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In the end, the team representing the most successful country in World Cup history was no match for the talented upstarts from Belgium.
Five-time world champion Brazil came into Friday’s quarterfinal match at Russia 2018 as the clear favorite to beat the Red Devils and reach next week’s semifinal versus France, which had dispatched Uruguay hours earlier. Yet after the game began, it was the Belgians that played with the joy and panache and preternatural skill usually associated with the Selecao. And after taking a 2-0 first half lead through a Fernandinho own goal and a pinpoint strike by Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium held on for an eventual 2-1 win in Kazan.
To be fair, Brazil’s defeat shouldn’t come as a total shock. Belgium entered the tournament with one of the few squads that could come close to matching Brazil’s quality man-for-man, and Tite’s team hadn’t really been tested – other than in a group stage draw with Switzerland – through its first four games Russia.
What was surprising was how utterly fearless the Belgians were against their more celebrated foes. Perhaps it was the belief instilled in his players by Spanish manager Roberto Martinez and his assistant coach Thierry Henry, a former World Cup winner with France. Maybe the familiarity with the opponents eliminated any sort of awe for the Belgian stars; several Brazilian players are their teammates at elite European clubs Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. It could it be that Brazil was the side more afraid of failure ahead of the matchup, the weight of history and expectation theirs to carry always.
Whatever the reason, the aura of Brazil’s famous yellow shirt was nowhere to be found at Kazan Arena. Martinez went with an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation, signaling his side’s intention to stand toe-to-toe with Neymar and Co. from the start. And when it kicked off, the contest was as open as expected. Thrilling to watch as the teams traded blows on either end, it also became clear early on that Tite’s back line would have few answers for Belgium’s front three of De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who launched wave after wave of counterattack.
It takes some luck to advance from any doe-or-die game, especially at a World Cup. But despite getting a critical goal from Renato Augusto with a quarter-hour to play, the Brazilians just didn’t seem to have any. There was the penalty shout that fell on deaf ears after striker Gabriel Jesus – who went scoreless in Russia – was taken down by Vincent Kompany 10 minutes into the second half. Another possible spot kick was waved away despite replays that showed Neymar getting his eye raked while chasing a header in stoppage time.
But Brazil needed to be better, too, as Augusto and Philippe Coutinho both failed to put golden chances on target with the clock ticking toward full time. When Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois tipped Neymar’s last-gasp effort over the crossbar at the death, the last of the 26 shots sent toward his net, Brazil was going home.
The loss marks the third time in four World Cups that Brazil has been eliminated in the quarterfinals. The other one was the humiliating 7-1 defeat to eventual champ Germany four years ago on home soil. Brazil’s World Cup title-less streak now stands at four tournaments, the drought a far cry from the team that went to three finals between 1994 and 2002, winning twice, or the Pele-led side that captured the trophy three times between 1958 and 1970. The country has never gone more than five World Cup cycles without winning it all.
When you add in recent failures in other major competitions like Copa America, which Brazil hasn’t won in over a decade, it doesn’t matter that Brazil came into Friday’s match unbeaten in its last 15 games, or that the giants dominated South American qualifying en route to Russia.
In the biggest moment, on the biggest stage, Brazil’s mojo went missing once again. And once again, the loss was no less than they deserved.
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