Brazil’s extraordinary place in soccer history is not up for debate. Even when non-soccer fans are asked to name the sport’s best player of all time, they say Pelé more often than not. The team, meanwhile, has a history of greatness that has built up both expectations from fans as well as confidence in its ability. But as the 2014 World Cup heads closer, that confidence is turning into nervousness for the host country. The reason: Brazil’s performance in the previous two World Cups.
Brazil was the dominant team throughout the 1990s, winning the 1994 World Cup and reaching the final in 1998. They also won the 2002 World Cup behind the eight goals of legendary striker Ronaldo, still the most the world has seen in a Cup since 1974. However, the next two tournaments were not so kind to the Samba Boys.
Brazil was set up very nicely going into 2006. The team won the 2005 Confederations Cup, which is considered a warm-up tournament for the World Cup, and it had the two-time reigning FIFA World Player of the Year in Ronaldinho. When the groups were drawn, it was placed into a very favorable group with Croatia, Australia, and Japan. During the group stage, Ronaldo tied the all time World Cup goals record in the match against Japan. In the Round of 16 match versus Ghana, the team won 3-0. There were some controversial offside no-calls in that particular match and some dreadful attempts at goal by Ghana, but Brazil took what was given to it. The team was on a roll. Next up was France, a team that barely made it out of their group and had more than a few aging stars starting.
The quarterfinal Brazil versus France match was viewed as a formality. Ronaldinho had not scored yet, but it was considered only a matter of time before he did. However, Brazil struggled against the strong and athletic defense, led in the middle by Lilian Thuram and William Gallas. Those two gobbled up everything Brazil threw at them.
But the real star of the day was midfielder and captain Zinedine Zidane. This former World Player of the Year and World Cup winner turned back the clock at 34 years of age and had a dominating performance. The way he dictated the match was incredible. Brazil couldn’t cope and went down 1-0. Ronaldinho had a free kick from a very favorable position in the dying minutes — positions that he had scored from many times before — and did not even put it on the frame. Brazil lost 1-0, and the overwhelming favorite was going home. Many Brazilian citizens viewed it as a national disgrace.
In the 2010 World Cup, Brazil was supposed to make up for the embarrassing early exit of 2006. The team had a somewhat tougher group with Portugal and Ivory Coast (although it was evened out with the lowly North Korea), but it was ready. It looked somewhat unconvincing in the group stages, beating North Korea 2-1 while Portugal and Ivory Coast beat the same side 7-0 and 3-0, respectively. It also had an unimaginative 0-0 draw with Portugal. However, it still advanced to the knockout phase by winning its group. Next up was Chile. This is a team it was familiar with, and it had no problem winning 3-0. The orange of Holland awaited Brazil in the quarterfinals.
The game started according to the Brazilians’ plan. They scored early and were up 1-0 at halftime. But after halftime, the Brazilians looked flat, resorting to cheap fouls in order to stop the Dutch onslaught. In 15 minutes the team saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 deficit. Wesley Sneijder scored the two goals for Holland. It went from bad to worse when Brazil’s Felipe Melo was red-carded, reducing the side to 10 men on the field. The final whistle went and the Brazilians were out at the quarterfinals stage again.
After that, Brazil went into overhaul mode. It knew it was hosting the 2014 World Cup and didn’t want the same to happen on home soil. The think-tank started to revamp the squad with young players. The next test for the team was the 2011 Copa América tournament in which it was eliminated at the quarterfinal stage as well. But it was okay with that. It wanted to let some younger guys get big time experience and feel what major tournament pressure is like.
Then came the 2013 Confederations Cup, which is held the summer prior to the World Cup in the host country. Brazil made it to the final, which was against the powerhouse Spanish national team — the two-time reigning Euro tournament champions and the reigning World Cup champions. Brazil scored early and were up for everything the Spanish threw at them, including a blocked penalty kick. Brazil won 3-0 and restored a lot of pride to their country and gave its fans hope of becoming a force this summer.
In comparing the starting lineups for the Brazil team that lost to Holland and the Brazil team that beat Spain, there are only two players in common. Those players are goalkeeper Júlio César and defender Dani Alves. This is rightfully so as they were the only two bright spots back in 2010 and deserved to avoid the overhaul cut.
Brazil needs to at least reach the final in their home country in order to show everyone they are back as a force on the biggest stage. Otherwise, it could be one of the most embarrassing sporting moments of these players’ careers.