They took a while to get going, but Brazil and Richarlison turned on the style to see off a determined and stubborn Serbian team.
This was the reason they bid to host the tournament in the first place. The sunshine yellow shirts. The hands on hearts for the national anthem. The smiling, face-painted supporters waving for the cameras in an air-conditioned huge-o-dome on the edge of a desert. All those archive shots of Pele and company tearing everybody apart, more than half a century ago.
When Qatar decided to spend £200bn on hosting the World Cup, they were thinking of these moments. O jogo bonito, packaged and intended for the 21st century football consumer.
Except it’s not quite as simple as that. Following elections in the country earlier in the year, Brazilian president Joao Bolsonaro is still refusing to concede defeat and is now – and where have we heard this line before? – contesting the results, none of which would mean anything as far as the Brazil national football team was concerned were it not for the fact that Bolsonaro explicitly politicized those famous yellow shirts during his election campaign, and he can count several of this Brazil players among his supporters.
So Brazil arrives at the 2022 World Cup a country as divided as any other.
Back in Brazil, left-wing supporters of the election winner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are hoping that the first actual game of football in the World Cup will give them the opportunity to ‘reclaim’ the shirt for the whole of Brazil, before it becomes the unofficial uniform of one particular political faction.
And then, of course, there’s the burden of expectation. That can do funny things to a team, all the more so given that it’s now been two full decades since they last won it.
Brazil have failed to beat European opposition in the knockout stages of the World Cup since beating Germany in that 2002 final, and with every four-year cycle that has gone by, that clamor has only grown louder.
This reached a frankly extraordinary peak at the 2014 semi-final against Germany in Manhaus, when a back injury to Neymar before the match led to the players posing for their team photo with his shirt in a moment of pre-match strangeness that has been overshadowed by the remarkable game that followed, which ended in an extraordinary act of national self-humiliation – possibly the biggest game the world has ever seen.
In some respects, Serbia were a tricky support act for the roadshow to trundle into town with. They’re big, stubborn and determined, but there’s talent there too.
Aleksandar Mitrovic has finally cracked the code of how to score goals in the Premier League and was the fourth top scorer in the division when it broke for the winter.
Dusan Vlahovic, who started this game on the bench, has been the subject of a ‘will-he-won’t-he’ storyline that has been going on long enough to feel as though it was scripted for an American TV sitcom, but there are few ‘celebrities’ in this team.
Serbia finished three points clear of Portugal at the top of their group in qualifying for these finals and 11 points above the third-placed Republic of Ireland.
For an hour, they worked hard and reaped the modest reward of keeping the score goalless. In the first half, Brazil were largely kept at bay. If anything, they looked somewhat disjointed. One clear sight at goal with which Raphinha aimed directly at goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic was not much of a return on investment for Brazil’s first-half exertions.
But almost immediately from the start of the second half, something about them felt different. Within a minute they were almost gifted the lead by a catastrophic pass from Milinkovic-Savic which Raphinha couldn’t capitalize upon.
But the engine was starting to rev, nevertheless. Neymar snatched a shot, Sandro hit the crossbar, and then the dam finally broke after 63 minutes, when Vinicius Junior’s shot was saved and Richarlison scored from the rebound.
The floodgates didn’t quite open, but Brazil eased into complete control following the opening goal; you could visibly see their shoulders tensing.
The swagger was back, and with 16 minutes to play, Richarlison added another goal for the showreel with an acrobatic volley which spoke volumes for the way in which that absolute self-belief had reasserted itself for Brazil over the previous 30 minutes. It was the goal of this nascent tournament.
It was Richarlison who turned out to be the star of this particular contest. It wasn’t that Neymar had a terrible evening; his performance was perfectly fine. It’s more that the level of expectation placed upon his shoulders long ago hit a level that was more or less unachievable, and perhaps what might even do Brazil some good would be for someone else to have a spell in the limelight.
It can hardly be said that they don’t have options. Gabriel Jesus and Antony were the replacements for that pair. And with three minutes to play, Gabriel Martinelli came on for Raphinha.
With playing resources such as those that Brazil enjoys, it’s not just about the quality of the players at their disposal. It’s also about the strength in depth.
This was not a perfect performance from Brazil. For the first 45 minutes they were one-paced. But they were comfortable winners in the end, and a quick look at Argentina’s tribulations earlier in the week will show them everything they need to know about the pall of despond into which you can fall, should you lose their opening match.
But it is almost certainly the result the hosts and FIFA quietly wanted. When Brazil are kicking up through the gears, you want to focus on the football more than when you’re grinding your way through a game of ‘center holds it’ between Morocco and Croatia.
It will take more than winning one game to make people forget about the grotesquery of this tournament or even to reunite a divided Brazil, but in a World Cup which feels weird, unsettling and morally bankrupt, there was something almost comforting about such a routine Brazil win. It is after all what we’re used to – in the group stage, at least.