The sun is about to set on Brazil this summer. The land of joga bonito has fielded one of, if not the, best generations of women’s soccer players over the last two decades, but age and an inability to adapt to the rapidly evolving game could see the Seleção’s campaign in France end in yet another disappointment. Despite finishing as runners-up to Germany at the 2007 World Cup, the star studded Brazilians have generally underwhelmed at the tournament, even though they have the greatest women’s soccer player of all time, Marta. Though she was the star of 2007, winning both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot in her second World Cup, she has not been able to lead the team back to the final since.
Since 2007, Brazil have been knocked out at the quarterfinal stage in 2011 (in a ridiculous match against the eventually runner-up United States) and then in the round of 16 in 2015, to Australia. Those same Aussies are in their group this time around, and Brazil can’t reasonably compare themselves to the Matildas in terms of talent or performance. Heading into this summer’s tournament, Brazil are on a horrid streak of form: one win in 11 matches, with nine straight defeats in pre-World Cup friendlies. Part of the blame should go to the Brazilian FA, which booked the toughest opponents available; losses to the U.S., Japan, England (twice), and France might have done more harm than good.
But Brazil are also just older and slower and tactically rigid. You know what you’ll get from the team, because it’s what you’ve gotten for the last decade. They will play a 4-4-2, with Marta and Cristiane up top. They will also likely start their other legends: Formiga in the center, and Barbara in goal. And they will struggle in defense, particularly after star defender Rafaelle underwent knee surgery late last year. As every other top team either improved or revamped ahead of this tournament, Brazil seem content to stick with what hasn’t worked in the past.
Of course, Brazil do still have Marta in what will likely be her last World Cup. There’s no overstating how good or how important the 33-year-old has been for not just Brazil, but all of women’s soccer. The accolades and statistics are mind-boggling: six player of the year awards, including one last year; 110 goals in 133 matches for Brazil; top scorer titles all over the world. Though she is small—just 5-foot-4—Marta makes up for her lack of size with some of the quickest feet in history, unbelievable dribbling and, most notably, the ability to score from anywhere in the final third.
Unfortunately for Brazil, their current system simply asks too much of Marta. She will have to play both poacher and playmaker, next to another player past her prime in Cristiane. (It might be a good idea to try playing Marta next to a young newcomer in either Geyse—who has scored a ludicrous 49 goals in 27 league games for Benfica in Portugal’s second division—or Ludmila, who just won La Liga with Atlético Madrid, for a burst of energy and pace.) Does Marta have enough left in the tank to carry Brazil to glory, or at least something that isn’t one last disappointment (say, a semi-finals berth)? That will be the question that defines Brazil’s last ride in France. If recent results are to be believed, even Marta’s individual brilliance won’t be enough to paper over the cracks.
But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Brazil come into this World Cup free of any of the expectations that have at times seemed to overwhelm the team. As long as they advance out of the group (and they should, though likely in second place behind Australia), we’ll get at least four games out of this golden generation before they go down in a blaze of glory.
Women’s soccer owes Brazil, and Marta specifically, a debt of gratitude for how they’ve aided in the rise in popularity and the renewed investment in the women’s game. Marta didn’t do it alone, but the game has been lucky enough to have her around all these years. She might not be the what she was in 2007, but against anyone, Marta can still show that she’s the GOAT.
Goalkeepers: Aline Reis (Granadilla), Barbara (Kindermann), Letícia Izidoro (Corinthians)
Defenders: Camila (Orlando Pride) Érika (Corinthians), Poliana (São José)*, Kathellen (Bordeaux) Letícia Santos (SC Sand), Mônica (Corinthians), Tamires (Fortuna Hjørring), Tayla (Benfica)
Midfielders: Luana (Hwacheon KSPO), Andressinha (Portland Thorns FC), Formiga (Paris Saint-Germain), Thaisa (Milan)
Forwards: Andressa Alves (Barcelona), Bia Zaneratto (Incheon Red Angels), Cristiane (São Paulo), Debinha (North Carolina Courage), Geyse (Benfica), Ludmila (Atlético Madrid), Marta (Orlando Pride), Raquel (Sporting Huelva)
O Seleção (The Selection)
Coach Vadão will have Brazil playing one of the most inflexible systems in the tournament, settling in with a 4-4-2 that relies on wide playmaking and the considerable talents of Marta and Formiga in the center of the attack and midfield, respectively. Given the age and deteriorating pace of most of the principals, as well as Vadão’s penchant for slotting players out of position (Marta played right midfield against Spain, for some reason), Brazil will look to dominate possession, rather than break on the counters; though, for them to have any notable success, they will likely need to unlock the potential of one of their next-generation forwards.
The midfield four will likely be the barometer for how well Brazil are playing. Formiga and Barcelona’s versatile Andressa Alves will man the middle, while Bia Zanaretto (recovering from injury but deemed fit for inclusion in the squad) and Debinha should be on the outside pushing up. If they can control the ball and get it into attacking positions without getting harassed by opposing presses, maybe there will be something to this Brazil team. But if they get overrun like they did in all those friendly losses, expect a handful of long days for the Seleção, who simply don’t possess the individual power needed to slug out wins in the center of the park.
The defense took a huge blow when Rafaelle was ruled out for the tournament in November, and will now have to rely on underwhelming old hands like Érika and Mônica, who started a disappointing 1-0 defeat to not-quite-elite Scotland in April. The fullbacks, Leticia Santos and Tamires, are serviceable but won’t scare anyone; perhaps Vadão will slot Alves in at left back to give the team more attacking oomph from out wide, without sacrificing too much going the other way.
June 9, 9:30 a.m.: Brazil vs. Jamaica at Stade des Alpes
June 13, 12 p.m.: Australia vs. Brazil at Stade de la Mosson
June 18, 3 p.m.: Italy vs. Brazil at Stade du Hainaut
All times Eastern
CORRECTION: This post originally had Fabiana on the roster, but she was replaced by Poliana due to injury. This has been corrected.