Thursday, February 9 2023
Brazil's Neymar celebrates with teammates Lucas Paqueta, Raphinha and Vinicius Junior after scoring his side's second goal
Brazil’s Neymar, right, celebrates with teammates, from left, Vinicius Junior, Raphinha and Lucas Paqueta after scoring his side’s second goal against South Korea on Monday in Al Rayyan, Qatar. (Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)

Argentina and Brazil share a 750-mile border and a long tradition of World Cup excellence, having combined to win seven titles and reach the semifinals together in four of the last five tournaments.

No other two neighbors are even close to that level of accomplishment.

Yet for all they share, there is a huge difference in how they’ve greeted that success. While the cheerful Brazilians have danced and sang their way into the final eight of this World Cup, where they will meet Croatia on Friday, Argentina has displayed all the joy and spontaneity of someone preparing for a root canal heading into its quarterfinal with the Netherlands.

France plays England while Morocco, the biggest surprise of this World Cup, faces Portugal in the other quarterfinal on Saturday.

Brazil has been wild, boisterous and cocky in Qatar, especially in its round-of-16 game, where it played at a different level than South Korea while winning its way into the World Cup quarterfinals for an eighth straight time. Argentina, meanwhile, has been weighed down by pressure since opening its tournament with a loss to Saudi Arabia that ended the team’s 36-game unbeaten streak and raised questions about its talent and fitness.

Argentina's Lionel Messi, left, and Angel Di Maria warm up during a training session Thursday in Doha, Qatar.Argentina's Lionel Messi, left, and Angel Di Maria warm up during a training session Thursday in Doha, Qatar.
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, left, and Angel Di Maria warm up during a training session Thursday in Doha, Qatar. (Jorge Saenz / Associated Press)

For Brazil, the return of Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar for the knockout rounds brought back a swagger and confidence that was ebbing without him. The world’s top-ranked team came to Qatar a heavy favorite to win its sixth championship and it has done little to detract from that.

So Thursday, its coach, Tite, laughed and smiled his way through a news conference where the only criticism he faced centered on his team’s samba goal celebrations and the rude way a press officer treated a stray cat who wandered into Brazil’s training facility.

“It is the Brazilian culture when a goal is scored. That’s how we do things,” Tite said of his team’s on-field danceathons, which critics have charged were ungracious. “We will continue to do it our way because we are not disrespecting anyone.”

Brazil’s only loss in this tournament came in the final group-stage match when Tite rested many of his starters, including Neymar, who missed two games with an ankle injury. With Neymar on the field, however, Brazil is almost unbeatable, having lost just one of the last 32 games he has started.

And in Qatar, Brazil has put more shots on goal than any team and hasn’t trailed in regulation time.

But it hasn’t played a team like Croatia. The 2018 runner-up has lost just once in its last 11 World Cup games, that setback coming to France four years in the final. Croatia, however, has needed extra time or penalty kicks to advance in its last four elimination-game wins, including its round-of-16 victory over Japan.

None of that will change the way Brazil plays, Tite said. The team has used different formations in each of its four games here, underscoring the fact that Brazilian soccer moves at its own speed and its own rhythm. It is something that is celebrated, enjoyed and relished in Brazil, where it is referred to as the jogo bonito, the beautiful game. More than a sport, it’s the character of the nation; a swaying João Gilberto tune played with a soccer ball.

“The Brazilian identity began a long time ago,” Tite said. “This is our football and that is what we believe in.”

The coach even took a turn at dancing himself during the win over South Korea.

“It’s a connection I have with the younger generation. I am 61 and working with players 21, 22. They could be my grandchildren,” he said. “If I have a chance to connect with them, I will continue dancing.

“If I have to dance, I’ll dance. But I have to train more. I have a stiff neck.”

About the only one who hasn’t had a good time in Brazil’s camp is the black-and-gray cat that leapt onto the dais as Brazil’s Vinicius Junior was answering questions from the media on Wednesday. That drew a laugh from the Real Madrid winger but Brazil’s press officer was not as amused, grabbing the cat with two hands and flinging it off the 4-foot-high table as reporters gasped.

Brazil's Vinicius Junior laughs as a cat sits on the the table during a news conference.Brazil's Vinicius Junior laughs as a cat sits on the the table during a news conference.
Brazil’s Vinicius Junior laughs as a cat sits on the the table during a news conference Wednesday at the Grand Hamad stadium in Doha, Qatar. (Andre Penner / Associated Press)

“You should ask our media officer,” Tite said when asked about the incident, which drew rebukes from animal rights groups. “He’s the one who said ‘go away, go away cat.’”

Cats aside, not everyone has been as free-spirited in Qatar as the Brazilians, something Zlatko Dalic, who will coach Croatia against A Seleção, acknowledged. That style’s not for everyone.

“They have their own way. They celebrate. They are festive,” Dalic said. “I wouldn’t want to see my players dance.

“It’s a different culture.”

Argentina apparently feels the same way because while Tite was laughing and joking his way through Brazil’s news conference, Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni seemed to barely tolerate his, sparring with reporters who asked questions about the health of his players and his strategy for the Netherlands.

“We play in our style, in our own way,” he said. “We need to play our own game and we’ll see what happens.”

Each of Argentina’s victories here has been tedious and joyless as the team struggles to get Lionel Messi the one prize he’s missing, a World Cup title. That pressure isn’t easing.

“Every game with the national team is a very important one,” Scaloni said. “We will approach it as we did the previous ones.”

This one is a little different though because it’s a rematch of the 2014 semifinal with Argentina that ended scoreless after 120 minutes. Argentina advanced to the final in a penalty shootout, the only blemish on Dutch coach Louis van Gaal’s resume, one that includes eight wins and three draws in 11 World Cup games.

“Argentina, in my view, is a top country with top football players,” Van Gaal said. “The tournament, for us, is starting [Friday].”

Just don’t expect him to dance if the Netherlands team wins.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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