Motivated Brazil becomes 1st to qualify for 2018 World Cup
Brazil's Neymar celebrates scoring his side's 2nd goal against Paraguay during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match at the Arena Corinthians Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Less than three years after the most humiliating loss in its proud football history, a resurgent Brazil has become the first team to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
With a convincing 3-0 victory over Paraguay on Tuesday and results going its way elsewhere in South American qualifying, the Brazilians ensured they'll join host Russia at the World Cup next year. Not bad for a group filled with players who endured the 7-1 trashing by Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal — a group many fans not long ago treated with disdain.
The road to qualification was rocky in the beginning, though. Dunga's surprising appointment as head coach after Brazil lost its home World Cup distanced many fans. Frustration built after a quarterfinal elimination to Paraguay at the 2015 Copa America.
In that time, defeats gave popularity to a new Brazilian saying every time something goes terribly wrong: "Every day is a new 7-1."
Brazil's football confederation didn't need merely a successor for Dunga. It needed a national hero.
The most popular choice was Corinthians coach Tite, who was overlooked after the 2014 World Cup debacle.
Tite was not in charge of the Brazil team that won gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, with Neymar back in fine form, but his advice was surely heeded. That title gave Brazil some confidence back, players say.
When World Cup qualifiers resumed in September last year, Tite's team was ready to dominate. A 3-0 win at Ecuador was followed by a 2-1 home victory over Colombia made Brazilians sure they were on the right path. With the 3-0 victory over Argentina in the same stadium where Brazil had been humiliated against Germany, the coach's reputation was enhanced.
Results and style have become so impressive that Brazil secured one of the top four South American direct places at the World Cup with four matches remaining in the qualifying tournament. It has become a team to fear again, as adversaries such as Uruguay's coach Oscar Tabarez acknowledged. When Tite took over, Brazil was sixth in the standings.
Now, the coach who made the contemporary Brazil team more like the Brazil of old is in celebration mode.
"Thank you, my good God. I will have a caipirinha this big," the coach said, showing with his hands that he wanted an extra-large drink.
Brazil no longer depends entirely on Neymar, and it can play without its teenage target-man Gabriel Jesus and still score many goals. The strong defense has conceded only two goals in eight matches. There are still weaknesses, including the lack of experience of the coach against teams from outside South America and the corruption scandals that affect its football confederation. But the momentum is clearly wearing yellow again.
"Everything changed," winger Marcelo said. "You can see the atmosphere, how much players are giving. Everyone is working hard in each training, giving our lives."
Under the new management, Brazil won eight straight matches and secured 24 of its 33 points. Second-place Colombia has 24 points total from its 14 games.
Neymar is also different, more mature. In the 4-1 thrashing of Uruguay last Thursday, he gave the world a moment of revelation. Before he scored Brazil's third goal, Neymar could have fallen in a challenge with defender Coates, who had already been booked.
Instead of diving, though, the Barcelona star stayed on his feet and netted the best goal of the night.
"There were many fouls on me," Neymar said of the Paraguayan defense. "But I don't care anymore. They can hit me as much as they want. It is the only way they will stop me."
Some of the veterans of that 7-1 loss to Germany are key to Brazil's success too. Wingers Dani Alves and Marcelo and midfielder Paulinho are all starters. And they want to avenge the humbling defeat.
"We are just getting started," Paulinho said. "Adversaries better watch out because Brazil is coming with it all."
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