Negotiating the first round of the FIFA World Cup™ is no easy task. Aside from the obstacles thrown up by the Final Draw, teams also have to contend with the pressure of competing in a major competition and, on occasion, rely on results elsewhere going their way. Even defending world champions have been known to crash at the first hurdle, a fate that befell Italy in 1950, Brazil in 1966 and France in 2002.
Yet since exiting the group phase at England 1966, the Brazilians have made a habit of qualifying for the second round with something to spare. In fact, at the last eight FIFA World Cups, A Seleção have only needed two group games to book a berth in the next phase. Their latest qualifying masterclass came to a conclusion on Sunday evening, when Dunga’s charges brushed aside Côte d’Ivoire to seal their safe passage from Group G.
The last time the five-time world champions went into their final group game with the threat of elimination hanging over them was at Argentina 1978, when they edged past Austria 1-0 after opening up with draws against Sweden and Spain.
“It’s nice to know we’ve already made sure of qualification,” said captain Lucio after Brazil had extended their remarkable run. “It’s a weight off our shoulders and it changes the nature of the game against Portugal. And the fact we’re already through means we don’t have to depend on anyone else. The most important thing is that we’re playing well and that our performance in game two was far better than in our opening match.”
A cohesive unit
The South Americans owe their excellent recent group-phase record to their ability to overpower opponents in their opening two games. The introduction of three points for a win at USA 1994 also made it easier for sides to qualify for the second round after only two games, with Brazil proving more adept at that than anyone else.
In the USA 16 years ago, A Seleção teed off in Group B with a 2-0 defeat of Russia and followed up with a 3-0 win over Cameroon. With Sweden and the Indomitable Lions drawing 2-2 in their opening game, the Brazilians were home and dry before facing the Swedes.
History repeated itself in France four years later, when the South Americans followed a 2-1 defeat of Scotland with a 3-0 win over Morocco. Coupled with draws between the Moroccans and Norway and then the Scots and the Norwegians, that flying start meant they could afford to ease off against Egil Olsen’s side in their last section outing, Brazil going down 2-1 in Marseille in their last group-phase loss.
Since then Brazil have won all eight first-round matches they have played, starting with a 2-1 victory over Turkey at Korea/Japan 2002 and ending with Sunday’s impressive display against the Ivorians. In that time they have scored 23 goals and conceded a mere six, a record they will be looking to improve on when they face the Portuguese on Friday in a match that will decide who tops the pool.
“We are going to be playing at the same tempo and with the same commitment and make sure that we finish first in the group,” said defender Juan. “Finishing top is important because it means you’ll be coming up against a team with an inferior record. It’s also a morale booster. It helps to go into the knockout rounds full of confidence.”
Qualifying early is no guarantee of further success in the knockout phase, as Brazil found out when France eliminated them in the quarter-finals at Germany 2006. Yet, whatever happens when the field is whittled down to 16 in the next few days, there is little question that when the Final Draw for Brazil 2014 comes round, the qualifiers will wish to avoid becoming first-round cannon fodder for the voracious hosts.