Confederations Cup final, 2013. Brazil vs Spain. Neymar gave one of his best performances till date and guided the home nation to a rather fantastic 3-0 victory. Saying that Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos were toyed with, would be putting it mildly. Fast-forward to 5th March, 2014. South Africa vs Brazil in Johannesburg. 5-0. Another Neymar hat-trick.
For a Brazil fan, these were occasions to celebrate. After long, the Seleção were beginning to look menacing. Probably for the first time since the heady days of Ronaldinho at his peak. His relatively low-key first season at Barcelona notwithstanding, it’s safe to say Neymar isn’t quite as good/effective as his predecessor yet, but what we’re getting to see is quite remarkable nonetheless. Favorites for the World Cup? Maybe not, but contenders without a shred of doubt. Things looked good given the recent results. In with all their brazen brilliance, the picture still seemed sort of incomplete. The jigsaw had this one essential piece missing, especially for those who have known days when the Seleção evoked fear.
As a young kid growing up in the 90s, it was beyond impossible not to be attracted by the brand of football Brazil used to play back then. The 1998 World Cup was their stage to explode, and they duly lived up to it. Well, not so much they did as he did. A lean, bald, buck-toothed man, wearing the number 9, taking the ball and running past defenders as if they did not exist. “Goodness me, I want to be like him”. Scotland, Morocco, Denmark, Chile and a Netherlands defence consisting of the De Boer brothers and Cocu were demolished. Similarly, the 2002 World Cup. What’s more, even at his worst fitness, he was Brazil’s top-scorer in the 2006 edition. While I watched all this in raw splendour, my father was nothing more than impressed. “He’s great, but they make lots like him. Last world cup, there was Romario.” While watching the Confed finals with him last year, I finally replied to him, “No they don’t, Dad. Not anymore they don’t.”
The Seleção, since days long gone, have been synonymous with possessing immensely talented players in certain areas of the pitch. Almost perpetually. The strikers, playmakers and the full-backs representing Brazil have somehow always been top-quality. To think Rafinha and Rafael don’t find a place in the starting lineup should give you some idea. Similar with the current attacking midfield talent they have. Oscar, Neymar, Hulk, Lucas Moura and Bernard. All in their early 20s, looking to stamp their class on the big time. What’s missing though, and it has been that way since an aforementioned luminary faded, is a good striker. A number 9, who can take defences apart, go on mazy dribbles and score/make goals while at it. Neymar might have all the skills to be one, but he’s too much of a playmaker to shift. Adriano, Vagner Love, Luis Fabiano, Alexandro Pato(sigh), Leandro Damiao and now Fred have been trusted with the shirt, but I doubt if anyone would call them worthy of leading out a Brazil attack in a World Cup. I could extend the benefit of doubt to Fabiano for his scoring record and even Pato for his skillset, but one was a walking calamity and the other had almost zero pace.
Most of the serious contenders for the World Cup this year are either overflowing with attacking options or their system doesn’t need one(Spain). If you look beyond the border, Carlos Tevez probably won’t be making Argentina’s squad for the World Cup thanks to Higuain, Lavezzi, Aguero and Leo Messi. Down south, Uruguay will be fielding two of the very best in the world in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Only an unfortunate injury looks to be forcing Rademel Falcao out of the tournament. The South American tradition is well and truly alive. Except in the most South American footballing nation of them all. While the likes of Batistuta and Valdano would be proud, Tostao, Romario, Bebeto and Ronaldo could well be sharing a drink with numerous utterings of “ó, aqueles dias!”.
From the looks of it, Fred seems to be Scolari’s first choice for the World Cup too. I tried finding a reason to blame the man, but I couldn’t. Sadly enough, he doesn’t have too many options. The age old cliche of ‘players drive systems’ has never been truer. Make no mistake, Neymar has a fantastic scoring and assist record for Brazil, and his obvious skill on the ball is enough to make people gasp in awe, but he often lacks someone to play off inside the opposition penalty box. Someone who’s going to play him in or take defenders off him, as he makes his mazy runs into the box. Could this hurt Brazil in the World Cup? I wouldn’t say an emphatic yes. Brazil have done well over the last year. Their style of football has changed beyond recognition. It’s a lot more conservative. I find it difficult to say no either, but that’s probably down to a thought, a notion that refuses to leave me. Just how can Brazil play a World Cup without a half-decent striker who can take on defences?
June 2014. “Told you Dad, they don’t make them like him anymore.”