KAZAN – It is four years since Brazil suffered the footballing disaster which gave the nation the expression ‘7-1’ - slang for anything humiliating or defeating - and still the ghost of that defeat by Germany hasn’t been exorcised. Brazil are still looking for redemption.
Their enormous travelling army bring colossal expectation. Every seat and stair in the press conference theatre here was occupied long before coach Tite sat down to talk yesterday to acknowledge the exceptional pressure which his players must bear.
"The biggest challenge of a World Cup is fortitude," he said. "The pressure is immense. I say don’t listen to what people say. Don’t watch, because there’s a lot of psychological pressure.’ The 57-year-old coach radiates a calm which makes him a good man to lead this squad. He quoted the great Argentinian coach Carlos Bianchi, who had once told him to be mentally strong, remain balanced and focused. "That really got imprinted on my mind," Tite reflected. "We should have some common sense. Neither euphoria, nor the fear of losing. Keeping your head cool."
Bianchi was known for the way he used his force of personality to inspire players. For him, the important thing was to cultivate el liderazgo — which translates as ‘leadership’ but was actually about developing a cult of personality. Tite brings el liderazgo, too.
It is that which could prove crucial against Roberto Martinez’s Belgium in today’s quarter final.
In that semi-final against Germany four years ago, Brazil were in a state of mental disintegration, overwhelmed by national expectation on home soil, deprived of Neymar through injury and trying very hard to convince themselves that they could drive on without him through pure force of will.
Tite has embedded a more genuine team ethic. His players are so committed to him that you feel this time they could deliver without their iconic No 10.
Tite has problems in central midfield with the suspended Casemiro replaced by Manchester City’s Fernandinho and Paulinho a slight doubt.
Casemiro’s absence gives Belgium one of their few glimmers of hope as Fernandinho is more likely than the deep-lying Casemiro to advance up the pitch to press and win back possession.
That might create space in front of defence for Kevin De Bruyne to exploit. On Brazil’s right flank full back Fagner looks weak and Eden Hazard must have been encouraged by the way Mexico’s Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano exploited him.
Tite mounted another defence of Neymar against accusations that he cheats, despite the data showing he has spent 13 minutes and 50 seconds rolling around on the pitch.
"You should look at the videos," Tite retorted. "Just look at the images. What makes me happy is having him playing at his best."
He claimed his star player is also delivering far more to the overall team than in the past. "He is even contributing to defensive transitions and counter-attacking," he said. "The sense of team-work, that’s the best virtue."
Brazilian journalists tried to stoke up a war by putting it to defender Miranda that Vincent Kompany had suggested that Belgium were already looking beyond them to a semi-final.
But Tite interjected to ask if Kompany had actually said this. The coach was right to put out the fire. The Belgian had merely said that progressing to the semis was more on his mind than international retirement.
"What I look for in us is to keep growing," Tite reflected. "Keep the standard and keep growing. Then, when you go to bed and ask yourself, “Have you put in your top performance”, you have the feeling you have done your best."
Brazil 4-2-3-1 (probable): Alisson; Fagner, Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luis; Fernandinho, Paulinho; Willian, Coutinho, Neymar; Jesus.
Belgium 3-4-2-1 (probable): Courtois; Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Witsel, De Bruyne, Chadli; Fellaini, Hazard; Lukakau.
Neymar has played all 360 minutes for Brazil but has spent nearly 14 of them rolling on the pitch!