The headliners come on last. It doesn’t matter if you’re organising a folk music festival in a rutted field or a World Cup, you delay the glamour to grow the clamour. And so it was that Brazil — and Serbia — closed out the first set of games at this year’s tournament in Qatar. We’ve now seen all 32 teams play and, although the sample size police will flick their sirens on at judgements made from a mere 90+10 minutes, it seems like we can reasonably say “France good, England decent, Spain excellent and Brazil… well Brazil look like Brazil”.
The Seleção lined-up in a formation that said “we are here and we would like to win the World Cup”. Richarlison up top with Vinícius Júnior, Raphinha and Neymar buzzing behind him, this was an XI designed to get the jamboree up and running as soon as possible, even though this was only the second time Brazil have faced a European team since the 2018 World Cup. But then, like so many games at the 2022 World Cup so far, it was interminably slow to get going. Neymar bent in a vicious Olympic Corner after 14 minutes but the first official shot of the entire game came in the 21st minute – in only one match since 1966 (Netherlands vs Costa Rica in 2014) have we had to wait longer to see one.
Serbia had sporadic possession up front – how can you not with the hulking-yet-stylish presence of Aleksandar Mitrovic – but had to wait until the 37th minute for an actual shot, via the right boot of Filip Mladenovic. They were much more focused at the other end of the pitch, though, and by half-time Neymar had been fouled five times, at that point the joint-highest figure at the 2022 World Cup (it would go higher). Football is about beauty, but it’s also about negation, and this was a first half to prove it. We had already seen some slow opening periods in this tournament, but this game managed to serve up less xG than any other match so far in the opening 45.
Did things improve in the second half? Yes they did. Brazil came out re-energised, and eased themselves into a dominant position like the storied heavyweights they are. In the 60th minute Alex Sandro thumped the post; barely two minutes later Vinícius Júnior bent in a shot that was parried by Vanja Milinkovic-Savic only to see Richarlison lurking like the experienced Premier League player he is, now adapted to a thin diet of scraps and rebounds, the striker’s meal.
But here’s the thing about Brazilian footballers. Yes, they can adapt like valiant parakeets in chilly English parks but they also retain the ability to do things so outstanding and so beautiful that it reminds you just why this sport is the most played and loved game on the planet. Richarlison’s second came from a deft Vinícius Júnior pass which the striker flicked up, swivelled and lashed home right-footed like a bleach-haired Mark Hughes in his pomp. This is the World Cup. This is Brazil. Nineteen up for Richarlison in Brazil colours, clear of everyone else since he made his debut.
Brazil were then able to bring on an absolute who’s who of substitutes, four of whom (Fred, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli and Antony) play their club football in the Premier League. Meanwhile another English-based player, Casemiro, hit the woodwork late on, but even if we now live in a world where the Brazil squad is infinitely more familiar than the mysterious squads from World Cups past it doesn’t lessen the joy of seeing those yellow shirts doing magical things on green turf. The 2022 World Cup is up and running.