Brazil’s prospects of hoisting the FIFA World Cup trophy have certainly dwindled with Neymar ailing back. More than the four goals and constant attention from the opposing side, the Seleção are simply less threatening. All the more detrimental is the loss of its central back and captain Thiago Silva to a suspension, which may be an even bigger obstacle to overcome in the semifinal.
FiveThirtyEight, a data analytics outfit for various fields, set Brazil’s pre-tournament chances of winning the Cup at 45% – with Argentina a not-so-close second at 13%. A large factor was undoubtedly the team’s proficiency in not losing a competitive game on its home soil since 1975. Its last home loss of any kind came in a 2002 friendly against Paraguay, where five of its best players were already substituted in the early second half.
FiveThirtyEight’s player rating system, based on goals scored and allowed while on the pitch, ranks Neymar as a top-10 international player – far below Messi and Ronaldo but above Suarez, van Persie and Muller. Although imperfect, the statistical ratings reasonably correlate to the Guardian’s annual player ratings compiled by 15 experts, mostly former professionals. Quantifiably, Brazil will be hard-pressed to replace Neymar’s production.
He has been involved in 23% of the team’s scoring chances in this World Cup, among the most of any player. Extrapolated to a full 90-minute game, Neymar’s presence on the pitch adds an average of 0.4 goals to a team’s tally. The output of any of the three potential replacements – Bernard, Jo or Willian – would, on average, add 0.21 goals – roughly half of Neymar’s output.
But Neymar may have been even more instrumental to the team than statistics bear out. Brazil relies on his creativity in the tight middle attack, a skill hardly duplicated by many players in the world, much less Seleção's roster. The eye test substantiates the enormity of Neymar’s worth to the team – by far, he has outplayed his teammates.
With the striker’s absence, the aura of the Brazil football undoubtedly becomes diminished. Neymar is the indigo child, carrying the hopes of a nation rabid with an incurable football epidemic exclusive to America’s southern hemisphere. A sizeable part of Brazil’s home turf prolificacy that justified such lofty predictions is the local patronage, which currently fluctuates somewhere between doubt and delusion. Surely, the public’s assuredness about retaining the World Cup trophy has severely faded.
For all Neymar brings to the Seleção that it now will forego, perhaps it is the absence of Thiago Silva, above all else, that the Belo Horizonte crowd should dread.
With the advent of "joga bonito," Brazilian players have mostly been known for their offensive dexterity. No one admires proper tackling when an array of dribbling, tricks and shots abound. The lack of competent defenders has potentially done in otherwise adept Brazil teams in most recent World Cups where expectations were left unmet. Rather than filling their positions, Brazilian backs are known offensive streakers (see: Alves, Dani). Thiago Silva may have singlehandedly reversed the stigma associated with being a Brazilian defender.
Silva’s size, toughness and willingness to backtrack directly contradict the conventional slickness of a Cafu, Roberto Carlos or Maicon. Silva will rarely be seen doing a step-over – more likely, he would bull over a striker. He’s been called a flawless defender, clever enough to adapt to any defense with leadership qualities that draw captaincy assignments on every level. In spite of his rugged style and posture, or perhaps because of it, Silva has been extremely successful.
Having persevered through a bleak early professional career, including a six-month hospitalization for tuberculosis in 2005, Silva returned to Brazil looking for a comeback. As a defender on a mediocre Fluminense side, he starred as one the best and fiercest players in the entire league, earning himself the nickname “O Monstro.” Leading the team to the 2007 Copa do Brasil and 2008 Copa Libertadores title matches, Silva selected AC Milan among many suitors. In his first game for the Italian side, he made a praiseful impression, recording ten tackles.
By 2011, he was the best defender in Seria A, drawing comparisons to Milan’s greatest players and becoming a fixture on the UEFA Team of the Year. The Rossoneri won their first league title since 2004. The next season, Silva opted for a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, accepting a godfather-like €42 million offer – the then-highest such compensation for a defender. Silva anchors the All-Star PSG lineup, where even Ibrahimović is looking up to him. At the end of the 2012-13 season, Silva’s first with PSG, the club won its first Ligue 1 title in almost 20 years. More than a few player rankings list Silva as the best in the world at his position – a distinction Neymar is yet to claim.
Goal prevention is noticeably harder to quantify than goal scoring – so admitted even by FiveThirtyEight. Silva’s six-year, 51-game stint with the Seleção has netted three goals – yet, he is ranked as the 17th best player in the world by the Guardian. Now he’ll likely be replaced by Dante. Statistically, Dante’s production may come close to matching that of Silva’s. Nevertheless, few Germans shiver at the sight of Dante lining up across the pitch. Reputations are hardest to enumerate.
Brazil’s 2014 World Cup team is the culmination of a decade-long search for identity. Following the 2002 triumph, Brazil discovered in Germany that four of the most technically skilled attacking players and little else could not carry the team past the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals. For the 2010 edition of the Cup, the Seleção was assembled with a philosophy of the opposite extreme. The individual technical performer, the very type of player Brazil has become known for, was shunned. Ronaldinho was dropped; team play was du jour. A better outcome was not forthcoming – Brazil was handed another quarterfinals exit.
To its credit, the Brazilian federation (CBF) learned its lesson. The middle name of the current team is balance. With Silva and Luiz as foundations, Brazil’s renowned creative attack is given a flourishing reign. Silva’s second yellow card of the tournament against Colombia threatens to upset that equilibrium. So worried is the CBF that it lodged an unprecedented appeal of the yellow with full appreciation that no such reprieve can be given lest claims of host favoritism arise. The bitterness of Silva’s absence is particularly hard to swallow due to the superfluous manner in which he collected the second yellow to earn the semifinals suspension.
Brazil has never had trouble scoring. Its manager is left with a variety of offensive options, even without an irreplaceable asset in Neymar – the team will not lack chances to net goals. Far trickier will be shoring up the Goliath-size hole left by Silva in the center of the defense. Should the Seleção fail to advance, Colombia's Juan Zuniga could still be blameless.
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