The South American qualifying group for next year’s World Cup is extremely tight. With two matches left for each team, no less than seven of them are still in the hunt for a ticket to Russia, but also face possible elimination.
While fans of those seven teams will bite their nails during the final two matches, one team has nothing to worry about. Brazil is enjoying great success in this qualifying campaign. Following a slow start, and a disappointing performance at the 2016 Copa America, manager Dunga was sacked last September with veteran Tite assuming the position, and it has been all uphill since then. The Selecao went on an incredible run of nine straight wins, booking their spot in the World Cup months before the end of qualification. Brazil’s run was so impressive that they were the first team, other than the Russian hosts, who qualified for the tournament. This is, of course, great news for the soccer mad country whose national team has not lived up to its reputation in recent international tournaments, but will it mean anything come the World Cup next year?
Brazil can ask neighbors and arch rivals Argentina about how everything can change. Sixteen years ago, the Albiceleste were in a similar position. They easily qualified for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan while the Brazilians struggled to get through the qualifying group and only on the final day secured their spot in the tournament. Following their success in the qualifiers, Argentina came into the World Cup as clear favorites to win the title after a 16-year wait, only to crash out as early as the group stage. The other hot favorite, World and European Champions France, were also knocked out in the group stage, without even scoring a single goal in any of their three matches.
What about Brazil? How did they do in the tournament after nearly missing the World Cup for the first time in history and sacking two managers along the way during the qualifiers? Well, they went all the way to win their fifth World Cup title, and last one to date, winning all of their matches along the way. Who did they beat in the final? The Germans, who also struggled during their qualifying campaign (losing 5-1 to England, in Munich!), and only made it through during the playoffs.
Need some more examples of teams coming into the World Cup tournament as clear favorites, after cruising through the qualifying round, only to crush out in humiliating fashion in the first round? It happened to 2006 champions Italy, who were knocked out in the first round in 2010, and the same happened to 2010 champions Spain in the 2014 tournament.
What does all this mean for Brazil ahead of next summer’s World Cup in Russia? It’s too soon to tell. On one side, Brazil can and should feel optimistic following the South American qualifying group. They are led by one of the top three players in the world, they have once again become that mighty force from the past, and they finally seem to have a coach who knows how to balance the constant demand for the ”jogo bonito” (the “beautiful game”) with the need to have a responsible defensive approach. On the other hand, hundreds of factors can still change before the opening whistle of the World Cup on June 14th in Moscow. Tite, Neymar and the rest of the yellow gang know all too well that it will be a whole new ball game come the real thing.
The final rounds of the South American qualifiers will take place on October 5th and 10th.