely around the stadium, he says, were T-shirts reading “From Serbia to Tokyo”, a nationalist slogan employed by Serbian football fans invoked during the wars of the 90s. Rrahmani says police were not interested in complaints relating to the items, or to three-fingered gestures considered offensive in many contexts.
Fifa may find the supporters’ chants more straightforward to deal with, having issued a public address message in the 77th minute asking for “discriminatory chants and gestures” to cease. Rrahmani says those were audible from an early stage of the evening. “I was shocked at the vitriol, absolutely dumbfounded,” he says. “They were singing the most vile racist chants.”
Among those he says he heard were songs involving the word “Šiptar”, a well-known derogatory term used against Albanians, and a call-and-response routine of “Kill, kill, kill the Albanians”. Fans also sang “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, related to their country’s refusal to recognise Kosovan independence, he says. “It would start in one corner and the rest of the fans would pick it up,” Rrahmani said. Such songs are not unfamiliar at matches where tensions between Serbia and Albania have ignited, including the infamous “drone” game in October 2014 when a Euro 2016 qualifier in Belgrade spiralled into chaos.
Rrahmani describes retrieving his flag from a collection point after the game, and also seeing Serbs being handed back some confiscated items. He describes being set upon by “seven or eight” Serbia supporters upon exiting the stadium area. “They shoved me, saying: ‘Go fuck yourself Šiptar,’” he said. “They threw water at me. I tried to walk away but seven or eight big blokes followed me. In the end I ran towards the police, who didn’t do anything. Everything that happened around the evening was just frightening. What I expected to be a good night rekindled all those memories of the past that I thought had gone.” He says the police were polite and reassuring but let the group walk away.
Serbia are already under investigation by Fifa for displaying a flag showing Kosovo as part of their territory, along with the words “We do not surrender”, in their dressing room before facing Brazil last week. Rrahmani says similar flags were visible inside the ground.
“Fifa’s inconsistency shocks me,” he says. “How on earth, in 2022, can you allow fans in a World Cup stadium to shout about killing another nation? I came away feeling marginalised and not welcomed by Fifa.”
Rrahmani emphasises that this was an anomaly in an otherwise enjoyable experience at World Cup stadiums. He was born in Kosovo and lives in London; he has been following England and Wales in Qatar but attended Friday’s match to support Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, Switzerland players who have Kosovan roots. Their goal celebrations in the same fixture at Russia 2018, forming Albanian “eagle” symbols with their hands, caused controversy and set much of the context for the second-half scenes in Doha.
Xhaka could face investigation for grabbing his genitals in front of the Serbia bench and other figures from both camps may fear censure. An Albania fan was seen being escorted from the stadium during the second half after making the eagle gesture.
Fifa declined to comment about the prospects of disciplinary action or on the issues described by Rrahmani.
Maybe Fifa does have a sense of humour after all. Certainly there was a note of dark comedy in the news, relayed breathlessly over the PA on the final whistle, that the player of the match in this fraught Group E decider was Granit Xhaka.
Not that Xhaka didn’t deserve it. He played well in deep midfield on a steamy night at Stadium 974. He controlled the tempo at times. More to the point Xhaka also controlled the noises off, directing the dark energy that must always accompany this fixture with the poise of a veteran conductor. Albeit, a veteran conductor with one hand down his shorts.
In the end Switzerland progressed quite comfortably to the last 16 with a 3-2 defeat of a Serbia team that ran itself dry in the first half chasing the sun. But the story behind the game will be the heat, the moments of friction, and indeed Xhaka’s own mastery of the gesture of offence.
There has been talk at this World Cup about football turning into a game of moments. Here was a game that came packed with something much more complex, the most troubled of narratives, a three-volume tract of deep ethnic division.
And yet midway through the second half that baroque backstory was captured in a screenshot, a gif, a single moment, as Xhaka seemed to grab his testicles in an insult directed towards the Serbia bench. Here was Albania-Kosovo-Serbia in a freeze-frame, a history primer for the TikTok generation.
After the game Xhaka shrugged off any suggestion of tension on the pitch, but he might be in a spot of trouble if anyone ever manages to establish the facts. There was a suggestion of pointed words exchanged, of targeted gestures in return. None of this came as a surprise.
This was only the second time these nations have been on a football pitch together. After the first in 2018 there was anger over Xhaka’s and Xherdan Shaqiri’s finger-flapping goal gesture referencing the eagle on the Albanian flag. Both players have Kosovan heritage.
Kosovo, which has a large ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Much of the world recognises it. Serbia does not. In an added twist the eagle moment happened in Kaliningrad, a separate Russian enclave by the Baltic. Vladimir Putin is anti-Kosovo. Serbia likes Russia. Hmmm. Isn’t history supposed to have ended?
Murat Yakin and the Swiss had tried their best to take the heat out of all this before the game. Fat chance. In added time there was a genuine flare-up. First Xhaka and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic came together in a classic snarling, chest-shoving huddle. Then it was Xhaka and Aleksandar Mitrovic, who seemed genuinely furious. It looked unresolved. Mitrovic seemed to be making plans for a further summit at some later date.
The benches had emptied after the Xhaka moment, with Dragan Stojkovic, such a dreamy attacking midfielder in his time, out on a World cup pitch once again. There was an ominous message over the PA with 77 minutes gone urging the crowd to refrain from all discriminatory shouts and gestures. Perhaps this was directed at Xhaka.
But even without all that this was a fun, open, slightly wild game. Stadium 974 is one of Doha’s more original stadiums, an edgy urban kind of thing, with a shipping container facade that appears to have been built by elite Qatari hipsters. Serbia needed to win. Switzerland could probably go through with a draw.
And from the first whistle this felt like watching the last minute of a World Cup semi-final extra-time 3-3 draw in 1982. You half expected to see stricken, spindly legged Swiss with socks around their ankles, Serbians in bloodied head bandages, a wild looking referee in black making absurdly theatrical gestures.
Filip Kostic surged down the left recklessly, a footballer who always seems to be fleeing an imaginary swarm of bees. For a while this was Total Serbia, the red shirts simply going forward.
Even before their first attack Switzerland seemed more likely to walk up the other end and score. A thrust down the left found far too much space. Red-shirted defenders fell over in the centre, as though feigning shock. The ball was buried, inevitably, by Shaqiri.
The celebration was a moment of dramatic tension. What, exactly, were we dealing with here? Shaqiri ran toward the Swiss in the stand, legs pounding the turf like a centaur. He went with a finger to the lips, which pretty much counts as an act of grand, healing diplomacy around here.
Mitrovic equalised with a lovely header, buried with the power of a man who has a foot for a head, a thigh for a neck. Serbia went 2-1 up. Hmm. Maybe they’ll just shut up shop from here. Take the air out of … oh. The Swiss made it 2-2, then 3-2.
On his touchline Stojkovic whirled about sweating and frothing in his blue shirt and suit trousers, like an overheated dad at a post-work disco, but Serbia had long since run out of gas.
Gianni Infantino, himself a dedicated politician, has already implored those on the fringes to keep politics out of football at this World Cup. Good luck with that one.
Perhaps it was naive to think this encounter, which had rattled along without controversy for more than two-thirds of its time, would pass in silence. Switzerland will face Portugal in the last 16 after defeating a freewheeling but painfully naive Serbia side who briefly looked poised to go through after Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic overhauled Xherdan Shaqiri’s opener.
Breel Embolo and Remo Freuler turned things back in their favour, but a night coloured by the context of the Albanian “eagle” celebration deployed by Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka in Kaliningrad four years ago ended stormily. Xhaka was to the fore of more than one flashpoint and there may be consequences, too, for one of the relevant football associations after discriminatory chants were heard in the stands.
It only took 20 minutes for Shaqiri to earn a test of his self restraint. There was no eagle gesture after his first-time shot deflected past Vanja Milinkovic-Savic; instead he contented himself with a finger to the lips, aimed pointedly at the hardcore of Serbia supporters in the nearby corner, before turning around and pointing to the name on his back. It was mildly provocative but, having hitherto been booed whenever in possession, a less incendiary way of making his point.
The goal capped a see-sawing, surreally open start. Within 24 seconds of kick-off Xhaka had received his own chance to show lessons had been learned since 2018, seeing Vanja Milinkovic-Savic recovering to parry his half-volley after blocking from Embolo at close range. Nikola Milenkovic quickly boomed a header wide for Serbia and then, after cleverly cutting inside, their right wing-back Andrija Zivkovic hit a post with the cleanest of 20-yard strikes.
Serbia were committing bodies forward from all angles, the left centre-back Strahinja Pavlovic causing brief havoc with one overlapping run. But they were leaving gaping holes behind them and it was into one that Ricardo Rodríguez marauded, with all the time he needed, down the left. His centre was half-clear but helped by Djibril Sow into the path of Shaqiri, who did the rest.
That was never likely to be the end of it. Within six minutes Dusan Tadic had located Mitrovic’s run with a beautifully flighted cross that was met, delicately but emphatically, with a glanced header across Gregor Kobel. The Switzerland keeper had been drafted in upon Yann Sommer’s illness and, to giddy Serbian celebrations, was soon beaten again.
This time a cheap concession in midfield let Tadic, in his most beguiling form, attempt a reverse pass through to Vlahovic. With help from a touch by Freuler, it reached the intended target. The Juventus striker, who had been struggling with injury, showed why he was given his first start of the tournament with a precise low finish across a motionless Kobel.
Pavlovic thudded his chest and geed up the crowd after blocking from Ruben Vargas but it never seemed remotely likely Serbia would be able to succeed through sitting on this lead. They are simply not built that way and the point was reinforced just as it appeared they would teeter through to half-time.
Embolo’s second goal of the tournament, converted from inside the six-yard box, was smartly taken but Serbia offered next to no pressure on the ball as play built. Eventually Silvan Widmer crossed precisely from the right, his centre-forward awaiting gleefully, and there was a sense Switzerland would guard their position of strength more jealously this time.
It had been exceptional entertainment, fully occupying the crowd at that point. That initially remained the case after the restart, Switzerland turning the screw within three minutes and silencing the majority. Freuler’s left-footed finish, offered to him by a cute flick from Vargas, was crisp and well constructed but again Serbia’s level of vigour in the challenges was at best half-hearted.
Needing two goals, the wit and invention in Serbia’s earlier play now deserted them. Embolo somehow scooped over from a chance to deepen their woe, although VAR may well have ruled him offside, and their efforts towards a quick recovery amounted to little more than a wayward Tadic shot.
Mitrovic flung himself to the floor in search of the penalty, the dive utterly egregious, and the mood turned dark as players from both sides became involved in a disagreement by the left touchline. Xhaka was involved, appearing to grab his genitals and look toward the Serbia bench. The substitute keeper Predrag Rajkovic, was yellow carded in the ensuing melee and Dragan Stojkovic, the Serbia manager, made a brief incursion onto the playing surface.
Serbia could have done with him in his pomp. Back in the here and now they were cooked, the final stages little more than an exercise in playing out time. A tannoy announcement in the 77th minute reminded the fans to refrain from “discriminatory shouts and gestures”; their precise nature was unclear but Fifa were surely prepared well in advance to be occupied by any fallout from this occasion.
It meant a previously enthralling game ended under a shadow, Xhaka and Milenkovic almost coming to blows in a late pile-on. Eagle or no eagle, though, Switzerland have taken flight.
Both players repeated the gesture when Shaqiri scored a dramatic late winner that ultimately ensured their side were the ones who reached the last 16; the recriminations were long, loud and ended with Fifa issuing several fines.
Given the teams meet again on Friday with the stakes even higher, it is tempting to wonder just how busy the disciplinary chiefs may find themselves over the weekend. Last time out there remained one group stage game for fates to be confirmed: at Stadium 974 there will be no such leeway and whoever masters the occasion will take it all. Serbia must win and hope Brazil do not down tools against Cameroon; a point will suffice for Switzerland unless Rigobert Song’s players contrive a shock.
Four years ago, hostilities had been publicly stoked, Aleksandar Mitrovic among those to question Shaqiri’s choice of footwear. Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state and encounters with Shaqiri and Xhaka, who both signed a petition to Fifa 10 years ago pledging support for what became the official Kosovan national team, are imbued with added significance on both sides.
Yet much of the buildup to their latest showdown has resembled a convention of the saints. It was clear on Tuesday, when Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Dusan Tadic took questions at Serbia’s Al Arabi training base, that nobody was of a mind to dangle bait.
“There’s no doubt it was big pressure four years ago but we need to focus on football and show we can play better than them,” Tadic said when asked how Serbia would handle the occasion this time. His teammate matched the answer virtually word for word. Neither player expected emotions to run high: the priority was simply to look at themselves.
Mitrovic struck a similar note, saying: “It was a different game, we’re not thinking about what happened before.”
The problem is that the wider context tends to lurk beneath the surface and undermine any well-scripted words. Serbia are under Fifa investigation for displaying a flag showing Kosovo as part of their country, along with the words “We do not surrender”, in their dressing room before their opening game against Brazil.
That did not go unnoticed in Kosovo, whose minister of culture, youth and sport, Hajrulla Ceku, described the image as “hateful, xenophobic and genocidal”. Kosovo’s football association called it an “aggressive action”. Scars from the horrifying war between local forces and modern-day Serbia, fought in the 1990s, will never fully heal.
Perhaps that is why Serbia, whose rap sheet with the governing bodies is lengthy, have been so intent on message discipline this week. After the match in 2018 their FA was fined £41,000 on account of discriminatory banners and messages from their fans. Their coach at the time, Mladen Krstajic, and then-FA head Slavisa Kokeza also took hits to the wallet for their conduct
Xhaka and Shaqiri received £7,600 fines for their celebrations; the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, lent his backing to a “Don’t be afraid of the eagle” crowdfunding initiative that raised enough money to pay them off almost immediately. Two months later, Xhaka, the son of emigrants from Kosovo, promised such a flashpoint “will never happen again”. In some quarters of Switzerland he and Shaqiri were looked upon dimly for focusing their attentions on Kosovo after scoring.
“There’s nothing in the history behind these two games,” Xhaka said this week, echoing his counterparts’ tone. “We are Switzerland, they are Serbia and that’s it. We’re here to play football, as are they.”
As long as that remains a priority, the rewards could be lavish. Switzerland have performed modestly but have grown as an attacking proposition since the last World Cup. Serbia are among the most creative, bewitching sides in the competition. There is pressure on the coach, Dragan Stojkovic, to give Dusan Vlahovic his first start of Qatar 2022 and form a potentially lethal pairing with Mitrovic.
“We’re happy to focus on football tomorrow and respect each other,” said the Switzerland manager, Murat Yakin, adding his voice to the entente. It remains to be seen whether any simmering enmity takes on a life of its own once again.
What happens when two sides with a propensity for meltdown clash? Something like this. A game with very little pattern, enormous amounts of drama, some exceptional goals and, in the end, a thrilling draw that doesn’t really suit either side. These are two of the great underachievers of the past three decades – Cameroon had lost their last eight World Cup games and Serbia nine of their last 11 – and the likelihood is that, again, neither will make it through to the last 16, but they have at least had some fun along the way.
Nothing that happened at Al Janoub on Monday was without complication, not the traffic, not the security and certainly not the buildup for two teams who always embrace chaos. In an echo of the golden age of the indomitable Lions, their coach Rigobert Song had expelled the Internazionale goalkeeper André Onana from the squad on the morning of the game.
This was how it tended to be 30-35 years ago, as coaches vacillated between the proactive Joseph-Antoine Bell and the more line-based Thomas N’Kono. As punishment for an indiscreet interview in a French newspaper, Bell was dropped on the day of Cameroon’s win over Argentina at the 1990 World Cup, so late that N’Kono’s wife, who had gone shopping rather than watch her husband sit on the bench at San Siro, only found he had played that evening.
Then in 1994, at Song’s first World Cup, there were so many goalkeeping bust-ups that N’Kono, Bell and the third-choice Jacques Songo’o played a game each in the group stage. The difference is that Bell and N’Kono were both exceptional keepers, and Songo’o a pretty good one, while Song’s preference for “traditional” goalkeeping, and Onana’s robust insistence that passing the ball out from the back is essential, led to the selection of Devis Epassy of the Saudi Arabian club Abha. A 10-year career in the French lower leagues before his big break with OFI of Crete does not scream out high-class alternative – and nor, in all honesty, did Epassy’s performance.
To begin with, this had all the hallmarks of a classic Serbian collapse. They had defended stoutly in the first half of their opener against Brazil, despite the injury to Filip Kostic and doubts over the fitness of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, before being overrun in the second. Having begun well here, Mitrovic hitting the post and flashing another shot just wide, Serbia fell behind after 29 minutes, Jean-Charles Castelletto touching in Nicolas N’Koulou’s near-post flick-on. The script felt very familiar: arrive with promise and go home in frustration.
But two goals in first-half injury-time, the first a powerful header from Strahinja Pavlovic, the second a Sergej Milinkovic-Savic shot from the edge of the box that scuttled over Epassy’s hand, turned the game Serbia’s way. And when Mitrovic got his goal, rolling in after a sick move after Cameroon had given the ball away from a throw, it seemed as though there may be some truth to the claims that, under Dragan Stojkovic, this is a new, mentally resilient Serbia.
It is not. Song had been reluctant to deploy both Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting of Bayern Munich and Vincent Aboubakar, who had been top scorer at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, but the arrival of the Al Nassr striker turned the game again. First he ran on to Castelletto’s ball over the top and beat Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, the 6ft 9in Serbia keeper, with an audacious scooped finish. Then, leading another counter down the right, he squared for Choupo-Moting to equalise.
There were still 23 minutes to go at that point and it felt like anything could happen. Both sides had chances in the final quarter. Shapes disintegrated, which probably suited Cameroon more than Serbia. Stojkovic paced his technical area, arms repeatedly stretching out, head repeatedly clutched. Epassy made one block from Mitrovic but every time the ball came near him there was a sense of panic. Both sides have at least stopped the rot, but while Cameroon will ponder another goalkeeping furore, Serbia perhaps will, once again, rue bad luck with injuries at just the wrong time.
What any of this means beyond that, other than that Brazil and Switzerland will probably go through, is anybody’s guess.
A little presumptuously perhaps, the Lusail Stadium, the vast and startling mothership of this tournament, insists on calling itself the Iconic. It was the Iconic before the only pre-World Cup event of its lifespan, an awkward test affair where, iconically, there wasn’t enough water. Fair enough. Maybe one day every stadium will be iconic for 15 minutes.
But the Lusail did host an authentic moment here, one of those instantly fixed and screen‑printed Word Cup happenings, a goal for the montage, the expertly sketched animation; and an indicator in its own way that no matter how much you stretch it thin, compromise it, fudge its outline, the World Cup will keep on being the World Cup.
It was the second goal in a controlled, ultimately boisterous 2-0 victory for Brazil; and a moment of fast‑twitch stillness, explosive calm, violent precision.
Vinicius Júnior provided the pass, cutting in from the left. Richarlison was close to the penalty spot. He had enough space to turn and shoot but the ball was pinged a little too quickly at his feet. The first touch took it straight up in a loop, red shirts closing in.
The real magic of the finish that followed was the way Richarlison let the ball drop over one shoulder, then swivelled under its arc, letting it drop out of his line of sight, parabola imprinted on his brain, physics crunched, then turned blind to complete a thrilling mid-air jump-volley, catching the ball flush and sweet to send it zinging into the near corner of the Serbia goal.
It was simply a brilliant finish, a goal created out of the air, and a piece of balletic physical creativity. There was a shout, a roar, a kind of gurgle around the stadium as the ball hit the net, then a writhing sea of yellow in the corner as the players formed a classic bouncing scrum of love.
And this was one of those deep cuts, a World Cup moment people will try to replicate, the Richarlison flip, a sofa-leap finish, a grazed elbow at break time. At this most unreal of global shows, despot ball for the cameras, it felt like a draft of something real.
This was a significant game for Brazil’s attack in other ways. Richarlison was a constant high‑grade pest in the second half, and sharp as a wet razor in front of goal. With Vinícius also playing his part in both goals, the thought occurred: maybe this is the way to get the best out of Neymar.
Don’t rely on Neymar. Don’t let Neymar drag the game his way. Keep a chunk of Neymar in reserve. It felt timely, too. Neymar left the pitch on 80 minutes and later emerged with an ankle looking swollen, limping heavily. After the game the Brazil medical team spoke of a “direct trauma”, result of one of nine Serbia fouls. “Neymar will play in the World Cup,” Tite declared. The good news, for the first time since Neymar began playing World Cups is that it may not be terminal if he is to miss a game from here.
And progress also for the man himself. Neymar has spoken about the fact this may well be his last World Cup, that he struggles a bit with these things, that the pressure takes pieces out of him. Perhaps, in an odd kind of way, it is quite encouraging: a reasonable reaction to his unreasonable existence.
Both his previous World Cups have been odd, from 2014’s Jesus complex tournament to the super-brat persona of 2018, when he basically invented a new tactical form, tantrum-ball, Gegen-whinging. Talking about protecting himself: maybe this is a sign of something shifting. Neymar is key for Brazil. But he was also an ensemble player here.
There was a genuine crackle of static inside the Iconic at kick‑off. It is an absurdly spectacular lighted box, another monument to the ghosts of workers passed, to the cold hard edge of Qatar’s will to power. From the outside, it looks like a giant alien potpourri basket. Inside, the stands are so steep you can feel the noise bouncing around, the chill synthetic air spiralling out through the vast and glorious howling-mouth roof hole.
Tite picked an attacking team, with Richarlison and Raphinha ready to track and press while Neymar drifted. It was an odd shape at times, with a high front four and a slightly overworked midfield. Luckily Casemiro has had some intensive training recently in balancing a listing ship.
For a while Vinícius looked the sharpest edge in Brazil’s attack, feet battering the turf, a man who seems to be playing at all times on one of Doha’s endless supply of high-spec moving walkways.
Brazil were cagey in the first half against a strong, organised Serbia team. But Neymar did play the key role in the opener. It was his run, a surge from a standing start, a jink, a stop and a surge past two players that presented the ball at the feet of Vinícius on the left. His low shot was palmed out and Richarlison was there to finish gleefully.
And by the end Brazil were pretty much rampant, pinging in shots, hitting the woodwork, swarming in packs. This was Richie’s day, but also a day to shake a little of the Neymar‑dependência of the past. Icons can be heavy, burdensome things. Brazil looked a little lighter here. They gave us a moment. They looked, by the end, like deserving favourites.
Yes, Brazil: that’s pretty much how we remembered you. This is a new generation of Brazilian players, a new era and a new World Cup challenge. And yet by the same token this was a classic Brazilian tournament performance: the sort that feels like it’s being put on for our benefit. On a still night in the giant golden ark of the Lusail Stadium, the tournament favourites played the game you expect from tournament favourites: solid, expansive, and embellished with the sort of effortless brilliance that makes other countries furrow their brow a little.
The match had three distinct periods. In period one Brazil started pretty tamely, perhaps even uncertainly, picking away at Serbia with tempo but not a great deal of poise. As the second half progressed they began to warm to the task, cathartically breaking the deadlock with a goal from Richarlison. In the final half hour they simply cut loose: riotous skills, relentless waves of attack and an early goal of the tournament contender from Richarlison, who scored his second with an outrageous bicycle kick.
It was Vinícius Junior and Neymar who combined for Richarlison’s goals, and this trio – with Raphinha also plugging away gamely on the right – look on early evidence like the most balanced and deadly attack in Qatar: pure trickery and pure speed, with a sharp cutting tool up front. Casemiro was a masterful string-puller at the base of midfield. Alex Sandro had a superb game at left-back, which was reckoned to be one of Brazil’s problem areas. Serbia were actually pretty good for 45 minutes. By the end, however, they looked not just beaten but broken, having been made to chase light beams.
And it’s not as if Brazil are automatic favourites to win these sorts of games any more. Their World Cup record against European teams since 2010 now reads: played nine, won three, drew two, lost four. Every tournament they seem to sweat a little more, fight a little harder, stand out a little less. But this, perhaps, was a reminder that Brazil are at their best when they play with that little dash of imperial arrogance, the fearlessness and verve that pokes teams in the chest and asks: well, how many stars on your badge?
And of course, they can play with a little bit of devil too. Serbia got the sort of game they wanted: aggressive, physical, spicy and often spiky. Neymar got his usual kicking for being Neymar. But no team with Casemiro, Thiago Silva, Richarlison and Raphinha in its ranks is ever going to shirk from a battle. At one point Raphinha tackled Filip Mladenovic and then simply glared at him, just to make sure he knew he had been tackled. Another time Sasa Lukic put in a (perfectly legal) tackle that sent Alex Sandro flying and rolling a full 10 yards.
Meanwhile, Andrija Zivkovic was sticking to Vinícius like an environmental activist gluing himself to a London road junction. Vinícius came a little deeper. Zivkovic followed. Vinícius drifted right to the touchline. Zivkovic followed. Vinícius tracked inside. Zivkovic followed. Later that night, as an exhausted Vinícius climbed into bed at the Westin Hotel Doha, he would find Zivkovic already in there waiting for him, a despicable smile creasing across his face as he rolled over and took most of the duvet with him.
Few chances, then, but some moments of promise for Brazil. And like the stubborn pistachio at the bottom of the bag, Brazil probed and scraped and prised and pulled, and eventually worked Serbia loose. There had been chances for Neymar and Alex Sandro before finally Neymar coaxed the ball into the penalty area with a delicious drop of the shoulder. Vinícius took over and curled a shot at Vanja Milinkovic-Savic; Richarlison cleaned up the rebound.
And for the rest of the game, Brazil were simply inexorable. Casemiro rattled the bar. Substitute Rodrygo cut in off the left and had a magnificent time. Antony and Gabriel Martinelli came on too. But the game had already seen its crowning moment. With 11 minutes remaining, Vinícius nonchalantly teased over a cross with the outside of the boot. Richarlison flicked the ball up in the air with his toe, flung himself skywards, his blond head rotating on its axis like a light show, before smashing the ball in with a pure capoeira swipe: a goal straight out of a soft drink advert, filmed in one clean take.
If you were being critical, perhaps Brazil could have made a little more of their dominance later on. But really you would be griping for the sake of it. Tougher tests lie ahead. This Brazil can play joga feio as well as joga bonito. But this was like watching your favourite band play all their old hits. Welcome back, lads.
Milan Ristic knew what to do when it seemed Dusan Vlahovic could be about to slip through the cracks. The striker was 14 years old but his gifts were legendary on Serbia’s youth football scene and, increasingly, well beyond. Partizan Belgrade had been trying to sign him upon his graduation from Altina Zemun, a local academy, but could not reach a deal with the player’s family.
Next, Vlahovic had been taken to nearby OFK, where a brief spell ended in disagreement. Shortly afterwards Ristic, a youth coach at Partizan, heard Vlahovic had been spotted kicking a ball around alone at his local stadium. The boy needed to play, not for his talent to be squandered while adults wrangled around him. Ristic jumped straight in the car with his colleague, the influential talent developer Dusan Trbojevic, and drove fast.
“I’ve seen and worked with many players,” Ristic says. “But he was the only one who I could tell, on first sight, was ultra-talented. Some kids are taller, faster, stronger, but only with Ducicould I say immediately that he would be a great player.”
It was why the boy needed a good home. The high-speed journey was not in vain: this time everyone shook hands and Vlahovic’s budding career was back on track.
Since then it has ignited and the thrill for Serbia, who begin their World Cup against Brazil on Thursday, is that they have a genuinely top-class striker in their ranks. Vlahovic was the hottest name in Europe last winter, moving to Juventus from Fiorentina in January, and his form has held up even during a period of relative instability for the Bianconeri.
He is a born goalscorer and, more than that, a multifaceted leader of the line. It is hard to believe he is 22 but it is not outlandish to think that, should he stay fit and healthy over the next few weeks, his team have a fighting chance of breaking new ground. “I can’t remember the last time our side looked so good and full of confidence,” says Sava Petrov, who played alongside Vlahovic in that feted Partizan youth setup.
Petrov, who is two years Vlahovic’s senior and plays for Radnicki Nis, remembers when the excited whispers turned into loud, confident proclamations. It was after Vlahovic, playing for the Partizan under-15 side coached by Ristic, scored four goals against bitter rivals Crvena Zvezda – Red Star – despite missing a penalty. “That is when people started speaking his name widely,” he says. “Everyone could see there was something that set him apart from others of his generation.”
It had long been apparent at Altina, who work with boys aged between seven and 14, and whose youth sides would constantly punch above their weight. Vlahovic tended to play up an age group but that did not stop him carrying the fight. Dragan Perisic, his coach there, recalls a match at Crvena Zvezda when his team talk was in effect done for him. “Before the match he gathered our players together and told them: ‘Let’s win, don’t be afraid, we’re a good side and we can beat them.’”
Altina’s underdogs beat the country’s biggest name 1-0. “He loves the matches against strong rivals, he enjoys it when it is tense,” Perisic says. “When you are a good guy and a quality player then others in the team will respect you a lot. “He had that and knew how to use it to make our team better. He never looked for excuses when things weren’t good. He’s not a phoney.
“There was never a single argument with a teammate: even when he wasn’t scoring he wouldn’t get nervous or yell at others. And when he saw a teammate struggling to score he would pass him the ball, trying to motivate him to overcome the problem. I liked that a lot.”
Ristic credits Vlahovic as being “the biggest professional I’ve ever seen … his work ethic outstrips his talent”. He describes Vlahovic, who tried out once for Crvena Zvezda before joining Partizan but failed to impress on the day, as a typical Zemunac from Belgrade’s north-western suburbs. “They don’t say without a reason that guys from Zemun are tough,” he says. “When people from there have something planned, they don’t give up until they achieve it, whether that’s in sport or in life.”
Shortly before Vlahovic joined Partizan, Perisic travelled to Italy for a fact-finding mission at Torino. He was surprised to find himself fielding questions about his protege: the club’s scouts, as aware as anyone that Serbia’s wealth of young talent is astonishing for its size, had been monitoring him in his early teens. They had the right idea but, eight years on, Vlahovic has bypassed them by moving to their city’s giants.
Europe’s biggest clubs watched as Vlahovic became Partizan’s youngest-ever professional and was handed the No 9 shirt a month after turning 16. He had scored his first senior goal within weeks but would manage only three before Fiorentina pounced. The months between his signing a preliminary contract, formalised in June 2017 before kicking in on his 18th birthday the following February, and arriving in Tuscany were dogged by injury and an understandable fidgetiness.
Even more frustratingly, he could not be registered to play until July 2018. “It was a hard period for him, his head was in Italy and body in Belgrade,” says Petrov, with whom Vlahovic had by now played for Serbia’s under-19s. Ristic says: “He didn’t take that well. Basically he lost a whole year and he is the type of player who always wants to play.”
Any lost time has long since been made up for. Vlahovic scored 44 times in the Italian top flight for La Viola, was named its best young player in 2020-21 and has kept his head above Juve’s stormy waters with better than a goal every other game. He admires Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic: nobody could say he is there yet but there are elements of both in his 6ft 3in frame, touch, power and the variation of his finishing.
At Altina, Perisic was keen to entrust Vlahovic with his side’s No 10 shirt. It was meant as a reward for his performances and preternatural leadership skills: the coach considered it the most significant in football. He relayed the offer to his player but, later that night, received a phone call from the club president, Nebojsa Pejovic. Vlahovic had asked whether he could keep the No 9 shirt he had previously worn. “He didn’t want to confront my authority,” Perisic says. “He had forever felt the No 9 was his. And it is something that describes him very well: as a goalscorer.”
He will have to be content with the No 18 shirt when Serbia face Brazil; Aleksandar Mitrovic, another Partizan product in exceptional form and six years his senior, shows no sign of relinquishing his preferred number. The fact Dragan Stojkovic, the national team coach, can call upon two strikers of such calibre bodes exceptionally well, although both have been nursing niggles in the buildup to this tournament. Luka Jovic, essentially Vlahovic’s replacement at Fiorentina, is not bad backup.
Serbia look equipped for their best shot yet at the World Cup, an exciting but balanced team also including players such as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Filip Kostic, although they may face an almighty scrap with old foes Switzerland for a last-16 spot.
Perhaps one of the few things missing from Vlahovic, who has scored nine goals for Serbia, is a winning contribution against a top national team. That moment cannot be far off. “I believe he can show in Qatar why people consider him one of the best young strikers in the world,” Petrov says, although the age qualifier can probably be removed from that now. “Everything that happens in his football career is for a reason.”
Brazil may yet be the next opponents giving themselves up to his inexorable momentum.
The question about dancing came about 35 minutes in. And in fairness, it wasn’t as random as it sounds. Earlier in the week Raphinha announced that Brazil’s squad had prepared and rehearsed 10 different dance routines to be unveiled each time they score at this World Cup. So, a Brazilian journalist asked Tite: “What is the importance of this cultural phenomenon? How important is it to dance? What is the message we can convey to the world by dancing?”
“Naturality,” the Brazil coach responded immediately. “Respect for the culture, respect for who we are. It is happiness, it is joy. Yes, it is a moment for us to be focused and serious. But there are moments when we can have fun, when we can vibrate. Everyone has their own way. Our way is dancing.” Perhaps this offers a small idea of why Brazil’s wise and wizened head coach can be such fascinating company. There is a lightly worn intellect there, a love of words, an attention to detail, a dignity and a levity, as well as the basic decency to give a sincere question a sincere answer.
Phrases like “paradigm shift”, “potentialising the virtues of the players” and “learning may be theoretical but it is fundamentally practical” are not staples of your usual Friday morning audience with – say – Steve Evans.
They call him “Professor Tite” within the Brazil camp, and certainly there is something of the didact to him: a man who sees football not simply as a game of limbs and gumption, but as an opportunity to open minds. On the eve of their opening game against Serbia, Tite knows exactly what is expected of him from the Brazilian public. But he knows, too, that this expectation is born in part of an emotional legacy well beyond his control: the widespread feeling that this World Cup is somehow Brazil’s destiny, part of their DNA, theirs to reclaim like a piece of lost property.
“I’m not responsible for the last 20 years, just four,” Tite said with a smile, and on this he was half-right. Tite did not create this baggage but it is his to carry now, and perhaps this was why he seemed so keen to underline the scale of the challenge ahead, the sheer volume of things that have to go right for Brazil to win their sixth World Cup.
“There’s pressure,” he admitted, “but also the tranquility of knowing the opportunities that arise in life. Dreaming is part of life. We dream of having a great cup and being champion. And in case we cannot, to make the best of it, because there is only one winner. We are aware that there are other great teams who play at the same level as Brazil.”
Implicit in all this, perhaps, was a quiet rejection of the exceptionalism that has buttressed and ultimately bound many Brazil sides of the past. The most striking example of this was on home soil in 2014, when a hysterical Brazilian public discovered in the most crushing way that magic, fate and emotional fervour are no substitute for attention to detail and a vaguely functioning offside trap.
Tite knows this, of course. He is, at heart, a details man: a thorough analyst of the game who likes to consider a problem from every angle, cover every contingency. In concert with his trusted assistant Cleber Xavier, he has assembled a balanced, European-style side with less of the traditional Brazilian emphasis on marauding full-backs and totemic No 9s. Instead, an experienced defence will be shielded by Casemiro and two energetic wingers (probably Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior).
“I don’t believe in filling the side with attackers or defenders,” Tite said. “The balance point is midfield.” At which point Tite runs into the other strand of Brazilian self-mythology: style. It’s interesting to note that the last team to break a drought, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 side, are also the least cherished of Brazil’s five World Cup-winning sides. In part this is because of the absence of a popular figurehead like Pelé or Ronaldo, in part because of the way they did it: grizzled, pragmatic tournament football played with smarts and a snarl. “There are moments when the spectacle has to be sacrificed,” Johan Cruyff wrote of that team, and even Romário has admitted that Brazil’s tactics in the United States were not entirely to his liking.
And the curiously unloved status of that team encapsulates the delicate balancing act facing Tite here. In short: how far can he reconcile the two largely divergent goals of ending the drought and doing so in a way that feels authentically Brazilian? How much risk does he want to take on against an extremely dangerous Serbia team and their front two of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic? Can they defend and dance at the same time? These are the pressing questions. You can guarantee that Tite has applied his considerable intellect to working out the answers.