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World Cup: Brazil's 20-year struggle for sixth star

20 years on from their record-breaking fifth World Cup title in South Korea and Japan, we take a look at where it has gone wrong for Brazil over the past two decades as Tite's charges go in search of the elusive sixth crown in Qatar this winter.

This article was originally published on 14 October 2022

Widely regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game, Brazil have a long and rich association with the FIFA World Cup having won the competition a record five times.

Home of some of the sport's greatest icons such as Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho - who have formed some of the best football teams of all time - it seems unfathomable to think Brazil have gone 20 years without World Cup success.

It's time to take a deep dive into what has gone wrong for Brazil in the past 20 years, with the Selecao currently priced by bet365 as 4/1 favourites to win the Qatar World Cup.

2002 - Il Fenomeno & the Fifth Star

In a career so unfortunately plagued by injuries, the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan was perhaps the pinnacle for Ronaldo Nazario. His devastating brace in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Germany in the final meant Il Fenomeno completed the tournament on eight goals, a joint-record for the national side at a World Cup.

R9, as he became known as, scored in every round of the tournament for Brazil except the quarter-finals against Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England. It was the most prolific World Cup showing since Gerd Muller netted 10 goals for West Germany at the 1970 Finals.

Although Ronaldo was the undoubted star of this Brazil side, with his 2002 World Cup exploits ensuring he was awarded the Ballon d’Or, he was backed up by a plethora of world-class players.

Arguably one of the competition’s most impressive showings, Brazil won all seven of their World Cup matches with an aggregate score of 18-4. This marks a record for the most matches won at a World Cup tournament.

With Cafu and Roberto Carlos utilised as wing-backs, Gilberto Silva at the base of midfield, and Rivaldo playing in tandem with Ronaldo in attack, this was a Brazil team with an embarrassment of riches.

In Ronaldinho, 22, and Kaka, 20, they also possessed two of the best young players in the world.

With this calibre of player emerging in their ranks, nobody in Brazil could have foreseen the barren period which was to come for the Selecao in the following two decades.

2006 – Zizou’s masterclass

Four years later in Germany, things started to unravel for Brazil at the summit of international football. Despite continuing to boast a stellar squad, Brazil weren’t quite as refined as in South Korea and Japan.

Led by Ronaldo, who continued prolific form for Real Madrid despite injury and weight problems, and the recipients of the 2005 and 2007 Ballon d’Ors in Ronaldinho and Kaka respectively in midfield, Brazil had reason to fancy their chances again in Germany ahead of the 2006 tournament.

Coasting through the group stages with three wins, and an equally comfortable 3-0 victory over Ghana in the last 16, it was at the quarter-final stage against a strong France side where the Brazilians fell flat.

With Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side appearing rigid and unbalanced, a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France were able to capitalise with a 1-0 win.

Midfield superstar Zidane delivered an iconic World Cup performance on the night, oozing class in midfield before supplying the telling assist for Thierry Henry to fire Les Bleus into the semi-finals.

2010 – Sensational Sneijder

In South Africa in 2010, it was clear the level of quality in the Brazil squad had suffered a decline, with the Selecao no longer able to call upon elite world stars of the ilk of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

In a similar fashion to 2006 in Germany, Brazil passed through their group with minimal fuss before breezing past Chile in the round of 16. Indeed, at this point Brazil had gone 15 matches unbeaten in the group stages of World Cup Finals, last suffering defeat in 1998 against Norway.

Once more it was in the quarter-finals where Brazil came undone, this time against Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands. 

Just as Zinedine Zidane had been the man to put the South Americans to the sword in Germany four years later, it was Inter Milan playmaker Wesley Sneijder’s turn to do the damage in South Africa.

Scoring a brilliant brace in a 2-1 win for the Dutch, the second of which a rare header for the diminutive midfielder, the Netherlands had too much for a Brazil side who ended the match with 10 men following Felipe Melo’s red card.

It was a drab showing for Brazil on the day, with concern growing in the country with regard to the direction the previously much-vaunted national side was heading in.

2014 – National humiliation

In what was billed as a festival of football in the home of ‘jogo bonito’, the nation of Brazil came together to celebrate its unique connection with the sport as the host country of the 2014 World Cup.

As hosts, Brazil were under significant pressure to deliver the country’s first World Cup trophy for 12 years.

Led by talismanic figure Neymar, who shone in the group stages with four goals, Brazil were able to make it through to the semi-finals to set up a meeting with Germany.

Without the services of key defender Thiago and even more crucially star man Neymar through injury, Dunga’s side looked significantly weakened heading into a tough match against a strong German team.

Despite their injury woes, nobody in Brazil could have anticipated what unfolded on that night in Mineiraro.

In a tournament which was designed to cultivate national pride in Brazil, this semi-final against Germany unravelled into a source of national humiliation. 5-0 down inside 29 minutes, the Selecao were crushed 7-1 in the heaviest semi-final defeat in World Cup history.

In a competition which had given so much to Brazil across several generations, this semi-final in 2014 marked the nation’s all-time low in football.

2018 – Belgian brilliance

With the ghost of the Mineirao demolition still very much present in the minds of Brazilian football fans, the Selecao headed to Russia in search for redemption.

With Tite now at the wheel as national team manager, Brazil were again able to navigate their way through to the quarter-final stage which had proved so problematic since their last World Cup triumph in 2002.

For the third time in four World Cup outings, Brazil bowed out in the quarter-finals with a 2-1 defeat to Belgium in what was a cracker of a tie in Kazan. Kevin De Bruyne was the Belgian star on the night, with a rocket of a strike firing his country into a 2-0 lead in the 31st minute.

If there has been any World Cup campaign post-2022 in which Brazil were able to bow out with their heads held relatively high it would be in Russia in 2018. Tite’s men were ultimately eliminated by a very impressive Belgian side regarded by many as the best team at the tournament, finishing in third place after narrowly losing 1-0 to eventual winners France at the semi-final stage.

Neymar was again the central figure in Russia, with his international exploits helping to bolster his standing amongst previous distinguished Brazilian footballing heroes before him. It was clear there was an over-reliance on his quality within this Brazilian side, however, with 42% of the national team’s goals at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups either scored or assisted by him.

2022 – Primed for glory?

Looking ahead to the Qatar Finals, Brazil’s squad looks arguably as strong as it ever has since the heights of 2002 in South Korea and Japan. Although Neymar Jr remains the star player and inspirational figure, the Brazil ranks can be deemed to be well balanced, with top-level players all over the park.

Four years further down the line from the trauma of the 2014 World Cup semi-final horror show against Germany, and with Tite the first national team manager to lead the country into two successive World Cup finals since 1986, there appears to be a much-needed air of stability and calm surrounding the Brazil camp ahead of the Qatar showpiece.

Indeed, Neymar will be provided with more quality to link up with this time around compared to previous tournaments. With attacking talents such as Real Madrid sensation Vinicius Jr, Barcelona’s Raphinha and a plethora of Premier League stars to choose from including Richarlison, Antony, Gabriel Jesus and Martinelli, opposition defences will have their hands full against the Brazilians in Qatar. PSG star Neymar is currently priced at 14/1 to win the Golden Boot, with Gabriel Jesus at 25/1 and both Vinicius Jr and Richarlison at 33/1.

It’s not just in attack where Brazil look strong, too. In Alisson they have one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, with a formidable looking centre-back partnership in stalwart Thiago Silva and Marquinhos in front of him. In Casemiro and Fabinho, manager Tite also has two of the best holding midfielders in world football to call upon.

Currently sat top of the world rankings, and on the back of an unbeaten qualification campaign, there appears credible reason to expect big things from Brazil this time around as they strive to put 20 years of hurt to rest in Qatar and finally deliver their much-craved sixth World Cup title.

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