In the summer of 2002, under a sweltering Japanese heat inside the International stadium in Yokohama, Brazil dazzled the footballing world by becoming the most successful nation in the history of the men’s World Cup, beating Germany 2-0 and earning their fifth trophy. Blessed with an embarrassment of riches — from Rivaldo to Ronaldinho, Cafu and Golden Boot winner Ronaldo “O Fenomeno” Nazario — it was the perfect conclusion to a perfect tournament. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men had emulated the legendary 1970 victory, having also won every match in the competition, and gave Brazilians a sense of redemption against mighty Europe after losing to France four years earlier.
“I feel pleasure, a joy that the people of Brazil are feeling now,” Scolari said after the match. “The joy of knowing we did our job, but it was full of very hard work. Brazil back as world champions — that is not something we can forget.”
Back in Brazil, people on the streets celebrated for days, joyful at not just the victory but the fact that the Selecao was finally back where it belonged: at the top of soccer royalty. (Speaking of royalty, Japan’s emperor Akihito couldn’t attend the ceremony due to national custom, but it didn’t matter to Brazilians as Pele, their footballing king, handed the trophy to Cafu instead.)
“It was an amazing thing that happened in my life. From the combination of the players we had, the generation [of those players], the way we won it… I can’t fully describe how I felt that day but it was a very special day for me,” Kleberson, who was a member of Scolari’s historic squad and is now working as an assistant coach at defending MLS champions and newly crowned Campeones Cup winners NYCFC, told ESPN. It was the midfielder’s decisive run and pass to Ronaldo (which included a lovely dummy from Rivaldo) that secured the second goal against Germany. “The fact that I shared this with the best players in the world, it was a powerful moment in my life,” he added.
Brazil out to end World Cup trophy drought
Twenty years later and, as a new World Cup appears on the horizon, Brazil are still holding on to those memories from Japan and South Korea, hoping to use them as fuel as their drought continues. Should they lose in Qatar, it will mark 24 years without winning the coveted trophy and, even though there has been some success (three Copa America titles and an Olympic gold medal) and some gigantic failures (see the 2014 World Cup semifinals), two decades without lifting the most valuable piece of silverware in the game is just not acceptable for Brazilians.
“We know it’s been a long time since we have won it. We were close in 2006, and also in 2010, and of course the result at home against Germany… no-one wants to remember that,” Kleberson says of the 2014 nightmare when Brazil lost 7-1 in the semifinals at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte. “I believe, however, that it’s all about the generations and a lot of things change. A lot of Brazilian players have changed during those times and thanks to the younger players now, those playing in Europe, Brazil has a great chance again to win the World Cup. It’s a process and we need to continue this process in order to see Brazil play the way it can.”
This process under Tite has generated some impressive players to choose from. So much so that there is an erratic sense about his squad selections. At least from an offensive standpoint, there are too many cooks in the kitchen and Tite — entering his final World Cup as manager — has to get it right. But one thing is for sure, this Brazilian side, which eased its way into qualification in record form (10 wins, three draws, 30 goals scored and only five conceded) has the potential to overwhelm anyone in Qatar. And it’s not a stretch to say that the talent not only matches the 2002 squad, but could very well surpass it.
“This [current] squad is bringing back a lot of the same style from before when we had Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in the team, we now have players like Neymar, Vinicius Jr., even Rodrygo… they’re bringing so much talent to the team,” says Kleberson. “But I don’t think we should compare too much. It’s two different squads. The players from 2002 were of a different generation to what we have now. Brazil, I think ultimately want to play with freedom, one-on-one on the field, with really creative, fast and powerful players.”
Neymar leads the way
All of these attributes begin with the team’s obvious leader, Neymar Jr., who is the undoubted headliner of this squad.
“Neymar Jr. is the best player in Brazil and maybe in the world. The way he plays, with passion and how he contributes on the pitch,” says Kleberson. “He can bring a lot of qualities for Brazil and I think he is probably going to push himself and Brazil a lot in order to have the perfect World Cup.”
Even with the likes of Champions League winners Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo, or the showmanship of Raphinha or Antony, this is Neymar’s team and just like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, he represents the final chapter of current World Cup nobility, knowing full well that younger stars are ready to take over. This might not be his last World Cup, but it might be his last to fully take centre stage, and just like Kleberson states, from a contribution perspective, it’s coming at the perfect time.
Under new PSG manager Christophe Galtier, Neymar is having one of his best campaigns — he leads the scoring charts with seven goals and is tied with Messi with seven assists from seven Ligue 1 appearances. He tops the list for direct goal contributions in Europe’s Big Five leagues but, more importantly, Neymar is playing like the Neymar we knew from his Santos days: Free, brave, uncompromising. This is similar to Ronaldo in 2002, who after recovering from injury, decided to wave goodbye to any inhibition. Hence “that” haircut, I guess.
Only three goals behind Pele (77) for the all-time national scoring record, Neymar could have more than one reason to celebrate in 2022.
“I don’t think it will be Neymar’s last World Cup, because I think he can play for a long time,” Kleberson says. “But I believe he’s going to be putting a lot of work in to be at the top and help Brazil win the World Cup. I am looking forward to seeing him be successful in 2022.”
Julien Laurens calls for Atletico Madrid’s next home game to be played without a crowd after fans shouted racist chants about Vinicius Junior during Sunday’s Madrid derby.
Vinicius Jr. needs to keep dancing
Speaking of working towards the top, nobody in the game seems to be earning it more than Vinicius Jr. these days, and just like his idol Ronaldinho during the 2002 World Cup, he enters Qatar at 22 years old, ready to take some of the burden from the shoulders of his other idol, Neymar.
However, Vinicius Jr. is not coming to this World Cup as a young prodigy ready to make an impact on the game. He’s there already. A two-time champion in LaLiga and Champions League winner with Real Madrid, the young forward from Rio de Janeiro is already a star.
There’s something else, however, that might motivate him at this World Cup, and that’s the willingness to rewrite the script for Afro-Brazilians. After the grotesque racist remarks made by Pedro Bravo, president of the Spanish Agents Association, about his goal celebrations, Vinicius Jr. responded via social media.
‘As long as skin color is more important than the brightness of the eyes, there will be war.’ I have this sentence tattooed on my body. This thought is permanent in my head. This is the attitude and philosophy I try to practice in my life. They say happiness is upsetting. The happiness of a Black Brazilian successful in Europe upsets much more! But my desire to win, my smile and the sparkle in my eyes are bigger than all of this. You can’t even imagine. I was a victim of xenophobia and racism in a single statement. But none of this started yesterday.
Weeks ago, they started criminalizing my dances. Dances that are not mine. They belong to Ronaldinho, Neymar, (Lucas) Paquetá, (Antoine) Griezmann, João Félix, Matheus Cunha… they belong to Brazilian Funk and Samba artists, to reggaeton singers and to Black Americans…they are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world. Accept it, respect it. I’m not going to stop.
The script always ends with an apology and an ‘I’ve been misunderstood’, but I’ll repeat it for you, racist: I will not stop dancing. Whether it’s in the Sambadrome, in the Bernabéu or wherever.
The reaction from the soccer world was overwhelming as Brazilian stars of past and present, including Pele, Ronaldo and Neymar, stood behind their compatriot with words of support. Last Sunday, Gabriel Jesus even performed Vinicius Jr.’s celebration after scoring for Arsenal against Brentford. When Rodrygo opened the scoring for Real Madrid in the derby against Atletico at the Metropolitano, he was joined by Vinicius Jr. by the corner flag and proceeded to dance. Atletico responded to the racist chants by their fans before the game.
This collective moment of unity from the national team of past and present, from teammates and others from the Brazilian national setup — mainly made of afro-Latinos — is more than just words of encouragement for the Real Madrid star. It’s a call to action, a battle cry and perhaps a taster for what’s to come in November. Let’s hope the world is ready for more dancing.
Tite’s selection issues
From a selection perspective, here’s the problem for Tite — and it was similar for Scolari back in 2002 — who do you leave out?
Gabriel Jesus is not in the squad for the September friendlies, and neither is the well-liked and often-selected Philippe Coutinho. The latter is not as shocking due to recent subpar performances with Aston Villa (although he improved this past weekend against Southampton) but Gabriel Jesus’ absence is perplexing, considering how well he has started with the Gunners.
After announcing his squad, Tite stated in a news conference that these omissions are in order to allow other players — such as Flamengo’s Pedro, who leads scoring in Copa Libertadores — to show what they can do. It’s still slightly confusing, however, as this is the final break before the World Cup and you would think that Tite, a glutton for detail, would also want to encourage fluidity and chemistry before heading off to Qatar. Regardless, barring any injury setbacks, Gabriel Jesus should still have a seat on the plane in November, though we might not be able to say the same for Coutinho or other players such as Gabriel Martinelli.
Taking a wider look — just like 2002 with then-31-year-old Cafu, 30-year-old Rivaldo and 29-year-old Roberto Carlos — there is valuable experience in this current squad. Alisson Becker (29), Casemiro (30), Thiago Silva (38) and Marquinhos (28) are all well-travelled and will be important voices in the dressing room.
Many often question Brazil’s defensive issues, specifically out wide, but this side actually defends very well. Conceding only five goals to get to the World Cup, especially in South America, is not an easy feat and this team are once again emulating another blueprint from the 2002 campaign. In Japan/South Korea, Scolari’s side emphasized the need to be collective together, on and off the ball; not only did they end the competition in perfect fashion, but they showed their defensive fortitude against some very tough opposition — allowing just four goals in total, and only one in the knockout stages.
“I know Tite really well and I know how much he works with the guys at the back,” Kleberson says. “The great players we have at centre-back, they’re very experienced. Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, sometimes Eder Militao. They give something different to Brazil in terms of defending. But our goalkeepers are also amazing. Two starters in the Premier League (Alisson for Liverpool and Ederson for Man City), then the rest are top in Brazil so they give a lot of consistency for the team. That’s why Brazil conceded only five goals in qualifying.”
The upcoming World Cup, for better or worse, is unlike no other. Not only are countries dealing with having to stop domestic competition midway through the season, but they also have less time to fully prepare for it as a squad. Brazilians, however, won’t care as the time to reclaim the World Cup trophy is right now.
“We know Germany has a good team. France has a good team. We know Argentina always plays very well at the World Cup but for me I think Brazil has a very good chance just because of the way they are preparing, performing and even talking,” Kleberson adds. “They have a lot of players who can play. I think for a long time Brazil hasn’t had a team where they can build really, really good players, and that’s what’s going to make a really powerful Brazil. I believe in Brazil. I hope at the end of the year, we can have this title and win the World Cup.”
After his success in 2002, Ronaldo was asked how much he wanted to win the World Cup? How often did he imagine lifting the trophy? “I used to visualize the trophy in front of my eyes and imagine what a wonderful feeling it must be to hold it up in the air. It was a fabulous feeling actually to hold it in my hands and kiss it,” he told reporters. “I wanted to become a world champion so badly. Achieving that goal, winning the biggest prize there is to win in football, made me ecstatically happy.”
It’s time for this current squad to share the sentiment.