There was a huge contrast in the moods in which Argentina and Brazil came away from the World Cup three months ago. For Argentina, of course, Qatar 2022 was a moment of a triumph almost too dramatic for words, and even sweeter than it was dramatic. A first World Cup win in 36 years and a victory for Lionel Messi in his 36th year, the script could hardly have been more perfect.
Brazil, meanwhile, limped back home with the long journey made worse by yet another defeat to European opposition at the quarterfinal stage. And although many Brazilians were happy to see Messi have his day, any sporting reaction to their neighbour’s victory also served to enhance a feeling of bitterness towards their own team. They were able to do it, so why couldn’t we?
Three months later, the contrast is maintained as the teams take the field for the first time since the World Cup.
Argentina are in full on celebration mode. On Thursday they host Panama in Buenos Aires, before next Tuesday heading north to Santiago del Estero to take on Curacao. The opposition do not really matter. It is of no importance that Panama are coming with a B team. These are hardly football games. They are extensions of the crazy scenes when the team flew back from Qatar after the tournament and attempted a street parade which had to be transformed into a helicopter fly over because there were so many millions out in Buenos Aires to catch a glimpse of them.
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Thursday’s game is an event, a joyful gathering which happens to have a football match somewhere in the middle. Before the kick-off there is a DJ, bands, a film about coach Lionel Scaloni and his men and a mass singing of “Muchachos,” the fans’ anthem in Qatar. There is another band at half-time. After the final whistle the World Cup trophy will be presented and then there are more bands to send the crowd happy into the night.
The World Cup squad have been called up. Soon decisions will have to be taken about the trio of 35-year-olds. The cycle of centre-back Nico Otamendi must surely be drawing to a close. The cases of Messi and Angel Di Maria are more delicate. Scaloni has stressed that a place on the plane to the next World Cup is theirs if they want it, but it is still way too early to know if this is a genuine possibility. And while Scaloni is already planning for the future it is too early to think about it. What Argentina really want to do over the next few days is host a party.
Brazil, on the other hand, are the visitors to someone else’s party. They play Morocco in Tangiers on Saturday, with the hosts seeking to celebrate their run to the World Cup semifinals. Coach Walid Regragui has reunited the squad that he took to Qatar.
Up against such continuity, Brazil are in a strange state of flux. They have a caretaker coach, under-20 boss Ramon Meneses, who will probably be in charge for this game only. Come the next FIFA dates in June he will be busy with the U20 World Cup in Indonesia. The hope is that by then a big-name European coach will have been appointed, with Carlo Ancelotti on top of the wish list. At some point, then, a new project will be launched. In the meantime, there is the idiosyncratic project of Meneses.
Leaving the likes of Gabriel Martinelli and Bruno Guimaraes out of the squad has left the stand in coach open to the accusation that he has not been following their games too closely. This is almost certainly correct. In January and February, Meneses had his hands full winning the South American Under-20 Championships, a competition with a fixture list so intense that there cannot have been much time for anything else. Five players from that squad have been promoted. Burly centre-forward Vitor Roque may well see some action on Saturday, along with right-back Arthur, who promises to be the solution in what has surprisingly become a problem position for Brazil.
At the other end of the age scale, Thiago Silva is out injured, and anyway his time in the national team may well have come to an end. And with Marquinhos also forced to withdraw, the match will be an opportunity to see how Eder Militao responds to being the senior centre-back.
Just in front of him there could be a debut for Andre of Fluminense, widely rated as the best of the new crop of defensive midfielders. And in the absence of the injured Neymar there is an opportunity for Rodrygo of Real Madrid to enhance his claims to be the future versatile brains of the Brazil attack.
The meeting with Morocco, then, is not an occasion for putting Brazil’s collective play under the microscope — this particular collective will probably never again be assembled. But there should be plenty to learn about individual performances. How these players deal with the euphoria of the Moroccan party will help the future coach assess whether or not they can play a part in Brazil’s quest to recapture a little euphoria of their own.