To get past Belgium in the quarterfinals at the World Cup, Brazil has to do something it has not been able to do since it last won the tournament in 2002: overcome European opposition in the knockout stages.
Since beating Germany 2-0 in the 2002 World Cup final, the five-time winner has been eliminated by European sides in the three subsequent competitions. Brazil lost to France and the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and was humiliated 7-1 by Germany in the semifinals four years ago at home.
Fortunately for the Selecao, Belgium has a poor record against South American sides at the World Cup. Not only has Belgium not won any of its games against South American teams in the knockout stages, it hasn’t even managed to score a goal. Most recently, Belgium lost 1-0 to Argentina in the 2014 quarterfinals.
The core of that side remains in place in Russia, where Belgium has won all four of its matches, including coming back from 2-0 down to beat Japan in the round of 16 with a thrilling counterattack in the final seconds of injury time.
Everyone knew about the array of talent running through the Belgium side, from Thibaut Courtois in goal to Kevin De Bruyne in midfield and Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku up front. The main questions following disappointing defeats in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship centered on the team’s character.
That 3-2 victory over Japan was the first time a team has overcome a two-goal deficit to win outright since West Germany beat England in 1970, and the first to do it in regulation since Portugal came from three down to beat North Korea in 1966. It has fueled confidence inside the Belgium camp that it can deal with adversity and make the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1986.
“Maybe it’s this sort of match that we needed for the future,” said Hazard, the captain.
Coach Roberto Martinez won praise for his substitutions, with both Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli scoring, the latter with practically the last kick of the match.
“You have to find solutions, you have to find reaction but what you have to find more than anything is the desire and togetherness of a group of players, that they are desperate to perform,” Martinez said.
Unlike the game against Japan, Martinez said, Belgium will be the underdog Friday in the quarterfinal in Kazan, and as such, should play with a certain amount of freedom.
“I think it’s a game that when you are a little boy, you dream of being involved in a World Cup, facing Brazil in a quarterfinal,” he said, “so from our point of view we can enjoy from the first second.”
Brazil coach Tite dismissed talk that his team is the favorite to win the match against Belgium, let alone the World Cup.
“Everything is open, up for grabs,” he said.
The winner will play France or Uruguay in the semifinals in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.