The Brazil coaching staff were laughing before training when Neymar stopped and joked with manager Tite. “This bunch of kids coming in,” he smiles. “It’s just crazy. They’ll give you a headache.”
The Paris St-Germain superstar was referring to the players Tite had dubbed ‘perninhas rapidas’ (quick little legs).
And he wasn’t wrong – the rise of Raphinha, Vinicius Jr, Gabriel Martinelli, Antony and Rodrygo totally changed the way the Selecao played and forced the 61-year-old to include them all in his squad of the World Cup.
They helped turn a pragmatic side lacking flair and grace, which couldn’t convince fans, into one to have many in the country – arguably for the first time since 2006 – believing that winning the trophy for the sixth times is not only possible, but very likely.
The Brazilians have rediscovered their attacking DNA. When in possession, they typically use a 2-3-5 formation that relies heavily on wingers, not overlapping full-backs as in the past. However, that doesn’t mean the defense is left too exposed – Alisson, Thiago Silva and co conceded just 19 goals in 50 games before Qatar and have often looked impenetrable.
For most of the four-year cycle, however, there was a sense that this side had not been properly tested. They had not faced European opposition since a March 2019 friendly with the Czech Republic, despite several attempts to arrange fixtures against England and Spain. It was the longest spell without facing a European rival since the 1954 World Cup.
But now, at the World Cup, it’s no longer a problem. It was Europe’s loss. The Selecao are ready, qualified at the top of their group and with star man Neymar in good shape and available again for Monday’s second-round match against South Korea.
“Brazil are much better prepared now than they were in 2018 and 2014. Among other things, the ‘perninhas rapidas’ relieved Neymar of some of the pressure,” said former international Grafite, who works as a pundit at BBC Sport.
“Obviously, if we want to win in Qatar, we will need Neymar at his best, but we are no longer solely dependent on him. Unlike in the past, we have great depth in all areas.
“Neymar is not alone in this team. If he switches to his right side, he will find, for example, Raphinha, a very dangerous boy one-on-one, able to dribble and cut inside. It doesn’t matter .where you look – defence, midfield and attack – the talent is everywhere.”
The turning point of Caracas
With the exception of a home loss to Argentina in the 2021 Copa America Final, Brazil have hardly experienced any turbulence on the road to Qatar. But despite positive results, the five-time world champions initially struggled to convince on the pitch and get the fans on board.
Everything changed after the second half of the 3-1 away win against Venezuela in October 2021.
The Selecao were losing 1-0 at half-time when Tite decided to introduce Raphinha and give him his international debut. The young winger, then of Leeds United, had a memorable night, scoring two goals and securing the penalty for the other. Vini Jr and Antony also received minutes and impressed in Caracas.
The following week, Raphinha was in the starting XI, continuing to put on a show in the 4-1 win over Uruguay, perhaps the Brazilians’ best performance since Russia 2018.
From that moment, there was no going back.
“I think the main contribution of Raphinha and these other young players so far has been the joy they have brought back to the team,” says Grafite.
“We won’t always be able to attack other teams like we did in the qualifiers, that’s for sure, but I think it’s important that we can find our traditional attacking style there and identify with it.”
It’s time for the ‘perninhas rapidas’ to shine
Of the 14 players used in the 2-1 loss by Belgium who sent Brazil home in the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, only four of them remain in the squad – Alisson, Thiago Silva, Neymar and Jesus, who is now injured. Veteran footballers like Fernandinho, Marcelo and Filipe Luis have been left behind along the way.
It’s a different team in Qatar, but the pressure is even greater than in 2018.
If Brazil do not win the tournament this winter, they will at least equal the country’s longest run without winning the World Cup trophy – the 24 years between 1970 and 1994.
None of the ‘perninhas rapidas’ were born when Romario inspired the South Americans to the United States title, but it will now be up to them to avoid the unwanted record and return home as champions.
“Brazil couldn’t have come to Qatar in better shape, but everything happens so fast in the World Cup, so it’s no guarantee of success,” Grafite continued.
“We have teams like England, France and Argentina who can win too. We’ll have to wait and see.”