On the four previous occasions Brazil had hosted the Copa America, it had won. It was the favorite going onto this tournament, and sure enough, it won again, beating Peru 3-1 in Sunday’s final at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro to record its ninth success in the competition. And yet there was never a sense of some behemoth swaggering to victory. Brazil might be the worst favorite in the world, accustomed to being expected to win and accustomed also to failing to live up to those expectations. This, above everything else, was an exercise in restoring Brazilian faith in itself.
It will take more than good results entirely to restore Brazil’s love for its football team. Many problems remain. Everton, who scored the opening goal, does play in the domestic league, for Gremio, but very few others do. Worse, because so many friendlies are played outside Brazil for marketing reasons, the opportunities for local fans to see national team players live are limited–and tickets are hugely expensive even when Brazil does play at home. The traditional fan has been squeezed out. Then there’s the unease those opposed to right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro feel about the way the yellow shirts have been co-opted by his neo-fascist movement.
But significant as many of the concerns are, none of that detracts from the fact that Brazil was the best team in this tournament. It struggled to break down Venezuela and Paraguay, it’s true, and got the benefit of some questionable refereeing calls in the semifinal against Argentina. It was left clinging on here after Gabriel Jesus was sent off after collecting a second yellow with 20 minutes remaining. But still, Brazil conceded only one goal in the six games of the tournament and, in its good moments, played with a fluency no other side matched. In a tournament that was high on drama and commitment rather than quality, Brazil probably was the most consistent side–and for that, Tite, whose position was apparently under threat, must take great credit.
Three years ago in Foxborough, Mass., Peru beat Brazil 1-0 to oust the Seleção from Copa America Centenario in the group stage. That was a major humiliation, the first time Brazil had failed to reach the last eight in 21 years, but it began a major rethink. Out went Dunga and insularity and in came Tite, a far more intellectually inquisitive coach, who has instilled a far more progressive style.
It’s still a view that tends to be expressed only in whispers, but it may be that Tite’s Brazil is only reaching its true potential in the absence of Neymar. In part that’s psychological. When the Paris Saint-Germain forward is there, everything revolves around him–and that would have been even more true in this tournament after he was accused of rape. On the pitch, the tendency has been to play through him, even though his frequent moments of self-indulgence, the way he milks any contact from an opponent, slow the game down.
Tite couldn’t ever drop Neymar, who was present at Sunday's final, watching from Bolsonaro's box at the Maracanã. The cynics would say that various sponsors would refuse to let him, but what is certainly true is that the pressure on whoever replaced him would be intolerable and unfair. And Neymar is, when focused, a supremely talented player. But it may be that the injury Neymar suffered in the pre-tournament friendly against Qatar did Tite a favor.
This is the best-balanced side Brazil has had probably since it last won the Copa America in 2007. The front three, which only came together when Richarlison went down with mumps and after David Neres had missed a couple of chances early in the tournament, has a complementary range of abilities and is working together with greater coherence with each passing game, as was seen in the first goal Sunday. Dani Alves’s ball down the line found Gabriel Jesus in a little space, but he then twisted and turned Miguel Trauco and crossed. Roberto Firmino’s run across the near post had drawn the defense and Everton, the player who has effectively replaced Neymar, arrived to volley in.
But it’s not just the front three. Philippe Coutinho, operating at the front of midfield, performs a valuable role of knitting attacks together. Perhaps the most important player, the one Brazil lacked at the World Cup last year, is Arthur, whose role is as a shuttler between Coutinho and Casemiro, sitting in front of the two central defenders. It was, after fine work from Firmino, Arthur who surged forward to lay in Gabriel Jesus to restore Brazil’s lead after Paolo Guerrero had levelled from the penalty spot.
And then there was Richarlison, sent on by Tite after Gabriel Jesus had been sent off, to hold the ball up, something he did superbly, preventing Peru ever generating the sort of sustained pressure that might have yielded an equalizer. His reward was to seal the win with a late penalty after Everton had been barged over.
Perhaps, on the end, it was fitting that Brazil should have to struggle through those final minutes, that this was not the procession it looked briefly as though it might be when Everton put Brazil ahead. These last 12 years of failure in the major competitions have, more than anything, been a failure of temperament. Here, severely tested, Brazil had the character and the calm to win. The revolution that began in Foxborough has its first tangible reward.