Brazil re-emerging as a global powerhouse as Copa America final looms

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BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - JULY 02: Gabriel Jesus of Brazil celebrates scoring the opening goal  during the Copa America Brazil 2019 Semi Final match between Brazil and Argentina at Mineirao Stadium on July 02, 2019 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Gabriel Jesus (9) celebrates with teammates Roberto Firmino (20) and Everton Soares after scoring against Argentina in the Copa America semifinals. (Getty)

Exactly five years ago, the nation of Brazil was in mourning. On July 5, 2014, Neymar took a knee to the back from Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in a heated all-South American World Cup quarterfinal. The Selecao would progress, but the team’s talisman broke a vertebrae in his spine that would rule him out of the remainder of the tournament.

On the streets of Rio that night, where this writer was stationed for Yahoo Sports, the mood was melancholy. Brazil won the game and had the opportunity to progress and try to undo the haunting specter of the 1950 final they lost at the Maracana to Uruguay. But they would do so without the star player who was carrying the weight of an entire nation on his (weakened) shoulders. Somber reporters on every TV channel gave in-depth explanations of the injury, narrated over footage of the devastated forward emerging from the Brazil camp on crutches.

That mood carried over to the semifinal against Germany in Belo Horizonte, where tearful Brazil players held Neymar’s shirt aloft before the match. It was as if the young star had passed away.

As you are undoubtedly aware, the Neymar tributes didn’t set the tone for victory and the match against the Germans didn’t go too well.

A fit and healthy Neymar, however, went some way toward World Cup reparations in 2016, when he led his nation to their first-ever Olympic gold medal in front of a raucous Maracana crowd.

Now, in Sunday’s Copa America final against Peru (4 p.m. ET), Brazil have the chance to avenge the demons of 2014 in the context of a senior competition — and one in which they have underperformed in recent years.

The Selecao have failed to progress past the quarterfinal stage in the last three Copa America tournaments, a fallow time period that coincided with their World Cup failure. In the most recent edition, the Centenario staged in the USA, they meekly exited in the group stage after recording only a single win over Haiti. It was their worst-ever showing at the world’s longest-running continental tournament.

Brazil’s last Copa America victory came back in 2007, when they defeated arch rivals Argentina in the final. On that day, the slightly underwhelming duo of Robinho and Wagner Love were playing up front. Only Dani Alves, who came on as a substitute for Maicon, is still on the international scene.

Suffice to say, Brazil looks a lot stronger on paper these days, with Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino leading the line. The Manchester City and Liverpool stars both got on the scoresheet as the Selecao defeated Argentina on Tuesday evening, which represented their fourth consecutive victory over their nemeses in the competition.

Brazil's Neymar stands during the national anthem prior a friendly soccer match against Qatar at the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, June 5, 2019.(AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Neymar has missed this Copa America due to injury, and Brazil's other stars have shined in his stead. (Associated Press)

Albiceleste talisman Lionel Messi was left fuming by perceived injustices in the officiating, and manager Lionel Scaloni agreed. “We should have been the team going to the final because we deserved it, no doubt about that,” he said. “But sometimes football is unfair.”

Of course, Brazil likely felt little remorse in prolonging Argentina’s 26-year trophy drought. Despite the controversial nature of their most recent win, a Brazil side who have gone through several transitions since 2014 are now looking close to their impeccable best.

Under Tite, they are 15 games undefeated and have not conceded in their last seven matches. The journeyman Brazilian coach has overseen 42 matches since Dunga was fired in the wake of the 2016 Copa failure. He has lost only two of those matches: a money-spinning friendly with Argentina in Australia and their knockout match with Belgium in last summer’s World Cup.

After dispatching their biggest enemies in the semifinals, Brazil would have expected to face Chile, which would have been aiming for their third consecutive Copa America victory. However, La Roja suffered a shock 3-0 defeat to Peru on Wednesday evening.

La Blanquirroja have a reasonably good record at the tournament, having made the semifinals in two of the last three additions. But CONMEBOL’s sixth-ranked team had scored only three goals leading up to the semifinal, creeping out of their group with just a single win over rock-bottom Bolivia.

“We were very intense and we deserve to be in the final,” said veteran Peruvian captain Paolo Guerrero after the win against Chile. “Now we need to rest and think of Brazil. It’ll be a very hard final.”

Guerrero, Peru’s all-time leading scorer and a two-time Copa America Golden Boot winner, is not wrong about the enormity of the challenge that lays ahead. The Selecao have beaten Peru in five of their last six meetings, the most recent of which was a matter of days ago in the Copa America group stage.

The underdogs were overwhelmed in all statistical departments as Brazil cruised to a 5-0 victory. The hosts, playing to a capacity crowd at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, put together their best performance of the tournament so far. Alisson Becker, in imperious form, kept all five on Peru’s on-target efforts out of the net, while Brazil boasted five different scorers.

In front of a partisan home crowd at the Maracana, Brazil are heavy favorites to beat Peru again. And while they may have squandered both World Cups they have staged, they have won all four of the Copa America tournaments they have hosted (1989, 1949, 1922 and 1919). A win on Sunday would make it five out of five for the five-time World Champions.

“I think many people doubted us but we have a lot of trust in our work,” Alves said after the victory over Argentina. Now, few can doubt Brazil’s status as South America’s best side — and the likelihood that Jogo Bonito will re-emerge to threaten Europe’s powerhouses in the coming years.

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