Count Brazil among those teams breathing a sigh of relief that the World Cup’s unpredictable group stage is over.
The South Americans staved off elimination and confirmed their passage to the second round Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Serbia at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium that was more tense than it was comfortable, leaving Brazil with a lot of work to do moving forward.
In the other Group E finale, Switzerland grabbed second place and a spot in the round of 16 after a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica in Nizhny Novgorod. Brazil will meet Mexico in an elimination game Monday in Samara and Switzerland meets Sweden on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
While Brazil will go as the group champion, as it had hoped, it won’t be going as one of the tournament’s dominant teams, as it had expected. But that’s OK with the Brazilians.
“We don’t live off expectations; we live off reality,” said Brazil’s coach Tite, who insisted the best is yet to come.
“It’s a team that is growing strong. There is still more to grow. From here, it’s up.”
He better hope so because this World Cup has so far been an unsettling one for the favorites. France and Spain both survived some shaky play to make it through the group play unbeaten. But Argentina did not, needing a win on the final day of group play to advance.
Germany didn’t even get that far, losing to South Korea and becoming the fourth defending champion in five World Cups to go home after three games.
Brazil entered Wednesday knowing a draw probably would be enough to see it through and it responded with its best game of the tournament. Its problem in Russia hasn’t been so much on the field as off it where Neymar, the team’s captain and talisman, has been an emotional wreck. He’ll need to be a rock if Brazil is made a run at a record sixth title.
Surgery on a broken toe in February left Neymar’s status for the World Cup in doubt, but a difficult and unrelenting rehab regimen got him to Russia ready to play. Physically.
The stress of the last four months caught up with him here. After Brazil scored twice in stoppage time to beat Costa Rica in its second game, Neymar dropped to his knees on the field and cried.
This isn’t the first time emotion has gotten the better of Brazil. Four years ago, playing in the World Cup at home, many of Brazil’s players broke down in tears ahead of a penalty shootout against Chile. The team rushed a psychologist to the training camp to help the players cope.
It didn’t work. Ten days later, Brazil, without an injured Neymar, was blown out by Germany 7-1, the most one-sided World Cup semifinal in history.
In Russia, Brazil and Neymar have bounced back.
In a game it had to win if it wanted to win the group Brazil got a first-half goal from Paulinho and a second-half header by Thiago Silva — off a Neymar assist — to leave no doubt.
“We know how hard the World Cup is,” Paulinho said. “And today we took another step.”
“If they have reached a certain standard, I challenge them to go up, individually and collectively. My expectation — we’ve reached it. It’s an evolution.”