Wednesday 28 November 2018

The best youngsters emerging from Brazil, including 'Little Onion', a classic No.9 and the second coming of Ramires

Scouts have to act fast these days, especially those working in Brazil.

Two of the country's most impressive young talents have already agreed big-money deals: Flamengo’s Lucas Paquetá is on his way to AC Milan, and Rodrygo, the latest teen sensation to come through the ever-reliable Santos system, will eventually move to Real Madrid.

But there is still plenty of potential in the Brasileirão if some of the European big boys decide to go shopping in January.

I pick out five of the best up-and-coming talents in my latest for Unibet.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus or Richarlison: who deserves to lead the line for Brazil?

After two years of real stability, Brazil's No.9 jersey seems to be up for grabs again.

Gabriel Jesus, the incumbent for the majority of the Tite era, was left out of the squad for friendlies against the USA and El Salvador, following some under-par displays World Cup.

That gave Richarlison a chance to make an impression, and with Roberto Firmino forever pressing his case and Jesus now back in the mix, it's shaping up to be a three-way Premier League battle to lead the line for the Seleção.

I assess each of their chances in my latest for Unibet.

Friday 26 October 2018

Arise, King Arthur: Midfielder a perfect fit for Barcelona – and will be a key man for Brazil for years to come

For 78 minutes, he set the tempo of the game, probing and plotting from the left side of the central midfield three. Pass, pass, pass; see ya! He yanked the opposition around the pitch like a cat playing with a ball of wool.

Already, Arthur looks like a key cog in the Barcelona side, adding guile, craft and balance. But the Camp Nou love-in is about more than just ability.

It's a question of identity, too; Arthur is no La Masia graduate, but there's something about his game – the low centre of gravity, the 360-degree vision, the unwavering bravery on the ball – that just fits with the Barcelona way.

Read my piece on Arthur's start to life in Europe – and his importance to Brazil – on the Unibet blog.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Explained: Mick Jagger's powerful and long-standing influence on Brazilian football

It was, on the face of it, a nothing story. Brazil were preparing to play Costa Rica at the World Cup, and Rafaella Santos, Neymar's sister, was in the stands. Footballer's sibling watches match: one for the minor celeb pages, at a push, but no more than that.

Yet as kick-off approached, a photo posted by Santos on Instagram from the Saint-Petersburg Stadium started going viral in her homeland. Many saw it as a bad omen – one that the Seleção, who had already failed to beat Switzerland in their opening game, could have done without out. "WHO TOLD HER THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?" ran one typically energetic response.

Santos' crime? Wearing a Rolling Stones jersey.

In the end, Brazil just about managed to grind out a win, scoring twice in extra time. It was, by common consensus, a lucky escape from one of international football's more nefarious invisible forces.

It's Superstitions Week on The Athletic Soccer, so naturally I wrote about the curse of Mick Jagger.

(NB – you can get 40% off a subscription for a limited time using this link.)

Friday 7 September 2018

Incremental change for Brazil, but new faces should provide glimpse of the future against USA and El Salvador

Eight years after their last visit to New Jersey, the Seleção are back in town for their first match after the 2018 World Cup.

Some novelty is baked in at the administrative level: in maintaining a sense of calm after a promising but ultimately unsuccessful summer, the CBF is sailing uncharted waters. Tite is the first coach since Cláudio Coutinho in 1978 to stay in the job after leading the Seleção at a World Cup, which can only be regarded as good news given the progress made under his stewardship.

But some new blood is needed, and Tite's squad to face the USA and El Salvador is a promising start on that front. It may time for evolution rather than revolution, but a few fresh faces should bring some youthful bounce to this new era.

Read about Brazil's fresh start in my latest for The Athletic.

Friday 24 August 2018

Richarlison has the ambition and potential to be a Brazil regular – Everton might actually have got a bargain

"I was anxious ahead of the squad announcement," he said this week. "I watched it with high hopes, but unfortunately it wasn't to be on this occasion.

"But I'm hopeful that an opportunity will come, and I'll be prepared when it does. I'm going to continue working hard to make sure I'm on the list next time. I want to be the league's top scorer, take Everton back to the Champions League and make the Brazil squad."

You could not accuse Richarlison of lacking ambition. And while some scoffed when Everton forked out £40million plus for the Brazilian this summer, even his critics would accept that there's a ridiculous amount of potential there, too.

In my latest for Unibet, I tentatively suggest that the Toffees might have actually got a decent price for a player who is likely to make his mark for his country in the years ahead. Have a read here.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Felipe Melo: 'Unai Emery is like a father to his players. I would have done anything for him'

11 years ago, Unai Emery was a relative unknown. But all that changed when he took modest Almería to the Spanish top flight for the first time in their history.

The minnows would finish eighth in La Liga, beating Real Madrid on the way. It would be the making of their Basque coach, as well as a breakout season for a number of his key players.

Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo was one: his career was stuttering when he joined Almería, but he thrived under Emery and would go on to play for Fiorentina and Juventus, becoming a regular for his country in the process.

Melo's shared his memories of Emery's management – from the endless video sessions to the heart-to-heart chats and one remarkable story involving a dice – with me for a profile in The Independent. You can read it here.

Saturday 14 July 2018

World Cup 2018 post-mortem: Five key questions for Brazil after their quarter-final exit in Russia

The dust has settled on Brazil's World Cup exit, and there has been pleasingly little blood-letting in the days since.

Tite looks set to remain in charge until 2022 – an eminently sensible decision given the team's progress over the last couple of years – and while Neymar and Fernandinho have come in for criticism, the recriminations have been fairly tame.

Not that there are not questions that still need answering. Did Tite's stubbornness cost the Seleção against Belgium? Was the midfield up to scratch? And, looking ahead, which players can come in to refresh the side before Qatar?

I offer some answers to those queries in my latest for Unibet.

Friday 13 July 2018

Fred the Red: Meet the 'diamond of a kid' whose dynamism can renew Manchester United's midfield

Thursday 12 July 2018

Four more years: Why Brazil are right to break with tradition and stick with Tite despite World Cup exit

Because Brazil has won the World Cup five times, every defeat is a disaster and every elimination begets an inquest. Usually, the manager is sacrificed to sate the bloodlust, an old face appointed to get critics onside, and the cycle begins again. This is the curse of short-term thinking.

“Our error,” wrote O Globo‘s Carlos Eduardo Mansur last week, “is to always be starting again.”

Or at least that is what usually happens. But in a development every bit as surprising as it is encouraging, the CBF has opted for a different approach this year. Tite, whose charges fell at the quarterfinal stage in Russia, has been offered a new contract that would take him to the next World Cup.

Read this piece on The Athletic website here. And remember, you can get 40% off a subscription until the end of the World Cup.

Sunday 8 July 2018

Roberto Carlos: Neymar is not a diver and deserves respect, not criticism

"Much of the attention after Brazil's World Cup elimination will be on Neymar – whether he was fit, whether he was below his best, whether he is a diver.

"That kind of scrutiny is natural when you are Brazil’s best player. But I think some of the criticism of him this summer has been completely unfair.

"The people who slam ­Neymar would love to be in his place. There’s a lot of ­jealousy in football, which makes people exaggerate and say things they shouldn’t."

That's the latest Roberto Carlos column, which you can read on the Mirror website.

Saturday 7 July 2018

'Another disappointment' – how Brazil's press reacted to the Seleção's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Belgium

"After the victory over Mexico, the cheerleading crowd was euphoric," wrote former Seleção forward Tostão.

"The arrogance had returned: Brazil was the country of football again, all the best players were ours and Tite was the best coach in the world. What we got was another disappointment."

Elsewhere in the Brazilian press this morning, there was opprobrium for Fernandinho after a "disastrous" performance, but also plenty of level-headedness and even the odd note of optimism.

Read my paper review over at The Independent.

Thursday 5 July 2018

Brazil vs Belgium head-to-head: Neymar can inspire Seleção against vulnerable Red Devils

They have yet to put in a real five-star attacking performance, but had you offered Brazil safe passage to the latter stages of the World Cup with a series of 2-0 wins, they would definitely have taken it before the tournament.

It has been a businesslike start for the Seleção, but they are steadily improving – and it helps that the travails of so many other big names have cast their campaign in such generous light.

This, to be sure, is their biggest test to date. Brazilian minds doubtless will go back to 2002, when Belgium gave Luiz Felipe Scolari's their most difficult game en route to the title, and while victory would set up an even tougher game on this occasion (France or Uruguay await), beating the Red Devils would again do wonders for confidence and momentum.

I contributed to Unibet's head-to-head preview of this game. Read it here.

Monday 2 July 2018

Magic moments: Brazil still looking for rhythm but ruthless in Neymar-inspired victory over Mexico

Unspectacular but solid: if World Cups are won as much in the dog work as the artistic flourishes, this Brazil side are going to take some stopping this summer.

Again, the Seleção took some time to get going. Again, it was a businesslike performance rather than a theatre piece. And again, for the third game in a row, they had the nous to roll with the punches and get over the line. Watch out, world; that famous winning engine is starting to rumble.

It helps, of course, when your side is studded with solid-gold attacking talent, and while questions remain over Brazil's ability to sustain their threat over 90 minutes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This may currently be a team that comes to life only in moments, but what moments they are.

Read the rest of this reaction piece on the Unibet blog.

Sunday 1 July 2018

Roberto Carlos: I didn't celebrate Germany's failure, but Brazil are stronger World Cup favourites every day

"I know a lot of Brazilians celebrated Germany's elimination, but not me. When one of the great teams is going through a tough moment, I don’t like to punch them when they’re down.

"It happened to Germany this year, but it could be us next time. And we’ve already gone through some difficult times of our own, like the final defeat in 1998 and the 7-1 in 2014.

"Things are looking rosy for Brazil now, though. The performance was good against Costa Rica, even though it took a while to score the goals, and we were even better against Serbia. With every day that passes, we're stronger favourites to win the World Cup."

That's the latest Roberto Carlos column in the Sunday Mirror. Read it online here.

Saturday 30 June 2018

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Brazil vs Serbia head-to-head: Seleção can profit from White Eagles' attacking outlook

Their World Cup campaign is still relatively young, but already Brazil seem determined to do things the hard way.

After huffing and puffing their way to a point against Switzerland, the Seleção suffered again against Costa Rica, only managing to turn their dominance of possession into goals in injury time. In a few days' time, the national sigh of relief will probably be felt in Europe as a gale-force wind off the Atlantic.

The positive for Tite was that the performance in that second game was better than the result. Brazil created enough chances to bury Los Ticos three times over, and rarely looked troubled at the back.

But Neymar's histrionics will be a concern, as will the form of Willian, Paulinho and Gabriel Jesus, none of whom has really come to the party yet.

I did the Brazil bits in Unibet's head-to-head preview of the game against Serbia. 

Tuesday 26 June 2018

What's eating Neymar Júnior?

The fact that Neymar is under significant pressure is undeniable. Nowhere are football fans more expectant than Brazil, and the 26-year-old, for all the improvement since Tite’s arrival as coach, remains absolutely central to the Seleção's chances of glory this summer. This is the fate of the craque, or star player: with great power comes great responsibility.

With Neymar, though, there are extra layers to the player-public relationship. If he represents the best of the Brazilian game—that untrainable, off-the-cuff sorcery of the street footballer—he has often been accused of personifying the worst of it, too: the play-acting, the individualism, the egomania.

“We’re creating a monster,” was one coach’s memorable remark after an unsavory incident during his time at Santos (Neymar swore at his manager, who was sacked shortly thereafter), and while he has ironed out some of the more galling kinks in his personality, others remain.

Read the rest of this piece on The Athletic. You'll need a subscription, but there's loads of great stuff on there and you can enjoy a free seven-day trial to see whether it's for you.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Roberto Carlos: Neymar's tears don't concern me – he needed to let the emotion out after a tough time

"Neymar played well against Costa Rica, and took his goal nicely.

"He’s not at top speed yet – you can see that he’s clearly still trying to forget about the pain he’s had in his foot over the last few months. But he’s getting there, building up his fitness. We’re going to see him at his best when the knockout stages get underway.

"What I like about Neymar is that he’s always desperate to help the team, even when he’s not firing on all cylinders. We all know about his ability, but there’s also a collective spirit there; he thinks about the group, not just himself."

That's the latest Roberto Carlos column, which you can read on the Mirror website.

Thursday 21 June 2018

The blame game: Why complaints from Brazil's football federation jar with Tite's calls for accountability

Not for the first time, Galvão Bueno spoke for the more excitable, more parochial subsection of Brazil's fanbase. The 67-year-old commentator, still rolled out like heavy artillery for big games by the all-powerful Globo network, has always been a bellwether when it comes to the national team, his yelps both reflecting and shaping public opinion.

Of the 56 million Brazilian TV sets tuned in to the Seleção's game against Switzerland on Sunday, 79% were set to Globo. That is a sizeable constituency even before you consider the whole-families-crowding-round-one-screen factor, and so when Galvão (he's big enough a star to be known mostly by his first name) began to steam over Steven Zuber's equalising goal, the national temperature rose in kind.

"Video refereeing is going to mess up this World Cup," he hollered, before flirting with cheap conspiracy theory: "They've already helped France and now they've disadvantaged Brazil." In no time at all, some of the neurotic corners of Brazilian Twitter were buzzing with talk of 'robbery' and anti-South-American bias.

Read my latest piece for The Athletic, on the chasm between Brazil's coach and his federation, here.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Rivaldo interview: I don't want to see Brazil players crying during the national anthem – it's a sign of weakness

Rivaldo doesn't want to talk about tactics.

"The team is in good shape," he says of the current Brazil side, but that's about the limit of the analysis as far as Tite's system is concerned.

What Rivaldo really wants to get into is the mental side of being at a World Cup: the business of coping with pressure, overcoming difficulties, writing a new story for oneself.

These are subjects the current crop of Brazil players would do well to confront head on as they seek to bounce back from the seismic shock of the 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany in 2014. And Rivaldo, who still looks like he could do a job for the Selecao at the age of 46, is well qualified to hold forth on them.

Read my two-part interview with the Seleção legend on the ESPNFC website, here and here.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Everyone's a leader, baby: On Tite's policy of captaincy and its potential benefits for Brazil in Russia

Traditionalists will no doubt squirm at the very idea. They will tell you that the captain's armband holds some arcane folk power, handed down through the generations like an heirloom.

Think about Bobby Moore’s frictionless authority, Terry Butcher bleeding for the cause, John Terry captaining and leadering and legending…and that’s before you even leave the realm of the English-pub conversationscape where these imagined naysayers dwell. It’s the captaincy, for heaven’s sake; it’s sacred.

Not for Brazil coach Tite, it isn’t. He’s given the armband to the pillars of his side (Marcelo, Neymar, Dani Alves, Miranda), but also to squad players (Filipe Luís), fading veterans (Robinho) and even, in the pre-World-Cup friendly against Croatia, 21-year-old striker Gabriel Jesus. And if the latter admitted to being “very surprised” at the decision, the look on his face said he was bloody happy about it, too.

I'm writing about Brazil for US sports website The Athletic all World Cup. My first dispatch, on Brazil's captaincy rotation, is here. (NB – requires subscription.)

Monday 18 June 2018

Brazil vs England 2002 – an oral history, with Luiz Felipe Scolari, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and more

For a generation of England fans, 2002 is as good as it has ever been. Revenge on Argentina, a commanding win over Denmark... it was tempting to wonder, even if just momentarily, whether football might actually be coming home.

It wasn’t, but the final act – a quarter-final meeting with Brazil – was nonetheless a fittingly dramatic end to a rollercoaster summer. As limp England tournament exits go, it was one to cherish.

For the Seleção, though, this was a major hurdle cleared en route to a fifth World Cup title. And while we are well acquainted with the England talking points from that day, from Owen’s fitness and David Seaman‘s positioning to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tactics, the Brazilian perspective sheds new light on the game.

For The Independent, and aided by Luiz Felipe Scolari and three of his players that year, this is the oral history of that Shizuoka tussle. 

Sunday 17 June 2018

Roberto Carlos: Brazil will start with a win – and Willian can be one of the stars of the World Cup

"Neymar is going to be ­marvellous in Russia and win the trophy for us. But you know who else is going to have a big World Cup? Willian. People talk about Messi, Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski and Neymar, but for me, Willian is right up there.

"He’s in really good form and always takes ­responsibility on the pitch. He’s a quiet guy who keeps to himself, but he’s going to surprise a lot of people this summer."

Roberto Carlos is the Sunday Mirror's special World Cup columnist, with yours truly his wingman.

Have a read of his first dispatch from Russia here. 

Saturday 16 June 2018

Brazil vs Switzerland head-to-head: Patience may be needed as the Seleção get started in Rostov

Let's see how this favouritism thing works out then, shall we?

After weeks of hype, Brazil join the World Cup party on Sunday night, hoping to put down a marker against Switzerland in Rostov.

And while it would be a stretch to call a game against a side ranked sixth in the world (no, me neither) a gimme, a victory is very much expected of the Seleção.

Read my quick head-to-head preview – written with a Switzerland follower – on the Unibet blog.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Brazil and the 7-1: The inside story of the most shocking World Cup match of all time

At what point was it over, exactly?

Certainly long before the sixth and seventh goals, scored by André Schürrle, who must have wandered off to the toilet when the whole "let's not embarrass them" conversation was taking place in the Germany changing room at half-time. The fifth, maybe, or perhaps the fourth, offered up on a platter by a punch-drunk Fernandinho. But no, Brazil's race was already run by that stage. The cameras had already started to pick out tear-stained faces in the crowd, face paint smudging into collars and PTSD on order.

The third or second, then? Those were the goals that turned a bad start into a disastrous one, that knocked the wind out of a nation. The hosts were in a World Cup semi-final and then they weren't, suffocated and subjugated by that endless blur of Kroos, Müller, Klose, Kroos, Özil, Khedira, Kroos, Müller. Or was it over even before the first whistle, that po-faced funeral procession for Neymar betraying some fundamental misalignment between the mental state of the players and the nature of the task at hand? Was there so much emotion, so much pressure that summer – "It was like Brazil had come to participate in the Hunger Games," said Zico – that an implosion was inevitable?

Watching it back now, one cannot help but be reminded of the pronouncements made by José Maria Marin, the cadaverous head of Brazil's football federation. "Only a catastrophe will prevent us winning," he said on the eve of the tournament, to no obvious useful end. "If we lose, we're all going to hell." The words had a macabre slant then. By the time Germany were finished, they had taken on the air of prophesy.

That's the start of a long piece for Eurosport on the 7-1, its impact on those involved, and Brazil's long road to recovery. It includes an interview with Luiz Felipe Scolari and you can read it (or just swoon over the gorgeous artwork) here.

Monday 11 June 2018

The Tite revolution: How the studious, enigmatic preacher-coach dragged the Brazil team into the modern era

Fatherly, enthusiastic and protective when the occasion demands, Tite is beloved by the players, while his collaborative approach behind the scenes – he has a small army of back-room staff – has also won him admirers.

He goes about his job with seriousness, but also with a smile, which goes a long way. "I would kill for Tite," Marcelo said last year, and he would probably have 22 accomplices if it ever came to that.

From a distance, all of this might seem slightly surreal. This, after all, is a manager who has never managed outside Brazil, let alone in one of Europe's top leagues. Yet while Tite might be a late bloomer on the world stage, his quality has never been in doubt in his homeland.

"I'm not surprised he's doing so well," Scolari, who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002, told the Telegraph. "Of course, the Brazil job is bigger than any club job, but Tite has always been a good coach. Always."

Read my piece on Tite and his renovation job with the Seleção on the Telegraph website.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Roberto Carlos interview: 2002, Brazil's hopes this summer and why his best free-kick was a stroke of luck

He called time on his storied career a few years ago, but anyone who knows Roberto Carlos never expected him to slip away in pursuit of a quiet existence.

The Brazilian, whose deadly free-kicks once earned him the nickname Bullet Man, is still speeding through life: there are kids to mentor at Real Madrid, events to attend as an ambassador, television schedules to fill and – of course – football matches to watch. "It's a cool life," he laughs.

He also has family duties to perform: at 45, he has just become a grandfather for the first time. "Being a grandfather is super fun, because when she's busy I get to look after the kid. But being a dad is better than being a granddad! It brings you so much happiness." Carlos, who has 11 children of his own, would know better than most.

For now, though, the diary has been cleared for football's big summer jamboree. The World Cup holds a special place in the heart of all Brazilians and the legendary left-back, who played in three editions and lifted the trophy in 2002, has especially fond memories of the competition.

Roberto Carlos is the Sunday Mirror's World Cup columnist, and before his first piece next week, I spoke to him about his life, career and that free-kick against France. Read it here.

Friday 8 June 2018

Brazil team guide: Neymar, Tite and a quietly solid defence make the Seleção major World Cup contenders

Brazil and the World Cup. The World Cup and Brazil. It’s a dance as old as time itself.

Yet recent tournaments have failed to provide too much in the way of new material for the highlights reel, shrug-inducing showings in 2006 and 2010 having been followed by the seismic shock of that defeat to Germany four years ago.

On the eve of Russia 2018, however, the Seleção are regarded as one of the standout candidates for the title.

It has been a stunning turnaround, engineered by charismatic preacher-coach Tite, who has restored confidence, refreshed the side and restored a little of the swagger that had been so painfully lacking under his predecessors.

Will Brazil finally seal their much-coveted Hexacampeonato – a sixth title – this summer? See what I think in my Unibet team guide.

Friday 1 June 2018

Fernandinho aiming for Brazil redemption this summer, four years on from the worst night of his life

Think back to the visceral horror of Brazil's 7-1 defeat to Germany in 2014 and chances are a few guilty faces spring immediately to mind.

You probably remember David Luiz, careering around the Mineirão pitch like the Tasmanian Devil on a sugar rush; Dante, outpaced and outclassed; the comically unthreatening figure of Fred in attack; or maybe Marcelo, rolling out the welcome mat for Philipp Lahm.

But equally culpable – OK, still less culpable than David Luiz – was Fernandinho, whose crass error for the fourth goal was of a piece with a weirdly listless performance.

Four years on, and with two years of Pep-Guardiola-inspired excellence under his belt, the midfielder is looking for redemption this summer. I weigh up his chances in my latest Unibet blog.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Tite 2022: Why Brazil should follow the Spain and Germany's example and ditch the short-termism

"To have this continuity is always good," said Julen Lopetegui. He was grinning, and for good reason: his contract as Spain coach has just been extended, meaning that he will lead La Furia Roja throughout the Euro 2020 cycle, no matter what happens at the World Cup.

Spain are not the only team to have acted on their 2020 vision in recent weeks. Roberto Martínez will remain in the Belgium hotseat beyond Russia ("I feel that the job is not done, whatever happens in the World Cup"), while Germany, ever the pace-setters, have gone a step further, tying Joachim Löw down for four more years.

At which point, enter Brazil, spiritual home of managerial instability and literal home of a national-team coach who, for all his evident brilliance, will be unemployed in July as things stand.

In my latest for Unibet, I look at the CBF's odd reluctance to embrace a long-term project, and – in the doomed hope that they might be reading – implore them to reconsider.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

A year of Vinícius Júnior: How has the Flamengo starlet done since Real Madrid paid €45million for his services?

"He's in the eye of the storm," said former Brazil full-back Júnior. "Everything he does is being blown out of proportion."

He was speaking about Vinícius Júnior, the Flamengo youngster bought by Real Madrid a year ago today. A €45million transfer fee is always likely to bring added scrutiny, but the effect is multiplied when you're just 17 years old.

Yet despite the odd controversy (hi, Botafogo fans!), Vinícius has been making fairly steady progress since the deal was confirmed, growing in stature and winning himself plenty of admirers.

For FourFourTwo, I look at the teenager's first year as a professional and assess his readiness to make an impact in Europe.

Friday 18 May 2018

Parental phone calls, bank adverts and one-note chants: The alternative guide to Brazil at the World Cup

Ahead of the greatest show on earth, it makes sense that fans want to get the lowdown on all of the teams.

Key players, tactics, strengths, weaknesses: this is all important stuff. But it's also good, where possible, to dig a little deeper.

The When Saturday Comes World Cup guide does just that, asking vital questions like "Which players have done really crap adverts recently?" and "Why is that guy doing that weird celebration?"

I've provided the responses for the Brazil section of the issue, which you can get at all good newsagents, or online here.

Thursday 17 May 2018

Brazil World Cup preview: Seleção look like serious contenders in Russia – just don't mention 2014

Four years on from the golden, historic, not-at-all-harrowing experience of hosting the 2014 edition, Brazil are back at the tournament they love best.

Now just one loyalty stamp away from receiving a statutory free World Cup - terms and conditions apply - the Seleção are eyeing Russia 2018 with the kind of intent usually reserved for Ronaldinho during Carnaval season.

To say that Brazil are among the pre-tournament favourites is to edge towards tautology; you could pick 11 strangers from your local high street, deck them out in yellow jerseys and people would still look and them and think, "Cor, that lot will take some beating."

I'm profiling – and gently mocking – all of the favourites for Russia 2018 on the Betfair blog over next couple of weeks. Read the Brazil entry here.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Dani Alves' injury heartache is a huge blow to Brazil's World Cup hopes – and to all true football fans

"I don’t want anybody to cry for me," he insisted.

"I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I have lived my dreams. Dani Alves is not going to the World Cup, but he is still one happy motherfucker."

That's as maybe, but Brazil are going to miss him dearly. Not just as a full-back – although massively, massively as a full-back – but as a personality and a leader. As someone who can always raise a smile in the changing room, too.

In my latest World Cup preview for Unibet, I look at Brazil's options for replacing him in the starting XI. Have a read here.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Why Fred could be the joker in Brazil's pack this summer – and Fernandinho's long-term heir at Manchester City

There are unlikely to be many big surprises when Tite names his Brazil squad for the World Cup on Monday.

Grêmio pair Luan and Arthur are the most exciting players operating in Brasileirão but look unlikely to gatecrash the final 23, so the bulk of the group will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the top European leagues.

All of which made it slightly complicated to pick an up-and-coming 'One To Watch' to kick off Unibet's new series of profiles ahead of the World Cup. In the end, I plumped for Fred, who, despite being a Champions League regular over the last few seasons, is still yet to make a major mark at international level.

He will travel to Russia as a back-up player, but with a fine season behind him, it would be no great surprise were the 25-year-old to make an impact from the bench as Brazil seek to make amends for their 2014 nightmare.

Read more here.

Sunday 6 May 2018

Seduction and salvation: why Philippe Coutinho's Vasco years add another layer of intrigue to El Clásico

Eurico Miranda is not one to bite his tongue when something has irked him, and this passed his irritation threshold with plenty to spare.

"Real Madrid sought out the player's family, making offers that were too good to turn down," seethed Vasco da Gama's blowhard president. "But they were illegal. We want to make clear that this is no way to act."

He called it a "crime of seduction" and reported Los Merengues to Uefa and Fifa.  There was an element of theatre to it all – of irony, too, given Miranda's notoriously patchy moral record – but his resolve was true: he would not be selling his prized asset on the cheap. Well, not to Madrid, anyway.

10 years have passed since Vasco's death dance with the Bernabéu juggernaut, and while tales of tapping-up have long since lost their power to shock, this particular tangle does provide a nice alternative backstory to this weekend's Clásico.

Read all about it on the Independent website.

Friday 13 April 2018

Why Richarlison should think twice before joining Man United if they firm up their interest this summer

Watford forward Richarlison has been linked with a move to Chelsea since pretty much the moment he stepped off the plane from Rio eight months ago.

But it now appears that the Blues have competition, with the Daily Mirror reporting that "José Mourinho is ready to gazump his old club" in the race for his services.

It is easy to understand Manchester United's interest. He may have gone off the boil since that swaggering start to life at Watford, but most of the ingredients for superstardom are there: the pace, the two-footedness, the balance, the steely-eyed desire.

What is less clear is what he would stand to gain from a move to Old Trafford at this moment, as I argue in my latest Unibet piece.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Ronaldinho interview: On retirement, replacing Messi, Coutinho's Barcelona DNA and the beauty of the toe poke

"I can only thank God for the gift that he gave me, and for the opportunity to do the thing that I love the most.

"God put me on this earth to play football and I had a lot of fun with it."

That's Ronaldinho reflecting on his playing career to yours truly, in an interview conducted in Mexico City, of all places.

Read (and indeed watch) what he had to say about his decision to retire, the problem of replacing Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho's Barcelona DNA and plenty more on the Yahoo Sport website.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Brazil's greatest World Cup XI: Who makes the cut?

Pelé, obviously. Ronaldo too, and Jairzinho.

But after that, things start to get a little more complicated when it comes to picking an all-time best World Cup XI for Brazil. No country, after all, has enjoyed such a charmed relationship with the competition over the years.

The lovely folks at Unibet handed me the daunting task of boiling all that history down into one (vaguely tactically functional) side. The only rule was that each of the five title-winning teams had to be represented in the final draft.

See who made the cut here.

Thursday 22 March 2018

No Neymar, no problem? Philippe Coutinho set for new role as Brazil make do without their talisman

Playing without your talisman is always a tricky challenge, and, with the World Cup fast approaching, one Brazil coach Tite could have done without.

A winning formula is a delicate flower, and he would surely have preferred to use the upcoming friendlies against Russia and Germany – the last dates before his final squad announcement – to nurture rather than replant.

Yet there is also a feeling that this could be beneficial for Brazil in the long run. The issue of 'Neymardependência' has been present since the forward's Seleção debut in 2010 and its dangers were laid bare under Luiz Felipe Scolari. Neymar started every one of Felipão's first 27 games in charge; in the 28th, Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany.

Find out how the Seleção are planning for life without Neymar in my latest Unibet blog.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Gringo no-go? Reinaldo Rueda, Flamengo and the backlash against foreign coaches in Brazil

Even from the start, Reinaldo Rueda's reign at Flamengo seemed destined to be defined more by controversy from without than by his actual achievements.

The Colombian was a popular choice among fans when he was appointed in August 2017. His reputation had been burnished during an all-conquering spell with Atlético Nacional of Medellín, and, with three national teams on his CV, he brought prestige and experience.
The decision to appoint a non-Brazilian manager was not to everyone's taste, however. "It's not that I'm against foreigners working here, but we're already struggling to get jobs outside Brazil and soon it will be the same inside the country," remarked Jair Ventura, then of Botafogo.

That Ventura was not alone in adopting the Paul Merson position became patently clear in January, when, after five promising if anguished months at the helm, Rueda told the club that he was leaving to become the manager of Chile. Cue an outpouring of anger, accusations and, in some quarters, barely-veiled xenophobia.

My latest piece for When Saturday Comes is on the backlash against foreign coaches in Brazil. You can order a copy online here.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Playboy, Balotelli and Cockroach: Brazilian youngsters compete in name game at Copinha youth tournament

There was a Zidane, a Pelé and a Balotelli. A Kluivert and an Asprilla, too, although they weren't spelt correctly.

For the hungry, there was a Pasta, a Popcorn and a Porridge. Lucas Bigfoot was around somewhere, but fairly elusive.

Then there were the headliners: Playboy, Avatar and – yes, really – 6D. No, absolutely no idea on that one.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Brazilian footballer names on display in January's Copinha youth tournament. I attempt to explain some of them in my latest for Unibet.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

The greatest game you've never heard of: Grêmio, Náutico and the madcap warfare of the Batalha dos Aflitos

71 seconds. 71 seconds is all it will take.

At the start, it will feel like the world is ending. It will very nearly look like it too, what with the smoke and the riot police and the baying hordes. At the end... well, the world-ending thing will apply then too, actually. But a fuzzy sunshine-glow will have conquered that hollow, slow-burn dread that moments earlier had set up camp in the depths of your stomach.

You will worry, once the dust has settled, that people won't believe you when you tell them that the impossible happened. But they'll have to, because it did.

My piece about the Batalha dos Aflitos – the most ludicrous football match you've never heard of – is in the latest edition of the American football magazine Howler. You can buy a copy or subscribe here.

Thursday 25 January 2018

The Malcom files: The rise of Bordeaux's Brazilian starlet, in the words of those who know him best

Malcom, the darling of the gossip columns after a superb year with Bordeaux, has always had unflinching commitment sewn into his DNA.

It helped him cope with the physical demands of playing with adults when he still listed kite-flying and marbles among his pastimes. It won him an army of admirers – and a league title – in Brazil before his move to Ligue 1 in January 2016.

It made a non-issue of the challenge of adapting to life in Europe, and now it looks set to propel him towards the upper echelons of the game.

It also made a big impression on former coaches and team-mates, some of whom I spoke to for this big profile piece for The Independent.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Willian is the ultimate luxury squad player for club and country – but is that enough for him?

On Saturday, Willian played in his 50th consecutive Premier League game. No one else has a longer active record. He celebrated in style, too, helping Chelsea to a 4-0 win over Brighton with a goal-of-the-season contender.

Yet that milestone is probably a bit misleading: only 21 of those 50 appearances have been starts and while Antonio Conte clearly likes having him around, it is also obvious that, when push comes to shove, Willian does not feature in his first-choice XI.

That the Brazilian accepts the situation with good grace – and seems able to turn it on whether he starts or climbs off the bench – makes him a superb squad player. And the situation is repeated at international level, too.

The question I address in my latest Unibet blog is whether that is enough for a player of such obvious ability.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Yes, Ronaldinho's was a career of two halves. But who cares when the first one was so joyously compelling?

We'll always have the buck-toothed, bright-eyed boy-Ron, Inho himself, practising his tricks on his pet dog Bombom. We'll always have the fearless teenage phenomenon, his physique playing catch-up to his matador swagger, taking the piss out of World Cup winners and almost giving Galvão Bueno a heart attack.

We'll always have Paris, the launch-ramp years, the one-man flash-forward to a time when other Brazilians (and Uruguayans and Argentines and so on) would reproduce these ridiculous feats of skill but never quite match the sugar-rush thrill of their novelty.

We'll always have the yellow-shirted summer feelgood envoy, the player whose swivelling hips and megawatt grin briefly made all those half-baked allusions to samba semi-acceptable, and sometime haunter of David Seaman's dreams.

Mainly, though, we will always have Barcelona. The toe pokes and masterstrokes. The overhead kicks and overhead flicks and he's taking the mick but Jesus, you just have to love him.

Read my piece on Ronaldinho's retirement on the Unibet blog.

Friday 12 January 2018

Is Philippe Coutinho the solution to Barcelona’s succession puzzle after the Neymar mess?

The careers of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho have long been entwined. The two have been friends since representing Brazil at an U16 tournament in Girona in 2008; you will probably have seen the photos of them together, looking sheepish in oversized shirts.

"It was instinctive," Coutinho later revealed. "We have a similar way of playing, so we kept looking for each other. We had a good connection and had a lot of fun." They drifted apart a touch after Neymar made the step up to the senior Brazil side but the affection remained: "The player I'd most like to play with at Barcelona is Coutinho," said Neymar last year.

That wish never came true, of course, but there is nonetheless a pleasing circularity to his Seleção cohort stepping into his shoes. The question is whether Coutinho can be what Neymar wasn't: the solution to Barça's succession puzzle.

Read more in my latest Unibet column.