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Why do Brazil underperform in the World Cup?

At the end of 120 minutes of football, plus a penalty shoot-out, Brazil lost in the quarter-final of the 2022 World Cup against Croatia. As a result, a 20-year streak of not winning the world’s biggest tournament continued for the country most associated with the tournament. Before the campaign got underway, the South American side were rated as favourites by a vast majority of bookmakers, with betting markets here and elsewhere placing them ahead of England, France, and eventual winners Argentina among others. Since Brazil last won a World Cup, in 2002, their record reads: QF, QF, SF, QF, QF. 

In notching up this record, Brazil have lost to: France, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Croatia. On only one of those occasions – on home soil in 2014 – have Brazil lost to the eventual winners. In other words, their record at recent World Cups is no better than between fifth and eighth best. For a team that is often considered the top international side, that’s disappointing. So what lies behind Brazil’s inability to live up to expectation when the big one comes around?

Great individuals, but a disorganised whole

Due to footballing traditions in the country that most people associate with the sport, Brazil will rarely deviate from attempting to play o jogo bonito – the Beautiful Game. The squad is filled with players who can control, manipulate and pass the ball perhaps better than any other. The average Brazilian centre-back has better close control than most playmakers in global football. But football is a team game, and too often in Qatar – and in previous tournaments – it hasn’t felt like the team has the ability to function as a unit in the way that Croatia, their conquerors in 2022, always do. Brazil has a population of 214million, Croatia 4million. Since 1998, each team has appeared in three semi-finals.

The weight of expectation

In 2014, when Brazil were widely favoured to win the World Cup in their own backyard, they reached the semi-finals, and expectation reached fever pitch. The team was panelled 7-1 by eventual winners Germany, and the one goal they scored was a consolation after Germany had racked up seven – five of those before half time. Star player Neymar was absent for Brazil after picking up an injury – believed to have been worsened by overuse as the team relied too heavily on moments of magic from their golden boy. In losing to Croatia this time around, Brazil’s attempt to press high was hampered by exhausted, unfit players. A reliance on individual brilliance is no way to win seven matches in a row, and it keeps hurting them.

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Football has overtaken them

If you can remember World Cup 2002 – and many of us can all too clearly – you’d likely think that not much has changed in the intervening years. In truth, so much has changed that it’s hard to list it all here. Sports science, tactical innovation, and scheduling are all much different than they were 20 years ago. And it is hard to get past the feeling that other countries have handled this metamorphosis better than Brazil. Perhaps the biggest problem is that they keep trying to play like it’s still 2002. If they don’t move with the times, it could easily be another twenty years before they win another World Cup.

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