DOHA, Qatar — The latest gasp of a ball in Brazil’s peerless World Cup history sprang from a deft binge of teamwork and traveled with such oomph that it looked as though it might have been screaming. It left the foot of a 30-year-old dude named Casemiro on the left side of the box in the 83rd minute of a match that seemed ready to turn in for bed goalless, and it all but developed contrails as it bypassed the frozen Switzerland goalkeeper.
When it blasted into the right wall of the goal and loosed bedlam among the runaway majority of the 43,649 in Stadium 974 on Monday night, it did a bit more than pluck a 1-0 win out of a 0-0 stew. It went ahead and clinched passage to the 16-team knockout stage for the Brazilians, their six points assuring their 10th straight knockout presence as they seek a sixth title and first in an intolerable 20 years.
It left the gritty Swiss glum but still hopeful, sitting in second place in Group G with three points, with Cameroon and Serbia holding one each. It meant Tite, the beloved and emotive Brazil manager since 2016, could not possibly do anything else except turn to son and assistant Matheus Bachi, hug him and kiss him on the cheek. It booked Brazil a breathe-easy third match in group play against Cameroon that will afford more healing time for Neymar, the foremost Brazilian star who has gone injured in the first match and idled in the second, the latter spent back at the hotel rehabilitating the world’s most-watched ankle.
It, the goal, got Neymar tweeting.
“Casemiro has been the best midfielder in the world for a long time,” he typed in Portuguese.
“I normally don’t comment on opinions, but I will allow myself to do so today,” said Tite, who has spent a long time swimming turbulent seas of opinions in an opinionated nation of some 215 million. “I agree.”
That goal did one more thing while it was doing things on this breezy, 77-degree night near the tranquil beach and the monster airport. It bolstered the reality that when ecstasy does come in these first two Brazilian games, it buds from the left side and from the artwork of a blaze of a human, 22-year-old Vinícius Júnior of Real Madrid. This has proved true on all three Brazilian goals, Vinícius Júnior spotting teammates in or near the box and shipping them some sort of crafty enticement.
He did it again against Switzerland after doing it twice against Serbia, and this time he did it by starting on the left and sliding to the right toward the top left corner of the box himself, then finding Rodrygo in a case of Real Madrid finding Real Madrid. As the play began exemplifying what makes the beautiful game beautiful, Rodrygo gave the thing a skillful nudge to Casemiro.
Casemiro, who had six goals in his previous 67 Brazil caps, took it like somebody who had 60. It changed the night in a whoosh.
“We believe that if we look at the result that this is quite a sad outcome for us,” Swiss Coach Murat Yakin said, “because we kind of let it slip through our fingers. … Over 80 minutes, we really had quite the control over the game, so I think those few [other] minutes make the difference.”
On a night when Tite had to replace the gilded Neymar with Fred, who, like Casemiro, plays for Manchester United, the crowd had only one other cause for eruption. That came in the 63rd minute, and that also worked through Vinícius Júnior on the left, of course. That time, he did it himself on a run and then a plucky little roller past Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer that trickled inside the right post. With that, the Brazilian subs charged onto the field to the corner for a giant group hug at just about the time the referee wondered about offside, which a VAR review revealed to have happened way back at midfield, when Richarlison committed it just before Casemiro had banged the ball over to Vinícius Júnior.
The reversal took the “1” off the board and returned the “0,” and as the sides had drawn in their two previous World Cup meetings in 1950 and 2018, here looked like a third. But that assessment might have undervalued the roster range of the Brazilians, who already have used 19 of their 26 players. “This year we have a wider range of options,” Casemiro said in the kind of calm, seasoned demeanor every midfield ought to crave. “We have more players to choose from. Even if we don’t change the team, we have the option to change the way we play.” Don’t forget, he said: “The defenders are more experienced” than in 2018, the World Cup of a quarterfinal loss to Belgium. “It is important to mention another match where we conceded no goals.”
All of that means Neymar’s injury lends a dent but not a doom. They do miss him — “He is a player who in a magic moment can dribble past one and then you say, ‘What has happened here?’ ” Tite said, speaking of Neymar’s “big creative power” — but his absence doesn’t demand whingeing.
In stepped Fred, who might confuse sports fans who skim by this sport every four years or so. There have been two players of note who carried that name of such succinct glory. There’s the striker Fred, 39, who retired this summer after playing for four Brazilian clubs and one French club plus 39 caps for Brazil, and he’s Frederico Chaves Guedes from the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. And there’s the midfielder Fred, 29, who plays for Manchester United, and he’s Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos from Belo Horizonte, the giant sixth-largest city in Brazil.
That Fred got his 30th cap Monday night, and he played until Tite replaced him for young Bruno Guimarães in the 58th minute. “Bruno Guimarães came on very well,” Tite said. “Antony came on very well [in the 73rd]. Gabriel Jesus came on very well [in the 73rd].”
“I think we have the privilege,” assistant César Sampaio said, “of having a plethora of players that are very skillful and also that we have options to change players according to the circumstances.” That’s a big help with a foe such as Switzerland wherein “we actually joked that it was like a chess game where all the pieces had to be identified and analyzed.”
They come on and they come on, including Rodrygo in the 46th minute who would help two starters with the goal. They represent the dominant fans of the World Cup fabric, the fans in their unmistakable yellow who filled one metro car with songs on the way to the stadium while it’s the safest bet in the World Cup they filled two or three or four or five. Even when an evening winds up looking awfully goalless, they all know there’s probably a ball still out there somewhere, and on Monday that ball got loud.
World Cup in Qatar
World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.
Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.