RIO DE JANEIRO — The Brazilian national soccer team was struggling to break down Croatia’s defense during a friendly last Sunday in Liverpool, England, when Neymar came into a match for the first time since he fractured a bone in his foot in February. Running onto a pass, he headed deep into Croatia’s penalty area, shimmied elegantly between two defenders, and shot high into the net.
Following Neymar’s game-changer, Brazil won, 2-0.
“That goal was a perfect illustration of what Neymar brings to this Brazil side,” said Andrew Downie, the Brazil-based author of “Doctor Socrates,” an acclaimed biography of the great midfielder. “At this level, these moments of inspiration are what decide matches.”
It also brought Neymar da Silva Santos Jr. closer to something he has yearned for since he was a small child.
“Thank God I have this opportunity again, one more chance to try and be world champion for my country, which is a dream I’ve had since I was little,” he told Brazil’s biggest television news program recently, as the national team prepared to enter the World Cup starting June 14 in Russia as one of the favorites. “I hope it will be my Cup.”
The World Cup is coming. Want smart analysis, opinions, viewing guides and more? Sign up for our month-long newsletter. First edition on June 13th.
That moment of brilliance against Croatia made clear that the team’s most important player is back in business — good news for Brazilians with turbulent memories of the 2014 World Cup. An overconfident Brazil team assumed it would win the trophy on its home soil. Then Neymar was carried from a quarterfinal victory over Colombia on a stretcher following a nasty challenge from Juan Zúñiga that broke a vertebrae. And in the semifinal, it suffered the most spectacular defeat in its soccer history, a 7-1 thrashing by Germany.
“It was a tragedy, a sad moment for football, but it is in the past,” said Crizam Cesar de Oliveira Filho, an attacking midfielder known as Zinho who played on Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning team.
Since then, Neymar has shined for his professional teams, powerhouses Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, while Brazil has been roiled by repeated corruption scandals, a divisive and widely derided impeachment process, a crippling recession, record levels of violent crime, a Zika epidemic and, most recently, a 10-day truckers strike that brought South America’s biggest economy to its knees.
No wonder Brazilians are angsty as the World Cup looms. Their soccer-loving nation urgently needs something to be cheerful about and the national team might just provide it. It heads to Russia with what Brazil soccer experts call a real chance of exorcising the demons of what is known here as “the seven-one” and even winning a record sixth World Cup.
That’s not just because of Neymar. It’s also credited to Coach Adenor Bacchi — known as Tite — who in two years has reorganized the Brazilian team into a deeper, more balanced squad than four years ago.
There is also a more humble outlook.
“This team could win. Not to say it will win, it could win,” said Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of Brazil’s leading commentators. “We realized that we will not win for having the best players. We will win if the best players become a team.”
The pressure on Tite is enormous, just as it is on every Brazilian coach.
“This is a country in which whole population is in love with football and everyone is a coach. Everyone has an opinion,” Zinho said. But Tite brings leadership. “He is able to motivate the whole group, not just the good players.”
Tite also knows how to win trophies. With the Sao Paulo club team Corinthians, he won the Brazilian championship in 2011, then the South America-wide Libertadores trophy and FIFA Club World Cup a year later, with a team famed for its robust defense. He had left the club by the time Brazil suffered its humiliating defeat to Germany, and expected to be offered the job as national team coach when Felipe Scolari quit. “When I was not selected for the job, I will be honest … I was frustrated, pissed off, very sad,” he said in a recent interview for the Players’ Tribune.
Instead of mourning, Tite spent a week with Carlo Ancelotti, one of Europe’s most successful coaches, then at Real Madrid. “He shared the data he collected on the players, the training philosophies, the strategic planning. For me, this was like going to the candy shop,” said Tite, who has filled notebooks with annotations on tactics from every match in the last three World Cups.
He also visited Carlos Bianchi at Boca Juniors, who told him how he had made Corinthians into such a mentally strong team that the Argentine club had been unable to rile them into losing their balance. Then he went back to Corinthians and created an attacking team that won another Brazilian championship, this time with flair. The beautiful game, as it is called in Brazil.
When the call to manage Brazil finally came, Tite was ready. Since then, he has taught Brazil how to win again. So much so that many Brazilians would prefer he took over the country’s government from widely despised President Michel Temer — in polls, 15 percent of Brazilians said they would vote for him, though he shows no sign of standing.
“People often refer to him as a kind of messiah in Brazil. He reminds me of a U.S. self-help guru,” Downie said. “He’s got people believing in Brazil which they had stopped doing after the seven-one.”
Some fret that Brazil suffer from what is called “Neymar dependency.” But the team won recent friendlies against World Cup host Russia and defending champion and nemesis Germany without him.
“They are much less dependent on him and he’s much better,” said Tim Vickery, the Rio-based South American soccer analyst for the BBC. “However one of the tasks will be conciliating Neymar’s individuality with the team and trying to contain Neymar’s petulance.”
Tite’s squad has only three players from Brazil’s domestic leagues — 17 play in Europe against much tougher competition. Midfielder Philippe Coutinho, now with Barcelona, was included in the English Premier League’s 2015 team of the year while at Liverpool. Just 21, Gabriel Jesus’ emergence from a community team in a underprivileged, ramshackle Sao Paulo neighborhood has already entered Brazilian soccer lore. His last-second goal from a long run and deft chip made his club team, Manchester City, the first in English Premier League history to reach 100 points in a season.
Three players on Brazil’s roster were featured in last month’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid: attacking defender Marcelo and defensive midfielder Casemiro for the Spanish team, midfielder Firmino for Liverpool. Neymar, Manchester City defender Danilo and Barcelona midfielder Paulinho are among eight players in their late 20s, “that sweet spot that means they’re at the peak of their careers,” according to Downie.
Preoccupied with their country’s economic and political problems, Brazilians have yet to engage with this World Cup as they had those of previous decades. “The world changed, and Brazil is changing too,” said José Roque Jr., a defender on Brazil’s 2002 world championship team. That could change when the games begin. And if Brazilian politicians were subjected to the same pressure as soccer players and coaches, he said, they might they deliver some solutions.
“If politicians were under the same demands, I don’t think the country would be in the state it is,” he said.
More World Cup coverage: