The men in the canary yellow jersey – the colour India hates in cricket – are here. And their cosmic connection with football and the world’s endearing adoration has not ebbed by the 20-year trophy lapse.
Here it played like a tournament favourite – a 2-0 win over downtrodden Serbia in its first match of Qatar 2022 – enlightening us with the charms of conjury. A timely reminder that football can be beautiful when a team plays with such breathtaking arrogance of uncomplicated brilliance to make us forget the other needs of life.
It started patchy, more a mid-pitch brawl of dirty fouls (a common feature of Brazil in recent years) and not the silken crescendo of a Bolshoi ballet that was preserved for our later pleasure. Serbia’s physicality was matched by devilish tenacity – Brazil, now, both, a team of daredevil tuk-tuks and million-dollar race cars. The goals finally came as Serbia’s pace dwindled and Brazil unleashed its till-then hidden inner self to turn the contest to its desires. Richarlison broke the deadlock in the 63rd minute, beating Starhinja Pavlovic to the rebound after Vanja Milinkovic-Savic had brilliantly kept away Vinicius Junior’s initial shot from the left. The Tottenham forward is “smelling goals”, his eighth for Brazil in seven games. And his ninth soon came in the 73rd minute to stop time in the beaming stadium – stupefied by the beauty and audacity of this strike.
He flicked and turned with the lithe grace of a principal ballerina leaving marker Milos Veljkovic lead-footed and his flying sidekick was an internet sensation the moment the ball hit the back of the net. He has scored similar goals before, for Fluminense and Everton, but this was the World Cup.
Vinicius was the creator again with an out-foot cross with the Serbian resilience completely broken, a shadow team of the first-half bravado. Casemiro hit the bar in the 82nd minute and Milinkovic-Savic came up with two top saves to keep out the efforts of Rodrygo and Fred. The gates to the goal were now wide open, but Brazil was happy to peak but not step inside.
The South Americans had earlier come out with all the attacking intent – five forward players, seven if you consider the marauding full-backs. But a resilient and committed Serbia did well to keep goals away as the first half minutes chipped away.
Vinicius was threatening most and skipped past challenges to fizz inside the box in the 13th minute, and only a lucky foot could push the ball out for a corner, which brought no rewards.
With little openings behind the tight Serbian defence, Casemiro tried the in-a-rut shot from distance, but this had only the sting and not the swerve and nestled calmly in the open arms of Milinkovic-Savic in the 21st minute.
The threat at the other end was even less, with Allison having little problem stepping out quickly to secure the towering ball from Milos Vejlokvic as Aleksandar Mitrovic lurked behind like a pickpocket in a Mumbai train.
The game’s first spark came in the 28th minute when the Serbian goalkeeper rushed out to dive and get a hand to wrest away the ball glued to onrushing Vinicius’s feet. He was quick again to get up and run out of his box to clear the danger before Rafinha could latch onto the loose ball.
A gorgeous one-two between Lucas Paqueta and Rafinha – one inside the other just outside the box – should have opened the scoring with 10 minutes to play. But the final shot from the West Ham midfielder was rather tame.
Rafinha stole a pass for Nemanja Gudelj 30 seconds from the restart, but the goalkeeper made amends by coming out and narrowing the angle and the Brazilian chose to hit the easier target – the man and not the empty goal lying behind.
Then a chance came Neymar’s way after Vinicius played him in the 55th minute but his left-footed snap, too, sailed high. But the Richarlison goals soon arrived and then it was a different game.