Brazil are kings of South America again, but conquering world will be much harder
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazilian crowds don't usually do collective sighs of relief. Not at the Maracana, not on the pitch once trod by the likes of Zico, Pele and Garrincha and not in a Copa America against a Peru side they whupped 5-0 less than two weeks ago. But if they did, it would have come around the 90th minute when substitute Richarlison smacked his penalty past goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to seal a 3-1 win.
No more miracles. No more twists of fate. No more worrying about being a man down. If you listened closely through the din, you could hear the "GAME OVER" jingle playing, and that meant the party could begin. The one they'd planned for, given they've won all five Copa Americas on home soil and this would be no different.
This was their first Copa America triumph since 2007, and the silverware is evidence of their continued rise, like a phoenix from the sodden ashes of the Mineirazo, to rejoin the global elite. Like most redemption tales, this one had unexpected twists.
Like losing Neymar immediately before the tournament, but nevertheless finding a tricky, effervescent winger to replace him. His name is Everton, he's 23, he plays for Gremio, and because of the insatiable transfer news cycle, you'll probably see him linked to a whole gaggle of wealthy European clubs. For now, though, he's the only Brazil-based player who figured in Tite's squad and easily the most serenaded, with the crowd lustily singing his nickname: Cebolinha. (It literally means "little onion" but in fact has nothing to do with vegetables. Rather it's down to his passing resemblance with Jimmy Five.)
It was the Gremio winger who opened the scoring, losing Luis Advincula to drive home Gabriel Jesus' cross, and it was he who closed out the game, playing a slick one-two with Richarlison and getting himself bodychecked by Carlos Zambrano to win the penalty, which Richarlison converted. That foul by Zambrano was needless, by the way, because the ball was so far ahead of Everton that not even Jesus could have reached it. Not just his Brazil teammate, but possibly the more famous one too.
In between the bookends, Brazil's game was far more uncomfortable than it should have been, a reminder that the journey ahead remains long. After dominating play from about the 10th minute onward, they conceded a foolish penalty that was slotted home by the eternal Paolo Guerrero, who joins the select list of players who have scored against every other Copa America team. It could have been a momentum turner, the classic goal before half-time, in the 44th minute. Maybe it would have been if not for Gabriel Jesus, who darted on to Arthur's through-ball, put Gallese on his backside and slipped the ball into the back of the net.
Ricardo Gareca, the Peru manager who had raised both arms after Guerrero's penalty equalizer, could only stare on as the Manchester City striker jogged back up the pitch. Five years ago, he'd plucked Gabriel Jesus out of the Palmeiras youth set-up to train with the first team and, but for some paperwork issues, would have given him his debut. Now, here he was stomping all over the Inca pan flute.
If Jesus saved Brazil from a fraught squeaky-bum half-time with his goal, he delivered plenty of angst with 20 minutes to go when he got himself sent off. He jumped into Zambrano while contesting a header; the referee opted for rigor and showed him his second yellow. Too much rigor? Possibly. And possibly he saw it as an act of vengeance given that Zambrano had road-graded Gabriel Jesus with a brawny challenge by the touchline moments earlier.
Gabriel Jesus cycled from disbelief (a wide-eyed, wide-mouthed expression as he slowly got up off the ground) to bargaining (after referee Roberto Tobar reached for the yellow) to anger (punching the video referee booth) to despair (sitting on the steps leading to the dressing room and sobbing in front of the cameras). Presumably he reached acceptance later.
As it was, the circumstances meant we got to see the other side of Brazil, the one that the usually uber-cheery and uber-confident Tite keeps behind the glass and uses in case of emergency. The one we saw when things got hairy against Argentina.
After Edison Flores' venomous strike nearly strafed the outside of Alisson's goal, the Brazil boss decisively broke the glass. Off came Roberto Firmino and then Philippe Coutinho, on came Richarlison and Eder Militao. He played the percentages, swapping creativity and link-up play for two specialists: a counterattacker and a defensive juggernaut. Forget the samba Brazil of yesteryear: Tite's Brazil can samba but they can also slam dance when needed.
"They killed the game with those substitutions and shut up shop," Gareca said afterward. "And we weren't able to exploit our extra man."
That's what Tite's Brazil can do. They shapeshift. They are comfortable on the counter, pressing, playing possession and yes, suffering through long periods where the opposition have the ball and they defend deep. That back four is a blend of experience (Thiago Silva and Dani Alves have nearly 200 caps between them) and athleticism (Alex Sandro can run all day and Marquinhos' first step might be quicker than any other defender around). But there's also the right dose of "street" in Alves, intelligence in Thiago Silva, brawn in Alex Sandro and sheer guts in Marquinhos, who, in a classic too-much-information moment, revealed that in the semifinal he had dealt with Lionel Messi and diarrhea at the same time. (Running with the runs, you might call it...)
Alisson, of course, is a luxury value-added: a keeper who hasn't conceded from open play in his last 10 games for Brazil and Liverpool and who mops up the few threats that slip through the net ahead of him. With a Champions League and Copa America medal under his belt, he'd be a Ballon d'Or top five candidate if voters used the same criteria they did in the 1980s, when silverware mattered more than viral clips, social media following and padded stats.
His Anfield teammate Firmino has developed a telepathic understanding with Jesus, both in possession and in his pressing movements, while the addition of Everton gives them another valuable option. What happens when Neymar returns is anyone's guess but as of right now, this front three work in unison.
There's more work to be done in midfield, to be sure. Casemiro is a fine defensive stopper when he's with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos at Real Madrid, but when he has to take on more responsibility, his limitations on the ball become evident. Arthur is a useful two-way player and Coutinho is still flickering, like the bathroom light you're not sure needs replacing.
Still, there's no question. This is a very good side that deservedly won the Copa America.
"It was fair that they won," Gareca said. "I have no complaints. They are superior to us. I think it's very clear. We did what we could." And to be fair to Peru, they did plenty, both in the semifinal vs. Chile and at the Maracana. But the talent gap is too great, and Tite's tactical cohesion did the rest.
Brazil, of course, aren't just accustomed to being the cream of South America. They aim higher, to the big stage, and they know they're not there yet. But Tite has delivered, again. And they have faith in him. That goes a long way.