Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

Where did it all go wrong for Brazil’s football team?

A Brazil fan in anguish (Credit: Getty Images)

When England play Brazil in a friendly at Wembley tonight they will go into the game as firm favourites to win. It is hard to imagine writing that sentence at any other time in the last fifty years, which is a measure of how much the tables have turned. How so?

Today’s Brazil side are very beatable

The Three Lions are unbeaten since being knocked out of the last World Cup in Qatar two years ago, and they have finished top of their qualifying group for Euro 2024. They have a long-serving manager in Gareth Southgate, who knows the strengths and weaknesses of his present squad. Brazil, meanwhile, are in disarray, having suffered a run of three defeats against Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina. The team has a new coach, Dorival Junior, who was appointed in January, becoming the third manager to take on the role in the last two years. To make matters worse, Brazil come into the Wembley game nursing a long injury list. Some of their biggest names, including Neymar, Alisson Becker and Casemiro are unavailable. There really is no better time for England to be playing this team.

Southgate will want to use the match to experiment with tactics and formation in the run-up to the Euros. Ivan Toney, the Brentford striker, and Villa’s Ollie Watkins, are expected to feature at some point. Manchester United’s new midfield starlet, Kobbie Mainoo, a late addition to the squad, could get a chance to show what he can do at international level. 

The excitement and anticipation is all on England’s side ahead of this match. The sheer depth of talent available to Southgate is quite something, with players of the quality of Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Declan Rice. They would walk into the Brazilian team. How often in the past could that have been said? Their skills have been honed at club level by elite coaches such as Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid and Pep Guardiola of Manchester City. The inferiority complex when facing Brazil no longer exists. 

Brazil has struggled to recover since the heyday of Ronaldo and Rivaldo (Credit: Getty Images)

It wasn’t always so, of course. In the past, England would go into any game with Brazil expecting to be beaten, because the Brazilians would always be too good. In the end, they always found a way to win.

Today’s Brazil side are the opposite, and very beatable. How have the five-times winners of the World Cup fallen so far from the pinnacle of international football? The country won the competition three times between 1958 and 1970, a period of unsurpassed footballing glory. Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winning team is still spoken of as the greatest football team in history, blessed with the inimitable brilliance of Pele, football’s first global superstar. They had to wait almost a quarter of a century for the next triumph, at the 1994 World Cup, which sparked another era of international glory. The Brazilians went on to reach the final in 1998, before winning the trophy once more in 2002. This was the era of the three R’s: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. It’s been downhill ever since.

Brazil’s supporters are now openly wondering whether they will ever win the World Cup again – a sacrilegious question in a country where people live and breathe football. Yet the facts speak for themselves: Brazil haven’t really come close to winning again since that victory in 2002. Their greatest humiliation of all was in the 2014 World Cup, when Brazil hosted the competition. The team reached the semi finals, only to be thrashed 7-1 by Germany. Their current crop of players simply don’t have the aura and game-changing brilliance of a Pele or Ronaldo. Neymar, probably the highest profile player of the present generation, is gifted but simply not in the same league.

There are mutterings from fans that the players, in an age of social media and image rights, play more for themselves than the team as a whole. It is going to be a long way back to World Cup winning glories. It is now England’s chance to shine, starting with the match at Wembley, which will be watched by a global audience of millions. The bigger test for England’s gifted stars will come in the Euros this summer. The jury is still out on whether Gareth Southgate is a good enough manager to lead this team to glory. 

Written by
Jawad Iqbal

Jawad Iqbal is a broadcaster and ex-television news executive. Jawad is a former Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute of Global Affairs at the LSE

Topics in this article