Richarlíson, Brazil and, maybe, the start of something special.
LUSAIL, Qatar — Not all goals sound the same. Sometimes, the noise they generate is one of joy, giddy and delighted. Sometimes, it is more guttural, not so much a celebration as a growl of defiance. At others, it is a sough of grateful relief. And very occasionally, it is something different: not an exhalation but a drawing of the breath. Sometimes, it is the sound of wonder.
For a little more than an hour, Brazil had toiled to overcome Serbia. The last of the heavyweights to start this tournament, Brazil had entered it with a head of steam: beaten only once in three years, untouchable for 18 months, expected to sweep aside anything standing that stood in the way of its long-awaited sixth World Cup.
Here it was, though, in front of a partisan and expectant crowd, grinding its way to an uninspiring win against an obdurate, but limited, opponent. It had the lead, thanks to the sort of gnarled, forgettable goal the game had merited, but it was hardly the sort of emphatic statement that had been anticipated.
Everything changed in a single instant. Vinicíus Junior burst down the left wing. With the outside of his right boot, he fizzed a low cross toward Richarlíson, the scorer of the first goal. As it traveled, the ball clipped an outstretched Serbian leg; only a little, but enough to change its trajectory.
Richarlíson did his best to readjust. The ball skipped off his foot and spun into the air. And then, instinct taking over, he leaped from the ground, twisting and contorting his body in a pirouette, and as the ball reached its apex he met it with a full, pure volley. It flashed past the outstretched arm of Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, Serbia’s helpless goalkeeper. The Lusail stadium, as one, pursed its lips and inhaled. Brazil, ever so slightly belatedly, had arrived.
There is a distinct possibility that moment will be seen, in a little less than a month, as the moment that Brazil’s campaign in Qatar caught light. Richarlíson is, to some extent, the most disposable member of Tite’s glittering forward line, not so much because of any shortcoming on his part but because of the vaguely obscene options available ahead of him.
Neymar, of course, is the star of the Brazil’s show, the player that plenty of those flooding into the Lusail had come to see — his name, when the teams were read out before the game, was greeted by a cheer roughly twice as loud as anyone else — but he is, unlike in the previous iterations of the Seleçao that have dotted his career, not alone.
On one side, he has Vinicíus Junior, the gleaming future of Real Madrid, already the scorer of the winning goal in a Champions League final, and on the other Raphinha, a man valuable enough that Barcelona mortgaged a good portion of its future to sign him last summer. The alternatives on the bench include a player who cost Manchester United $100 million, and is not even the first reserve for his country.
It is that supercharged armory, of course, that has made Brazil favorite for this tournament, regardless of the striking impressions made over the first round of games in Qatar by France, Spain and England. Its underpinnings, though, are no less significant: the poise and command of Casemiro in midfield; the experience and authority of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos in defense; the presence, as an option of last resort, of the best goalkeeper on the planet.
In those final 20 minutes, as the stadium recovered from its swoon, all of that fell into the sharpest relief possible. Richarlíson’s athleticism, his invention, seemed to have unlocked something in his teammates, to have reminded Brazil that it is the biggest and brightest show in town, that it was time to dust this tournament with its unique, compelling glamour.
And so, all of a sudden, the game reached the stage where Casemiro, the sole defensive midfielder, the only adult in the room, was breezily curling shots off the crossbar from 30 yards. Tite, as if keen to remind everyone else of what, precisely, they were dealing with, spent the final stages throwing on as many absurdly gifted attackers as he was permitted under the rules. Here was Rodrygo, and Antony, and Gabriel Jésus; and if you liked them, wait until you see Gabriel Martinelli.
That level of resource should, of course, provide some solace to the only sour note of the evening: the sight of Neymar hobbling from the field, his right ankle visibly swollen after suffering a heavy tackle. Though Alex Sandro, the left back, assured the news media after the game that Neymar was “fine,” just in a little bit of pain and in need of some ice, it did little to cool Brazil’s collective fever.
The early suggestions had it that the Paris St.-Germain forward had suffered a sprain; a nation found itself on tenterhooks. No matter how glistening the alternatives, no matter how enviable Brazil’s strength in depth, this remains a team constructed around and on behalf of Neymar. It is on his shoulders that the country’s hopes of the crown lie.
That is what Brazil expects, after all. It has been 20 years since it last conquered the world, since it last occupied what it regards as its rightful throne. It has waited long enough. In Qatar, nothing less than victory will do.
This is supposed to be a month that those Brazilian fans who have made the journey to the Gulf, and the nation as a whole, will never forget, four weeks of flashbulb moments and sculpted memories, a tournament in which Tite’s team leaves the rest of the world gasping for air.
Thanks to Richarlíson, Brazil has the first of those moments. The assumption, from all of those inside Lusail, once they had caught their breath, was that it will not be the last. Brazil, at last, has arrived.