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What is wrong with Brazil? Traditional Copa America favourites nearing historic losing record with Neymar injured

“It’s a difficult time we’re going through, yes. But nothing that’s impossible to reverse quickly,” said Brazil’s new head coach Dorival Junior as he painted a positive picture in his first press conference in January, but the truth is: a dark cloud hangs over the Brazil national team.

With March friendlies against England and Spain set to present the final test before this summer’s Copa America, there are a lot of jitters currently about the Selecao. The heyday of the early 2000s, where Brazil captured a World Cup (2002) plus four of five Copa America titles (1997-2007) are long gone. With only one major trophy won in the last 16 years, Brazil’s dominance is fading, not only on the global football stage but also within their own continent.

Now, placed at a surprising sixth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying after the first six matches, Brazil finds the gap on the global field significantly narrowing.

If they are to perform poorly at this summer’s showcase tournament in the United States, the underlying anxieties about a disappointing World Cup will undoubtedly escalate to unprecedented levels, ringing alarm bells across the board.

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Brazil’s poor start to World Cup qualifying

The issues for Brazil have been bubbling for a number of years, but their start to 2026 World Cup qualification has threatened to transition recent foreshadowing into a full-blown crisis.

Brazil have been eliminated from the World Cup quarterfinals in four of the last five tournaments, a run which would give any global power reason to fear a permanent fall from grace. Yet thanks to a continual injection of young talent, Brazil are always a few results away from returning to its former glory.

Now, however, the dissent is louder than ever. Brazil have suddenly failed to win four competitive matches in a row, drawing with Venezuela before falling to Uruguay, Colombia, and hated rivals Argentina. All three losses prodded a different wound: The defeat to Uruguay signalled the rise of another sleeping CONMEBOL giant who could challenge the two-team hegemony in South America, a loss to Colombia was a disappointing result against a truly inferior opponent, and then Argentina confirmed that Brazil have been supplanted as the continent’s most dominant side.

In all three games, Brazil laid bare the unfortunate new hallmark of this once-great global power — a stark lack of mental toughness and end product. In the 2-0 defeat to Uruguay, they held 62 per cent possession and out-passed their opponents 530-334, but could only produce an alarming two shots, with neither forcing the goalkeeper into saves. The loss to Colombia saw Brazil take the lead just four minutes into the match, but then generated just two shots on target after that point, while conceding an alarming 23 shots (10 on target) to Colombia. Once Luis Diaz broke through with his 75th-minute equalizer, he needed just four more minutes to add the winner.

And finally, the 1-0 defeat to Argentina was perhaps the worst of them all — crowd trouble at the Maracana halted the match early as the two sets of fans clashed in the stands, which only sparked fervor in the defending World Cup champions. Brazil picked up three yellow cards in the first half, and Nicolas Otamendi’s goal in the 63rd minute felt inevitable. Joelinton’s late red card was the final blow across 90 minutes which laid bare every adverse trait that Brazil have acquired from the demon which has seemingly embedded itself in this Selecao side as its host.

Brazil struggles go beyond Neymar injury

For a Brazil side that used to punish weaker opponents while terrifying those worthy of competing as their equal, the most alarming feature of this new, toothless Selecao side is its lack of end product.

After clobbering Bolivia 5-1 to begin World Cup qualifying back in September, Brazil have scored one or fewer goals in every single match since. They barely snuck by Peru with a 90th-minute winner by Marquinhos, before cobbling together just two goals across their games with Venezuela, Uruguay, Colombia, and Argentina.

An ACL tear to talisman Neymar last October is an easy excuse, and the absence of possibly the world’s greatest creative dribbler has undoubtedly been a blow to the side. Yet Brazil are known for their otherworldly depth of talent, and the likes of Vinicius, Gabriel Jesus, Raphinha, Rodrygo, and Richarlison should be able to step in and do a job.

But they, quite simply, haven’t. Richarlison has been mired in a horrible run of form for club and country which only just recently looked to be turning around, and Vinicius has been left on an island from a creative perspective, unable to carry the side in a way that Neymar has in the past. Unfortunately for the former Barcelona and PSG star, his terrorizing of opposition full-backs has cost him dearly, as is repeatedly fouled which has lead to a run of ankle injuries stunting the prime of his career.

Still, even with Neymar on the field, Brazil have massively underwhelmed. They were held to a 1-1 draw with a veteran Croatia side in the 2022 World Cup quarterfinals, losing on penalties, and fell to Belgium in the 2018 quarters. The catastrophic 7-1 defeat to Germany on home soil in 2014 took years to heal but even before that, there were signs of a downturn.

There was the 2010 World Cup defeat to Netherlands by a 2-1 score, and the 1-0 loss to France four years before that. On repeated occasions, this Brazil team has proven incapable of beating the world’s best sides — although never before have they succumbed to opponents previously deemed inferior as regularly as they are now, which makes the current slide so alarming.

MORE: Will Neymar be fit to play at Copa America?

Brazil coaching vacuum embodies lack of top-down leadership

The head coaching job of the Brazil national team has somewhat epitomised a revolving door, but never quite to the extent that we’ve seen in recent years.

Tite led the side for six years from 2016-2022, which can be considered an eternity for the Brazil national team. Yet outside of the 2019 Copa America triumph, Brazil’s lone major trophy in the last 16 years, his tenure featured numerous disappointments. The Qatar World Cup was the final straw, and the federation went in a new direction — but hasn’t found an appropriate replacement.

The goal was to lure Carlo Ancelotti to the post, tabbing Fluminense boss Fernando Diniz to do double duty until the Italian’s contract at Real Madrid ran down, but he reversed course and signed a contract extension with the Spanish club, lengthening Brazil’s managerial hunt.

They did, however, land on Dorival Junior, who left Sao Paulo in January to lead the charge, but his time with Santos between 2015 and 2017 is the only stint of his 22-year career that lasted a full two seasons. Yes, that’s typical for Brazilian club football; no, that’s not an excuse for repeated change at the national team level.

Dorival Junior

While the coaching carousel is the most visible office to experience a vacuum, seeing is a lack of leadership at every level of the national federation. Starting at the top, Ednaldo Rodrigues was ejected as federation president in early December 2023 by the nation’s court system due to irregularities with his election, which prompted FIFA to threaten a suspension for government interference. Move down the ladder to the youth system, where the U-23 side failed to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, their first absence from the competition in 20 years.

“Brazil wasted a full year in preparations because we waited for a top coach (Ancelotti) who had signed no contract with us,” said former Brazil left-back Junior (not to be confused with new head coach Dorival Junior). “We burned a promising coach, Fernando Diniz, just so he could be interim for a year. The time to fix all this for the next World Cup is very short.”

Entering this vicious cycle is easy, but pulling out of it can be difficult. Keeping faith in a struggling coach for the sake of consistency comes with risk, but repeatedly making changes can put the incoming boss in a position of significant disadvantage. With so little match time to get ready for the summer’s Copa America, Dorival Junior will have to make his minutes count.

How can Brazil turn around recent crisis?

The turnaround starts with getting the best out of the team’s most talented players — and that doesn’t count Neymar, who will likely miss this summer’s Copa America due to his ACL tear.

Vinicius Jr has been his usual self, but he has almost no creative help. The likes of Gabriel Jesus, Richarlison, Raphinha, and Antony have vastly underperformed up front — not only has the finishing been below standards, but the chance creation is poor.

In midfield, Casemiro has regressed as he advances past 32 years old, and there’s been nobody to replace him as the two-way enforcer and progressor. Joelinton is probably the most adept and comparable replacement, but his injury history has sunk his availability. Lucas Paqueta is another option, but while his progression and creativity are bright, he still doesn’t provide nearly the same varied skill set as the Manchester United star.

At the back, Brazil captain Marquinhos has been a steady leader for the side, but they have collapsed far too often on his watch. It’s a damaging sign that his club team PSG also boast the same weak reaction to adversity during his time with the armband in Paris.

There also needs to be a significant mentality shift. Brazil collapses too easily when under pressure, and they do not face adversity with aplomb. Too many Brazilian stars give in to frustration, and 30 poor minutes compound themselves. Good coaches embrace the idea that poor performances cannot beat a successful team twice, but Brazil seems too susceptible to that mentality.

Dorival Junior has made clear the need for new, young talent. He has pieced together a totally experimental side for the friendlies against England and Spain — all three goalkeepers are uncapped, while the likes of Marquinhos, Casemiro, Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel Jesus, Antony, and Joelinton were all left out. Only two players — Lucas Paqueta and Richarlison — have more than 30 caps, while just Vinicius Jr, Raphinha, and Rodrygo sport 20 or more.

It’s a bold move which would normally be indicative of the start to a new World Cup cycle, not friendlies against two European football powers just months before a major tournament. Clearly, there’s a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time.

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