World Cup 2018 Day 9 winners and losers: Why Brazil remains the favorite

FC Yahoo

Once again, there were tears. South American tears. These ones, though, were different.

For the second straight day at the 2018 World Cup, a shrill whistle was the cue. It unlocked emotional reservoirs. Repressed feeling came spilling out in liquid form, just as it had for Argentineans 18 hours earlier.

These tears, though, were Brazilian. They trickled down Neymar’s cheeks, hidden from view by the superstar’s hands. Their source was the same as yesterday’s. It was pressure. Overbearing, potentially crippling pressure. But on Friday, the reaction to pressure was different. So was the result. These, as Neymar later wrote, were tears “of joy.”

They were his reaction to a 2-0 victory over Costa Rica that got Brazil off the mark in Russia. The pre-tournament favorites had left it late. But whereas Argentina crumbled in crunch time, the Selecao rose. Philippe Coutinho sent them on their way toward the knockout rounds. Neymar propelled them a few inches further.

Brazil was minutes away from a second consecutive disappointing draw, and its struggles will be framed by many as troubling. But never mind the timing of the goals. Never mind how long for Keylor Navas’ brick wall to finally crack. All that matter is that it eventually did.

Neymar and Philippe Coutinho scored massive goals for Brazil, which still looks like the 2018 World Cup favorite. (Getty)
Neymar and Philippe Coutinho scored massive goals for Brazil, which still looks like the 2018 World Cup favorite. (Getty)

All Brazil needed was a breakthrough. A reprieve from 180 minutes of kicks and hacks and slaps and shirt pulls. A reprieve from the pressure that mounted with every missed chance – every wayward Coutinho blast, every rattled post, every Navas save. The same pressure that eventually brought Neymar to his knees in relief.

That’s all Brazil needed. Now it’s unshackled. Now it can prove it’s the best team in the world. That’s why it’s the big winner of Day 9 in Russia.

Winner: Brazil

Brazil bossed Friday’s game in almost every sense of the word. It was significantly better, for longer stretches, than it had been against Switzerland in its opener. It created 2.4 Expected Goals, and held Costa Rica to just 0.1.

And in the second half, with Neymar good but not great, and with Costa Rican beatings wearing down Brazil’s creators in chief, manager Tite changed the game with a substitution. He introduced Douglas Costa to give the Selecao attack a second prong – a second point of initiation. And despite 45 second-half minutes elapsing before the goal finally came, Brazil was very difficult to stop. It meandered through a five-man defense, endured dirty tackles, and created chances. Roberto Firmino, another substitute, helped engineer the winner.

Some will see it as a resorting to Plan B. But there’s no shame in that. The fact that Brazil can turn to players like Costa and Firmino as a Plan B is one of many reasons it remains the 2018 World Cup favorite. They’re two players who allow the South American giants to be less reliant on Neymar.

Brazil, despite a couple of close calls, will be just fine.

Winner: Soccer

I tried hard to appreciate Costa Rica. I really did. I tried to fine amusement in what we’ve come to call CONCACAFing. But I couldn’t suppress simmering anger. CONCACAFing can beat cute. But not when it’s a synonym for “anti-football.” Not when its sole objective is to disrupt and injure the most prominent practitioners of the beautiful game. Not when it removes the beauty.

Costa Rica was a fun story four years ago. Navas heroics aside, it didn’t offer anything this time around. Its presence was detrimental to the tournament, and to the sport. The World Cup, and fans who’d like to enjoy it, will be better off without Los Ticos.

Winner: Argentina

The Argentines, thanks to Nigeria’s win over Iceland, are still favored to advance from Group D. Somehow.

Loser: Argentina

The Argentines are still favored to advance from Group D. Somehow. Which means we can do this whole pressure, expectations, disappointment, agony, outrage thing again when they fail to beat Nigeria in a must-win game next Tuesday.

Winners: Switzerland … and Kosovo

Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri led Switzerland’s stunning comeback against Serbia. And it’s one of those stories that couldn’t have been written any better in Hollywood.

Shaqiri’s winner gave his nation a 2-1 victory, and left it needing only a draw against Costa Rica on Matchday 3 to advance. But it was also a winner for his other nation. For his parents’ nation. For Kosovo.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals with the same “double eagle,” which might have just been a funny coincidence, or an inside joke, or a symbol of a bond between the two. Except it wasn’t. It’s something more. It’s the “Albanian eagle,” a reference to Albania’s flag.

And that’s relevant because Xhaka and Shaqiri have Kosovar Albanian roots. Their parents fled Serbia during the Kosovo conflict, a bloody war between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians that some refer to as a genocide. Xhaka’s father was jailed and beaten as a college student for protesting Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo. Shaqiri was born there, but moved to Switzerland as a baby.

They represent Switzerland in soccer, but in a game against the nation that turned their parents into refugees, they also represented Kosovo. Shaqiri wears the Kosovo flag on the heel of his right boot. Serbs see it as provocation, and booed him throughout Friday’s game. Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic and midfielder Luka Milivojevic had criticized Shaqiri for it days earlier.

So when Xhaka and Shaqiri scored their massive goals, they couldn’t resist. They flashed the Albanian eagle. They infuriated millions, and made another million-plus proud. They had packed bars celebrating and horns honking in Kosovo’s capital:

And they provided yet another example of the World Cup transcending sport.

Winner: The letter X

Losers: Serbia believers

Serbia, buoyed by its win over Costa Rica, topped Group E entering the day. And entering Friday’s second half, it looked like the real deal. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was wowing. Nemanja Matic and Milivojevic looked comfortable with him, and with each other. Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Kolarov were threats. Mitrovic powered in a header. Not only was the knockout round within reach; Serbia looked like the sleeper yours truly tentatively thought it could be.

Then all the excitement came crashing down to earth. Shaqiri’s 90th-minute winner left Serbia in third place, likely needing a win over Brazil to avoid elimination.

Winners: Frozen-out Premier League strikers

Mitrovic wasn’t the only Friday goalscorer who had recently fallen out of favor at an English Premier League club, only to go out and on loan and prove his worth. Ahmed Musa, cast off as a bust at Leicester City, scored two brilliant goals for Nigeria to put the Super Eagles in second place in Group D:

Musa, technically, became Leicester’s first-ever World Cup goalscorer, despite playing at CSKA Moscow last season – and despite tallying as many times for Nigeria on Friday as he ever has for the club he joined for $22 million in 2016.

Winner: Germany

Remember when the biggest consequence of Germany’s loss to Mexico was a likely Round of 16 bout with Brazil?

Well, the assumption there was that the Brazilians would waltz to the top of Group E. That hasn’t happened. They’re barely ahead of Switzerland on goal differential heading into Matchday 3. Switzerland plays, and will likely beat, already-eliminated Costa Rica. Brazil has the tougher test in Serbia. There’s a very real chance Brazil doesn’t win Group E, and both of the giants progress as runners-up.

Winner: Group E gamesmanship possibilities

There’s also a chance neither Switzerland nor Brazil wants to win the group. They’ll know Group F results by the time they kick off on Wednesday. Switzerland, for example, could guarantee second place – no better, no worse – with a draw against Costa Rica.

If second place means a matchup with Mexico instead of Germany – Group E’s runner-up faces Group F’s winner, and vice versa – would Switzerland play for a draw? It can’t afford to risk a loss, just in case Serbia gets a result against Brazil. But what if, in second-half stoppage time, the Swiss are up a goal … would they concede on purpose?

Food for thought, especially if Mexico and Germany both win on Saturday.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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