The four semi-final spots for the 2018 FIFA World Cup have been decided, and the highly touted Brazil have not got one of them. Indeed, it will be one of four European teams: France, Belgium, England, or Croatia that will lift the World Cup on July 15.
History continues to guide the reality that only one non European team has won the World Cup on European soil, and this was achieved over 60 years ago in Sweden by a Brazil team that included then blossoming PelÈ. All other non-European teams had fallen short in the previous 20 editions of the World Cup finals.
The facts that at the start of the second round, only four of the remaining sixteen teams-Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, and Japan, were non-European, and that the final eight only had two in Brazil and Uruguay, while the semi-finals have none, cannot be flippantly ignored.
The geo-historical dynamics aside, though, I was one Brazil fan and supporter who flatly rejected the notion of them being the overwhelming favourites to win this World Cup. I am yet to be convinced of the championship mettle of this team, thus my option of cautious optimism over forthright confidence at their chances.
The pre-tournament talk about this team being the best since 1982 was simply ridiculous. This is a team that was actually struggling in sixth position in the South American qualifiers when Tite took over as coach in 2016. Since then, they have not been anything close to the expansive and expressive Brazil of old.
Tite moulded this team around solid defensive organisation, as evidenced by them winning 10 of the 12 remaining qualifiers, drawing two, while conceding a mere three goals. Overall, Tite's record now stands at 20 wins, four draws and two defeats in 26 games, scoring 53 goals and conceding only eight.
It is also instructive that four the seven midfielders selected in the Brazilian World Cup squad Casemiro, Fernandinho, Paulinho, and Renato Augusto are defensive midfielders. This team was cultured to remain compact and solid at the back with, invariably, Neymar, Coutinho, Willian, and Gabriel Jesus given the freedom to work their offensive magic, with some sporadic help from the overlapping wingbacks.
It looked to be working during the qualifiers and into the pre-tournament buildup, but the fact of the matter is that Tite's Brazil became too predictable, both in terms of tactics and team selection. Belgium coach Roberto MartÌnez's decision to start Marouane Fellaini to add steel and physicality in midfield and to push Kevin de Bruyne higher and wider up the Belgian offensive line had Brazil and Tite at sixes and sevens.
Tite, with all his pragmatism, was exposed by his decisions to persist with the young non-scoring, low-in-confidence striker, Jesus, for the entire tournament. This meant consistently keeping the skillful and explosive Douglas Costa on the bench, and even reverting to the ultra-attacking defensive liability in Marcelo at left back against a lethal Belgium counterattacking team. These are indices of his one track mindedness and inflexibility.
The analysis of Neymar's performance in this tournament requires an entire column by itself, but suffice to say that his long lay-off due to injury cannot be used as an excuse for his pathetic attitude, characterised by his play-acting antics and theatrics on which he seemed more focused than playing team football. In the end, Neymar harmed the Brazil cause more than he helped it.
Brazil infamously imploded in that 7-1 humiliation on home soil in the semi-final of 2014 World Cup and came back for what was supposed to be redemption in Russia 2018. They got outclassed this time by Belgium in the quarterfinal. That is not the record and performance of a champion team, but the record and performance of a highly overrated team.