In his second spell as coach of Brazil, Luiz Felipe Scolari has amassed a record of 19 wins, six draws and three defeats, with 70 goals scored and just 26 conceded. Since winning the FIFA Confederations Cup last year, his team have suffered just one defeat in 10 games. Unfortunately, that turned out to be as costly as it was painful: the harrowing 7-1 loss against Germany last Tuesday. The result ended a 64 year dream of winning the World Cup on home soil.
Having had just four days to recover from the defeat, Brazil now take on the Netherlands in Brasilia in the Play-Off for Third Place. While coming third is important, the team will have another source of motivation when they take the field. It is a chance for Scolari and his players to validate the work they have invested in a campaign in which the team achieved a winning percentage of 75%, yet still finished two steps away from their goal.
"Now we have to focus on the goal of coming third," said Scolari at a press conference. "We know that even a win won’t take away the disappointment, but we have to have objectives. We couldn’t achieve our aim of reaching the final, so now we have to play for a smaller dream.”
This will be Brazil’s fourth appearance in the Third Place Play-Off. Interestingly, there are similarities between the current campaign and those of 1938, 1974 and 1978, the other years when Brazil played in the podium decider - with the crucial difference that the team was not the host nation on those occasions.
The 1938 FIFA World Cup was when Brazil first announced itself to the world as a major footballing power. After overcoming Poland and Czechoslovakia in the knockout stages, the team was eventually defeated 2-1 by eventual champions Italy in the semi-final. Interestingly, Brazil’s best player, Leonidas da Silva, was ruled out of that match due to injury problems, just like Neymar this year. Unlike the young striker, however, the Black Diamond recovered in time to play in his team’s last match, and scored two goals in a 4-2 win over Sweden. He eventually finished the tournament as top goalscorer with seven goals.
By the time the 1974 World Cup in Germany came around, the structure of the tournament had changed. The semi-final stage consisted of two groups of four teams, with Brazil facing Argentina, East Germany and the Netherlands. In the last match of the group, the reigning world champions were beaten by the fast-emerging “Clockwork Orange,” as the Dutch team was known. Although the 2-0 scoreline was far less impressive than what the Germans were able to achieve 40 years later, the result left the Brazilians equally stunned, coming just days after coach Mario Zagallo had guaranteed his team would win. In their final game in the tournament, Brazil lost again, this time 1-0 to Poland.
This same tournament structure was used at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. In the second phase Brazil were placed in a group with the host nation, Poland and Peru. Despite remaining unbeaten, Brazil were eliminated and had to watch as Argentina advanced to the final. The similarity between that year and the current campaign was the consistency of the team’s results, with coach Claudio Coutinho announcing he was pleased with his work even if the title had eluded his team. In the battle for third place, Brazil managed to overcome their disappointment by beating Italy 2-1, with a memorable goal from full-back Nelinho.
Three Third Place Play-Offs then, and two symbolic bronze medals for Brazil. Now it is the turn of Scolari's team to try to say farewell with dignity, in front of fans who never turned their backs on their team, even during its darkest moments.
“We didn’t expect such a catastrophic defeat, in terms of the number of goals we conceded. But don’t forget that this is the first time the team has reached the World Cup semi-final since 2002," recalls the coach. "It was a bad defeat, six minutes of total meltdown. If I knew how it happened I’d tell you, but I don’t.”
Scolari knows that many of the current group have a long future ahead with A Seleção. Now it is time to get back on track against the Netherlands. "Life goes on. It isn’t just about the defeats," concluded Scolari. "These players will continue to give everything for Brazil. At least 70 per cent of them will be back in 2018, with a different mind-set.”