Neymar-less Brazil in search of Copa identity
Two years after their traumatic World Cup semi-final exit, Brazil are haunted by the past as they head into the Copa America Centenario aiming for their first title in nearly a decade.
In previous eras, Brazil would arrive at the Copa America brimming with confidence, with the only debate revolving around who they could expect to face — and defeat — in the final.
Between 1997 and 2007, Brazil won four out of five editions of the tournament, helping to make them the most successful nation since 1975, when the Copa America began to be held regularly after an eight-year absence.
Yet as Brazil prepare to embark on this year’s tournament, the familiar swagger is gone.
The humiliating 7-1 thrashing by Germany in 2014 has left a team in search of an identity, torn between a more pragmatic, defensive approach and the hardwired instincts towards flamboyance.
So far, under the second managerial tenure of 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga, the results have been mixed.
A quarter-final exit at last year’s Copa America in Chile has been followed by a stuttering start to South America’s marathon qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
Brazil currently lie in sixth place after six matches, outside the qualifying positions.
Their form has reflected the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Dunga’s team, where they have produced flashes of attacking brilliance only to be undermined by defensive frailty.
They were comfortably beaten by Chile in their opening qualifier and failed to convince in either of their two solitary wins against Venezuela and Peru.
Against Uruguay in Recife in March, the old Brazil appeared to be back as they swept into a 2-0 lead inside the first 25 minutes.
But an Edinson Cavani goal in the 30th minute punctured Brazil’s fragile confidence, and after Luis Suarez made it 2-2 they spent much of the remainder of the game on the ropes.
Four days later, a similarly disjointed display saw them lucky to leave Asuncion with a point. Paraguay romped into a 2-0 lead and Brazil needed a Dani Alves equaliser deep into stoppage time to scrape a 2-2 draw.
– Many happy returns? –
For Dunga, the Copa America represents a happy return to the scene of his greatest triumph as a player. Brazil will kick off their Group B campaign against Ecuador on Saturday at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, where Dunga led his team to victory in the World Cup final against Italy 22 years ago.
“Hopefully now Brazil can get back to winning here,” Dunga told reporters in Los Angeles last week during a training camp.
Dunga’s task has been complicated by the proximity of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Brazil’s determination to win the only international title that has eluded them — an Olympic gold medal — has meant hard choices have had to be made.
Neymar, their talismanic captain, will miss the Copa America in order to be available for the Olympics.
Dunga has made no secret of his desire to concentrate on the Olympics but is adamant that Brazil have enough quality to challenge for the Copa America.
“Obviously we’d like to have Neymar here, but this is a top team,” Dunga said.
“Some of them are very young, but they have quality. This is an opportunity for these players to show they deserve to be on the first team.”
As well as Neymar, other notable absentees include defenders Thiago Silva and David Luiz, who both seem to have fallen out of favor, along with midfielder Oscar and injured Bayern Munich star Douglas Costa.
That could leave an opportunity for emerging talent Gabriel, the 19-year-old Santos prodigy known affectionately as “Gabigol”.
Gabriel scored on his debut for Brazil in a 2-0 win over Panama on Sunday, signalling that he is ready to fill the void left by Neymar.