In the first decade of the century, based much more on a spontaneous generation of talent than on any planning, Brazil were among the best teams on the planet, only to fall agonisingly short of landing the serious silverware. But as the rest of the world took rapid strides, Brazil stood still.
There was something melancholic about Brazil’s elimination by hosts France at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The great Marta made a heartfelt and emotional appeal for new talents to come forward and take up the challenge. Her words seemed borne of despair.
But four years later the mood is entirely different as Brazil prepare for the coming tournament in Australia and New Zealand. Belatedly, a competitive domestic league is up, running, working well and producing players for the national team squad, announced live on TV amid an unprecedented level of interest by coach Pia Sundhage in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday.
While debate rages over the pros and cons of appointing a foreign coach for the men’s team, for the women’s team the presence of a Swedish coach is entirely without controversy. Sundhage is steeped in her sport, both as a player and with a long and victorious coaching career, including two Olympic gold medals with the United States.
Her time in charge has been building towards this moment. She has undertaken a process of renewal that has been both suave and firm. There were three veteran pillars of the side she inherited; two are no longer here. Midfielder Formiga has finally retired and striker Cristiane did not win a recall despite strong club form.
And then there is Marta, perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport. At 37 she is still very much part of Sundhage’s plans. But as the coach made clear in the post-call-up news conference, there is no guarantee that she will be in the starting lineup. Her experience is good for the group, and she might have to be content with occasional trips to the bench to be used as an impact sub.
That is because one of Sundhage’s priorities has been to increase the physical intensity of the team. She has led a campaign against what she calls “popcorn time” — players turning into spectators after they have lost the ball. The concept of the game that she has most stressed is the need to defend as a unit, that once possession is lost the entire team should be working to win back the ball.
This emphasis on fitness helps explain why two players have been placed on the standby list; centre-back Tainara has been out injured since April, and midfielder Angelina is coming back from an 11-month layoff. If they were in regular action they would surely have been included in the 23-player squad, rather than making the long trip as cover for injuries.
Sundhage’s Brazil won the Copa America last year without conceding a single goal. But how much does this serve as a reference for their chances in a World Cup?
Warming up for the Copa, they lost to both Denmark and Sweden. Earlier this year they went down to the USWNT and Canada. And then came the trip to Europe at the start of April. In Wembley’s Finalissima against European champions England, Sundhage started off with a cautious three-centre-back system, and was rewarded with a first half of alarming passivity.
Halftime in that game could well be the key point in the entire build-up. The formation was changed, Brazil came out for business and were unlucky not to win the game, which they lost on a penalty shoot out after a 1-1 draw.
And then, a few days later, they won 2-1 away to Germany. These were extremely morale-boosting results. The squad will travel full of hope. The aim, of course, is to win. At this point, reaching the semifinals will almost certainly be seen as satisfactory, since the stated ambition is to put the team back to the top table of the game.
It could even be the case that Sundhage is a little surprised by the recent wave of optimism. She has made a couple of surprise choices which would indicate a desire for experience and maturity. The glaring absence is that of goalkeeper Lorena, ruled out by injury. Leticia Izidoro, a backup in the most recent World Cup, is now first choice, and it is a shock that she is joined in the squad by the 2019 veteran Barbara, whose club form has not been convincing. And with Tainara short of full fitness, there is a recall for 36-year-old centre-back Monica, who has been out in the cold for a while.
In all there are 11 players from the 2019 World Cup squad (a few more than had been expected), and seven of the squad play in Brazil (fewer than anticipated). These choices are being debated long and hard in the Brazilian media — which, in itself, is proof of how fast the sport is developing.
Brazil say farewell to their fans with a friendly at home to Chile on Sunday. And a significant part of the nation would seem disposed to wake up early to watch their group games against Panama, France and Jamaica — and whoever comes along later in the knockout phase.
Brazil need more than Marta to make Women’s World Cup splash