Brazil aims to change echo of defeat to sound of celebration
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — There's no chance Tite or any of his players will forget the score of Brazil's humiliating semifinal loss at the last World Cup.
Supporters of the Selecao still ensure it echoes in their ears: 7-1.
As high-profile Brazil players walked off the pitch following a recent training session at Teresopolis, a few dozen disgruntled fans chanted "7-1." That loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals will be in the back of the minds of the Brazil players whenever they start a match in Russia, particularly the six who were involved in that squad.
But the current group is very different from the group that flopped at home four years ago. After a series of changes implemented by coach Tite since September 2016, the five-time World Cup champions once again are considered title contenders.
After hearing the negative chants at the training ground recently, four-time World Cup winner Mario Zagallo expressed optimism the humiliation could make Brazil stronger this time.
"That 7-1 will sting forever," the 86-year-old Zagallo told The Associated Press. "But Tite and Neymar give us hope again. In 2014 we didn't have our best in the World Cup. Now players will fight for positions — the mindset has changed."
Tite took over as coach after Brazil had two troubled years under Dunga. A modern and disciplined tactician, he has insisted the national team openly confront its humiliation.
With a new resolve, Brazil became so effective that it was the first team to qualify for Russia. His 4-1-4-1 tactics, sharpened after conversations with Carlo Ancelotti, has shaped the right mix of players.
Instead of low-scoring target man Fred, Brazil has Gabriel Jesus up front. If the Manchester City striker underperforms, Tite could still count on Liverpool's Roberto Firmino, whereas four years ago Luiz Felipe Scolari had to count on Jo.
The agile Philippe Coutinho has taken the spot occupied four years ago by Oscar, and 26-year-old Neymar — recovering from right foot surgery — has matured and offers a bigger threat in front of goal than in 2014.
Brazil's defense in 2018 is also superior to the 2014 lineup.
Casemiro, a four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, has replaced Luiz Gustavo. Defender Marquinhos is more skilled than Dante and more secure than David Luiz, the two central defenders who contributed to Brazil's big loss.
After securing a spot at the World Cup, Tite turned his attention to a different objective: Treating the psychological scars of the 7-1 defeat.
"The first step is to play a friendly against them, wherever they want, in Germany," Tite told the AP a year after getting the job. "We need to play away so we feel that weight."
Brazil beat Germany 1-0 in Berlin in March, despite having Neymar out injured.
It was another step in the right direction for a team tasked with overcoming the most embarrassing loss in a proud football history.
Marcelo, Fernandinho, Willian and Paulinho are the only Brazilians who played in that 2014 semifinal match and are still in the national team. Neymar was out with a fractured vertebrae and Thiago Silva was suspended.
"That was the worst night of my life," Fernandinho told TV Globo. "But now we have a chance to turn the table, try again. And we have a big chance to end it in a better fashion."
Despite Brazil's good recent form, many fans remain apprehensive. Store managers have reported slow sales of Brazil flags and shirts. It could be because of the country's long economy crisis, but it could also be that the confidence of the current group of players is still yet to reach most fans.
Retiree Thomas Alves hasn't given up, recently heading to a Rio de Janeiro shopping mall to buy a new TV "because I watched the 7-1 in the one I have now."
"If we don't do well again, at least it won't be another hammering," he said, joking that he'd hand off the old TV set to somebody who supports a rival team. "Just in case, I will give my old one to an Argentinian friend."