Brazil’s burden of history weighs heavier with every tournament exit

Sports

It would probably have been better to scrap Saturday’s Copa América quarterfinal between Brazil and Uruguay and skip straight to the penalty shootout.

There was barely an outbreak of football between the two teams in Las Vegas, as a much-anticipated clash was punctuated by fouls and misplaced passes. In some part, this is a product of the pitches being used at this Copa, which are considerably smaller than usual — a subject which has worried Brazil all through the competition. The smaller the pitch, the greater the chance of friction.

More than anything else, though, Brazil exit the competition as victims of their own excesses of nerves. This is a team struggling under the burden of history, striving to pay a bill for which the current players are not responsible, and it appears to be tipping everyone over the edge.

Monday will be the 10th anniversary of that game, when tournament hosts Brazil slumped to a 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Young striker Endrick had just turned eight on that fateful day in Belo Horizonte. The only triumph he would be able to recall — if we omit the old Confederations Cup, as most people do — is the Copa triumph of 2019.

It is Brazil’s only Copa success in the last six, and they have now gone five World Cups without landing the big prize. Those of Endrick’s age, and a little older, have not been able to enjoy what was once considered a birthright — seeing their country be crowned world champions. The frustrations are accumulating, and it is distorting the mind.

There was not the slightest reason to risk Vinícius Júnior — who was already carrying a yellow card — in last Tuesday’s final group game against Colombia. With their place in the quarterfinals all but mathematically ensured, there was no need for Brazil to enter into a high-octane battle for supremacy with the rampant Colombians. Vinicius picked up another yellow, and Brazil’s most potent attacking weapon was missing for the match that mattered.

Sending Vinicius out to face Colombia was surely an error of coach Dorival Júnior. An experienced figure, he was supposed to be a calming influence. But he too appears to have caught the bug. He spends too long on the touchline ranting and raving about refereeing decisions. Any coach has three main tasks — select the team, define the strategy and set the emotional tone for the work. In the third of these duties Dorival Júnior has been a disappointment in his debut tournament. An uptight coach makes for an uptight team.

A symbol of Saturday’s elimination came in the 87th minute. Andreas Pereira was rolling around on the ground in a feeble attempt to force the expulsion of another Uruguayan. Time was running out and Uruguay were already down to 10 men. Rather than rolling on the floor, Brazil needed the ball rolling as much as possible as they sought to break the deadlock.

A theme of this Copa has been the difficulty of playing a man down. Many outcomes — including the elimination of the United States — were defined by an early red card. True, in this case Uruguay went down to 10 men later in the game. Right-back Nahitan Nández was sent off with some 20 minutes to go. But Brazil did precious little with their advantage. Indeed, Brazil did precious little all game.

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Raphinha caused some problems on the right wing in the first half. But the only shot in the entire second 45 minutes was a tame attempt from outside the area by Endrick, easily saved by Sergio Rochet in the Uruguay goal.

Dorival Júnior’s strategy appeared to be to sit deep, draw Uruguay forward and hope to catch them on the counter-attack. Fitting the mood of desperation, this was all based on lung punts forward. The ball was almost never worked through the midfield, and this is a serious problem that Brazil needs to address.

When it works, the Brazil counter-attack is one of the most devastating weapons in world football. But they have become over-dependent on it. There is not enough elaboration. Bruno Guimarães has yet to establish his capacity to dominate the Brazil midfield. Against Colombia, Brazil found it very hard to progress the ball down the pitch, especially in the second half. And when Uruguay went a man down and sat back, the Brazil team appeared to have little notion of how to break them down. The major titles are not going to come until Brazil expand their repertoire.

There is a way of looking at this Copa and coming to the conclusion that the glass is half full. Brazil did, after all, bow out unbeaten. Late last year they lost to Colombia and Uruguay in World Cup qualification. This time they drew with both, and they have clearly improved on the shambles of 2023. Something will have to go massively and horribly wrong for them to have any possibility of not making it to the expanded, 48-team World Cup in 2026.

But the more realistic view is that the glass is half empty. There is a lot of work to do if the Seleção are to be serious challengers in two years’ time, and the 18 months since Qatar have been largely wasted. And being knocked out of this Copa merely stacks up the pressure still higher, increases the burden of the debt for which the players feel responsible, and adds an extra reason for an added dose of nervous excess in the coming games.

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