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.