SOCHI: Neymar may well be the centre of attention as Brazil chase a record sixth World Cup triumph in Russia.
But if the South Americans successfully emulate the class of 1958 by winning a World Cup on European soil, there is a strong likelihood that their rock-solid defence will have something to do with it.
In any World Cup, it is the exploits of the goal-scorers who provide most of the memories for the highlights reels.
But it is a fact that the trophy is usually won by the team with the best defence.
Germany conceded just four in seven games in 2014, and Spain let in just two in 2010, the same tally as Italy’s victorious squad in 2006.
So while Neymar will continue to hog the limelight, the good news for coach Tite is that there is plenty more to his side than the Paris Saint-Germain forward as they prepare to take on Mexico on Monday.
“In football there is always one player who gets spoken about more. But you need to have a very good team,” said Casemiro, the formidable Real Madrid defensive midfielder, this week.
“It is inevitable that people will say the player we have who is above average is Neymar, but we cannot forget that we have other great players.”
The flamboyance of the Brazil teams which lit up the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, when the likes of Zico and Socrates delighted fans but ultimately failed to deliver, has long since been replaced by pragmatism.
The World Cup-winning Brazil teams of 1994 and 2002 had plenty of attacking talent, but owed their success as much to defensive steel.
In 2002, only England scored against Brazil in the knockout stages, a solid back line providing the foundation for Ronaldo to get the goals that won his country a fifth World Cup.
This Brazil team is constructed on similarly formidable defensive ground, with just eight goals conceded in 28 matches after the 2-0 win over Serbia on Wednesday.
“We have a very balanced squad, intelligent, and composed when we have to be,” said centre-back Thiago Silva, who headed in Brazil’s second goal against the Serbians.
– Streetwise –
Neymar, and especially Philippe Coutinho at the moment, provide the spark, but around them there are enough streetwise players to ensure this Brazil should not suffer a collapse even close to the scale of the 7-1 against Germany four years ago.
“In defensive positions, it is not just four of us plus one holding midfielder,” said Casemiro.
“Brazil’s defensive strength starts from Gabriel (Jesus), then with Neymar and Willian. All 11 players defend and all 11 attack.”
The ability of Paulinho, one of the few survivors of the 2014 squad, to power forward from deep and score goals like that against Serbia is perhaps not something one associates with a typical Barcelona and Brazil midfielder.
And behind it all, there is a strength in depth in the goalkeeping department that has not always been a characteristic of Brazil teams.
In 2014 a veteran Julio Cesar, then playing for Toronto FC, was the first choice in goal.
This time around the excellent Ederson, a star in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team, cannot get in the side because of the presence of Alisson Becker.
“Guardiola has an ace in his team, but he has Alisson in his way, and at the moment he is the Pele of goalkeepers,” said Claudio Taffarel, the custodian in the 1994 World Cup-winning team and now Brazil’s goalkeeping coach, earlier this year.
It all means that, while other pre-tournament favourites continue to fall by the wayside, there is reason for Brazil to dream of lifting a sixth World Cup even if Neymar doesn’t hit the heights.