Neymar, Tite and Brazil ready to banish ghosts of the Mineirazo

Sam Pilger looks at how Brazil have turned around their fortunes after that historic 7-1 defeat to Germany...

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On the chest of Brazil’s revered and iconic yellow shirt, there are five small green stars above their national crest denoting each of their World Cup wins.

It is a source of great pride to them, and no one has more, but over the last four years Brazilians have felt there something has been missing: that elusive sixth star.

This was meant to have been added when they hosted the tournament in 2014, which also provided them with their long awaited opportunity to banish the pain of the last time they had staged the World Cup in 1950, and lost the final to Uruguay in front of nearly 200,000 at the Maracana.

But four years ago their embarrassment was even more acute, when they failed to even reach the final, and were beaten 7-1 in the semi-finals by the eventual winners Germany.

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This defeat triggered a bout of national grieving and soul searching for a trauma that would become known as ‘Mineirazo’ after the stadium in Belo Horizonte that staged their humiliation.

The current Brazil manager Tite says the heavy defeat also left a “little ghost” on the shoulder of each Brazilian player who has since played for the national side.

At first Brazil turned to their 1994 World Cup winning captain Dunga, who returned for his second spell as manager, but he presided over two disappointing appearances at the Copa America.

In 2015 Brazil were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Paraguay, but worst was to follow in the Copa Centenario in 2016 when they didn’t even get out of the group stage.

And after winning just two of their first five World Cup qualifiers, a still traumatised Brazil were marooned in sixth, and at risk of not making it to the tournament for the first time in their history.

The ill-advised return of Dunga was acknowledged as a mistake, and in June 2016 he was replaced by the Corinthians manager Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite.

The new manager would oversee an incredible revival, which saw Brazil finish top of their qualifying group, ten points clear of second place, and become the first team to secure their place in Russia, with 10 wins from the remaining 13 games.

It means Brazil arrive at this World Cup as the second ranked team in the world and one of the clear favourites to lift the trophy in Moscow next month.

This is also the football purist’s idea of a Brazilian side; fluid and exciting football, wonderful skills, and players who seem to enjoy playing together.

All this natural attacking football has not come at the expense of the defence, and throughout 2017 they conceded just 4 goals in 11 games, their best ever record in a calendar season.

Tite has been humble enough to admit he hasn’t radically changed Dunga’s 4-1-4-1 formation, but instead asked his side to attack with greater urgency, and also press higher up the pitch.

It is difficult to locate a weakness in this Brazilian side, from Alisson in goal, who Roma now value at £80 million, to a back four consisting of Danilo, Marquinhos, Miranda, and Marcelo, the best left-back in the world fresh from his fourth Champions League win in the last five years.

His Real Madrid team-mate Casemiro adds an extra layer of protection to this defence, sitting just in front of them, which acts as a foundation for Brazil’s quite ridiculous array of attacking talent.

In the middle Paulinho, a surprise success at Barcelona last season, and Fernandinho, such a crucial cog at Manchester City, operate together, while on the flanks Coutinho and Neymar roam around, with Gabriel Jesus in the centre as the number 9, where he has scored 10 goals in 17 internationals.

If you need further proof of this side’s strength, a glance at the bench should do it, where Roberto Firmino, Willian, Douglas Costa and Ederson are likely to be sitting and waiting for their chance.

Maybe the best thing to happen to Brazil’s World Cup bid was when Neymar picked up his toe injury at Paris Saint-Germain in Feburary, allowing him to recuperate and avoid anything more serious.

As we have seen from his form in Brazil’s two recent warm-up wins against Croatia and Austria, the rest has done him good, and he looks in ominous form for the tournament.

Brazil’s feted Number 10 is ready to dominate this World Cup, bend it to his will, and impose himself with a flurry of goals. He is 26, the nearest to his peak he will ever appear at a World Cup, and you sense we could be about to witness something special.

Neymar will gain motivation from the experience of Ronaldo, who fell ill before the 1998 final as Brazil lost, before returning in 2002 to win the World Cup. Neymar picked up an injury himself at the 2014 World Cup, and had to watch as Brazil crashed out. This year is his chance at redemption.

And should the worse happen, and Neymar gets injured again, this side are now set up to cope, and under Tite have played 6 times without him, and won 5, including a cathartic friendly win over Germany in March.

Four years on from Mineirazo, Neymar is back as a significantly better and wiser player, and ready to brush the ‘little ghost’ from the nation’s shoulder.

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