The A Team will be back on telly on Monday night. Brazil’s defeat in their final group game cut deep, with the criticism for fielding a heavily weakened team unexpectedly fierce back home. But the coach, Tite, insists he did the right thing and, never mind Lusail, it is the 974 Stadium that should provide the proof. He has also turned on the “lies” accusing him of knowingly risking the Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus, and revealed that Neymar could start. If judgment was to be reserved then, now it will be real as the seleção meet South Korea in the last 16.
Despite dominating against Cameroon and racking up 21 shots, Brazil conceded a 92nd-minute Vincent Aboubakar goal to lose 1-0, their first defeat by an African side at the World Cup. They did so with a starting XI that included only two regulars and Alex Telles and Jesus were forced off, joining Danilo, Alex Sandro and Neymar on the injury list. Of the final three, though, only Sandro will definitely miss the Korea game. Brazil, already through, also came unexpectedly close to losing first place in the group.
The captain, Thiago Silva, insisted “we took risks, yes, but we think it is worth it”. The coach meanwhile explained why and even called on his assistant César Sampaio to provide the statistical evidence. In short, he had rested his players. Not one Brazil player has started all three games and it is possible that of the starting XI against Cameroon only Éder Militão and Fred will line up against South Korea.
One man who will not do so is Jesus, who sustained a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for about a month. Tite reacted angrily to reports that he knew there was a risk in fielding Jesus. “I don’t like hearing lies, said with bad intent,” he said.
“We never put a player at risk. The liars, the haters, can go and do something else and stop giving fake news. Arsenal have a great medical department, we have a great medical department and we are responsible and ethical. I didn’t want this to happen and we’re very sorry for him. We have spoken to him. I’m not saying we can take the pain away but we have tried to make him feel better, to give him strength and to have him participate as much as possible.”
On one level, the injury to Jesus served to justify Tite’s decision to protect his starters, with Richarlison, Vinícius Júnior and Raphinha starting on the bench against Cameroon and only Raphinha coming on. The decision was not widely welcomed, though. “I’m not here to start a fight,” Tite said. “I accept criticism for fielding a team that was different. That’s part of life, part of my job. There are different ideas? Of course! But this World Cup has elements that make it different: heat, intensity, short recovery time.”
There were only two full days between Brazil’s last group match and this knockout tie and, using Poland as the example, Tite explained that their fitness analysts had seen a 40% drop in intensity in the third game, and that eight players had physical problems. “It’s very tough for the human body,” he said. That rest allowed his players to come into this tie with almost a week’s break between starting games, with the added prospect of getting Neymar and Danilo back. If declared fully fit, Neymar will start.
“We will never take a risk with his health: Neymar depends on the medical department saying OK,” Tite said. “I want to make that very, very clear. If he practises and he’s OK he will play.”
It may not have been his intention, but the best defence of Tite’s approach probably came from the South Korea coach, Paulo Bento, who would have welcomed the chance to do something similar. His tone was that of a curiously pessimistic man.
“I am a realist,” he said. “I’ve told the players that this is a tough objective but we have to try. After the physical and emotional fatigue of the Portugal game we decided to let them rest. They’ve only trained once. Seventy-two hours between games is too little; I doubt any team can do that. I watched 2018 and I don’t remember that. The space between matches was always longer. It’s a burden and we obviously have an additional burden compared to Brazil, because they changed their lineup. They did something we couldn’t do.
“It is hard to play against Brazil, one of the teams most likely to win the World Cup, and our task will be very difficult but we won’t give up. We know we will suffer a bit. We haven’t had the time to practise on [their weaknesses] but we will do it from a theoretical point of view. I told the players that if we played Brazil in many matches, they would be champions but it’s one match and we have a chance.” He said if they “compete and fight to the last whistle … it will be a victory no matter what”.