Can Brazil shed its bridesmaid tag?
When it comes to describing the women's national team of Brazil, there is no shortage of superlatives. Dynamic, creative, entertaining are among the accolades with which the Samba Queens are showered. Yet there remains one label that has proved maddeningly elusive -- world champion.
To call Brazil a bridesmaid doesn't quite do the team justice; perpetual maid of honor is more like it. Brazil has fallen in the final of the past three major tournaments. In 2004, it lost to the U.S. in the Olympics 2-1 in overtime on a goal by Abby Wambach. Three years later, in the World Cup final against Germany, a missed penalty kick by superstar Marta helped condemn the Canarinhas to a 2-0 defeat.
But the bitterest pill of all came a year later in the final of the 2008 Olympics. Brazil dominated the U.S for long stretches, yet a combination of heroic defending and stellar goalkeeping from Hope Solo allowed the Americans to hang around in a match they had no business being in. Solo's save from Marta's close-range shot had to be seen to be believed, and when Carli Lloyd popped up in extra time to score the game winner, Brazil was forced to accept the silver medal once again.
So what stops Brazil from making a breakthrough? Those associated with the team repeatedly talk about "the small details" on the field, such as maintaining focus and self-belief. Such is the team's comfort on the ball that overconfidence has often crept into Brazil's game, a trait that can morph into a lack of killer instinct. But there have also been complaints that circumstances off the field are hindering the team's progress, especially heading into the World Cup.
"I've been talking to some of the girls, and they are very disappointed because we have a lot of talent, but unfortunately our federation isn't helping them in terms of the preparation," said former Brazilian international Sissi. "They've played probably two [friendly] games, but they believe it's not enough for a big competition like the World Cup. Unfortunately, this is what is going on. I know the players are very frustrated because it seems [the CBF] is not very serious about it."
A quick look at Brazil's pre-World Cup schedule bears this out, especially when compared to the other World Cup contenders. While the Samba Queens were warming up against Chile and a select team of domestic players, Germany was playing friendlies against World Cup participants North Korea and Norway. The U.S., meanwhile, played a similar schedule, facing off twice against Japan before concluding with games against Mexico and Norway, the latter of which took place behind closed doors.
It's almost as if the Brazilian team is a victim of its own success. Why should more money be thrown at the team when it's already come so close to claiming victories in major tournaments?
In an email, Brazil midfielder Rosana seemed almost resigned to the situation. "We're still waiting for changes, so at this point we need to keep working hard and keep hoping for a better future," she said.
Yet even amid such challenges, there remains some optimism that Brazil will at last claim a championship. The current roster is as talented as it has ever been. Not only is Marta the reigning five-time FIFA Player of the Year, but partner-in-goals Cristiane returns for another run at a title. In midfield, players such as Formiga and Rosana enable Brazil to play a style every bit as sophisticated as their male compatriots. In defense, Aline and Renata Costa provide stability in the back, and their distribution is often critical to the team's possession game.
More importantly, the lessons learned from previous tournaments as well as at club level have given the players a greater depth of knowledge than they had before. Marta, Cristiane and Formiga have all played in the United States, while Rosana and Elaine have spent time with European clubs.
"We've gained more experience, and if I need to pick one thing, I would say that we are more mentally prepared," said Rosana.
"I think Brazil has matured," said ESPN television analyst and World Cup-winning former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco. "Marta is a better player than she was three years ago in the Olympics. They have a bunch of other good young players, some of whom have played in the United States. This helps them because they're in a more professional environment that is more structured. It helps them become full professionals, I think."
For those reasons, it's clear that Brazil remains one of the tournament favorites, although Marta's presence alone is probably enough to earn that status. But simply being among the top teams in the world is no longer enough for this group.
"We have been very close, so we hope this time we achieve our goal," said Rosana. "We need to start strong and finish strong."
Only then will Brazil shed the tag of bridesmaid once and for all.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.