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Can Brazil win the World Cup 2022?

Brazil coach Tite must think he is time-travelling. In Doha, Qatar, Brazil were drawn with Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon in Group G and in the quarterfinals they might meet Belgium. The Brazilians encountered three out of those four nations at the last World Cup in Russia in 2018

In the group stages, the Serbians and Switzerland posed Tite with a problem that he had faced throughout the build-up of the tournament in Russia: opponents that sat deep and defended. Brazil struggled to break down deep-lying teams. The Swiss held Brazil to a draw and his team needed until injury time to overcome Costa Rica as well.

But it was the match against Belgium that defined Brazil’s World Cup and the era of Tite. Roberto Martinez’s team knocked the five-time world champion off balance in a marvelous box-to-box quarter-final between the tournament’s two most enthralling teams.

The Spaniard posted central striker Romelu Lukaku on the right, surprising Brazil, whose second-half response came too late, even if the game turned on details and the fingertips of Thibaut Courtois. Brazil exited the tournament prematurely. In 2002, Brazil was the last South American team to win the World Cup.

The defeat shook Tite, even keeping him up at night. The first coach since Claudio Coutinho in 1978 to stay on after a World Cup, Tite responded after the World Cup in textbook fashion: he reinforced the midfield, and so something of the old Tite, a defensive coach during his first spell with Brazilian giants Corinthians, returned. Deep down, the pragmatic and defensive-minded coach is still there. Tite is a coach with principles, but he won’t commit to ideals, the way Jorge Sampaoli and Marcelo Bielsa do. The reason is simple: idealism can’t topple balance.

Balance has always been key to Brazil’s success. With the figure of Mario Zagallo Brazil won three world crowns between 1958 and 1970. Zagallo shuttled down the left wing at the Sweden World Cup to provide the Seleção with balance. As a coach, Zagallo maintained that success recipe with a 4-3-3 formation to win the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. To see Brazil is precisely to revel in the memory of Pelé, Jairzinho, Garrincha and, more recently Romario and Ronaldo, and believe in the idea that Brazilians play the beautiful game differently.

And since that Belgium game, Tite has been forever tinkering with the balance of his team. Brazil have often failed to rekindle the fluency from Tite’s first World Cup qualifying campaign. Even so, they went unbeaten in the qualification for Qatar. They hardly conceded a goal.

It suggests that Brazil might be stronger than four years ago. Then, Tite’s team had problems across the field: axing Marquinhos was a mistake, Renato Gaucho got injured and Gabriel Jesus misfired upfront. Ever since Jesus has struggled to regain form, but Tite can count on Roberto Firmino and Matheus Cunha as well.

The Brazil coach has a luxury problem upfront. In a recent qualifier against Uruguay, he played Raphinha, Neymar and Lucas Paqueta in behind striker Gabriel Jesus. But how does he integrate Vinicius Junior, who has been in outstanding form to establish himself at Real Madrid? In the midfield, Tite wants Fred to complement Casemiro, who tends to be slow. He doesn’t trust Paqueta to trackback. The midfield composition is a direct consequence of the Belgian elimination. His team must not be exposed.

For a prolonged period after the World Cup, it seemed as if Tite was playing out the Belgium match over and over, in his head and on the field. Marcelo never featured again. Lukaku exploited Brazil’s attacking left side of Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar. Tite won’t make the same mistake twice. Qatar 2022 might well offer the chance to slay the ghost from Kazan. That is, of course, if Brazil first defeat the other teams in the group stage that are all too familiar.