By Rupert Fryer
David Luiz left it for Thiago Silva; Thiago Silva left it for David Luiz. They collided and ended up in a heap. Aleksandar Mitrovic strolled away, clean through on Julio Cesar. And with a colleague a few yards to his left, Serbia weren’t going to let Brazil off this time. Lazar Markovic tapped into an empty net. It was a suitable end to a dreadful half for the World Cup hosts. And A Selecao’s central-defensive partnership had just provided a five-second clip to illustrate the narrative.
An unbeaten home run dating back to 2002 looked in danger. Aleksander Kolarov had twice gone close. Mitrovic had wasted a free header from six yards. Brazil were on the ropes. A notoriously demanding Sao Paulo public had already seen enough. The jeers had begun.
Neymar had overcomplicated. Paulinho was a passenger. Oscar, who had barely slept after the birth of his daughter, looked in need of a good rest. Full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo had seen those vast spaces behind them exploited. Hulk couldn’t even power his way into space. And Fred had been so devoid of service that he began trying to make a goal for himself. Brazil were having an off day.
They left the pitch at half-time to a chorus of boos. “It wasn’t a problem for any of my players,” said coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. “They are ready for this." He had hoped they wouldn't have to be.
Over 12 months Felipao had solved almost every problem he inherited from Mano Menezes. He found a goalkeeper by sticking by Julio Cesar; identified his holding midfielder by plucking Luiz Gustavo out of the international wilderness; made Paulinho the all-rounder alongside him and forged a dynamic line of three who can interchange and lead the press from the front. He’d even found a centre forward in Fred, who despite European scepticism has more than proved his worth.
The Confederations Cup saw a team transformed. In five games Brazil went from national disappointments to outright favourites for the World Cup. Their biggest failure had been not beating those perceived to be ‘top-level’ international teams, which was emphatically tossed aside with victories over Italy and Spain.
Since the opening game of that tournament, Brazil have gone from a team that won three in nine to one that has triumphed in 15 of its last 16 – and with an aggregate score of 44-6. The XI that started against Serbia was identical to the one that brushed aside the reigning world champions at the Maracana one year ago.
Scolari had found his formula. He had also cultivated a feeling in the camp akin to the one that led to his 2002 world champions to being dubbed ‘The Scolari Family.’ Both Hulk and David Luiz described the squad as a "family they never wanted to leave".
Felipao then launched a lone campaign to completely rewrite the Maracanazo rhetoric. Tired of persistent questions over the demons of 1950's defeat to Uruguay, in Feburary Scolari recast the protagonists of the nation's greatest tragedy: "Before 1950, Brazil had never made it to the final – that team were the pioneers of the five world titles we have won since then."
Jetting around the world on the Gillette Brasil Global Tour, the players had landed in every country to a welcome befitting their star status. And Neymar was the undisputed star of the show. While he is still adapting to life in La Liga, the 22-year-old has been consistently firing for his country. He now has 31 goals in 49 internationals and has been by far the most productive in terms of goals and assists since Scolari's return.
In November, following a 2-1 victory over Chile, Scolari responded to yet another question about 1950 World Cup by telling his interrogator: “Brazil will be world champions.” And he had every reason to believe so.
But there was one hurdle yet to be cleared: how will Brazil react in front of an impatient home crowd when things get off to a slow start. They had gone into the break leading in every one of their five games during the Confederations Cup; in 3 of those they had been ahead inside the opening 10 minutes.
In Sao Paulo on Friday the wheels come off. And at the moment David Luiz and Thiago Silva collided, the aftershock risked derailing the Selecao freight train. But football, particularly in major international tournaments, is won and lost in moments. Thankfully for Brazil, as Mitrovic squared for Markovic, an offside flag came to their rescue.
Instead of pictures of the duo colliding like Laurel and Hardy, David Luiz posted on his Instagram the image a couple of seconds later - one that he said portrayed this side’s ultimate strength: “This picture shows what our group really is! All together we'll be something, separated we're nothing. Thank you God for making me part of this family. Always together, bro.”
On Friday Brazil slipped and fell. But they hauled themselves up. Together they survived. And they remain favourites for their sixth world title.
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