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. Vinícius Júnior burst down the left wing. With the outside of his right boot, he fizzed a low cross toward Richarlison, 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.
Richarlison 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. Richarlison 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.
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On one side, he has Júnior, 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. Richarlison’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,” and Tite said that he was confident the team would have him available, it did little to cool Brazil’s collective fever.
The early suggestions had it that the Paris St.-Germain forward had suffered a sprain, but 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 Richarlison, 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.
The joy on the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the start of Brazil’s first World Cup match eventually turned to tension as neither team had scored into the 60th minute. Fans began to speculate on the scenarios to advance if Brazil ended up tying Serbia in a match it was heavily favored to win.
Then Richarlison kicked in a rebounded save at the 61st minute and the scene erupted.
“I feel more calm now,” said Sandro Pinto, 47, a professor of soccer at Rio’s best public university. (The kind of guy you meet in Brazil.) He was leaning against a silver Chevrolet sedan, his 6-year-old son on his shoulders, watching a bar’s televisions. Then Brazil nearly scored again, “The trend is to get better,” after a goal, he said.
Moments later, Richarlison scored again with an acrobatic volley goal.
“Que golaço,” he said in Portuguese. Or, in English, “What a magnificent goal.”
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil does not celebrate Thanksgiving, but it is in effect a national holiday here this year. School, banks and government offices closed early on Thursday, and just about everyone was off work, unless they were serving beer or frying something. The national team was back in action.
Fans spilled out of bars onto the streets across Rio’s beachside Copacabana neighborhood on Thursday afternoon. Most people wore the national team’s iconic yellow jerseys, but this year, there was a lot more blue in the mix. That is because the yellow jerseys have become a sort of uniform for supporters of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, and many on the left have begun wearing the team’s alternative blue jersey in response.
The jersey is not the only thing that has become politicized. Brazil’s star player, Neymar, was one of Bolsonaro’s most vocal supporters ahead of last month’s election, which Bolsonaro lost. Neymar even promised to pay homage to Bolsonaro after his first goal in the World Cup, though such political statements are banned.
“It’s wrong. The team doesn’t belong to any political party,” said Fabrício Neves, 42, an offshore oil technician standing outside a bar wearing a blue Romarío jersey from Brazil’s championship 1994 team. “We go through a lot of hardship here, and the national team brings us some joy for a little while.”
No question at all who the crowd at Lusail has come to see this evening. The names of Serbia’s players were greeted with polite applause. So, too, those of the Brazil team. Right up until we got to Neymar, when the whole stadium seemed to shake. He’s the player Brazilians believe can deliver a sixth World Cup, of course, but he’s also a star of considerable gravity to the relative neutrals here. Brazil games are always a patchwork of nationalities; it is, after all, soccer’s greatest show, and people want to see it whether they’re invested in how the team does or not. And the star of that show, without doubt, is Neymar.
DOHA, Qatar — The eyes were drawn to Cristiano Ronaldo, even more than normal.
Fans poured into Stadium 974 to cheer him and the Portugal team he has led for a generation. But mostly him. There may be no more ubiquitous jersey in soccer than Ronaldo’s No. 7, and on Thursday a good portion of that laundry seemed to have congregated inside a temporary arena dropped between a port and the highway to Doha’s international airport.
As much as anything, Portugal fans wanted to see what Ronaldo would do next — and maybe last. He is 37 now, and suddenly unemployed, having chain-sawed a burning bridge with Manchester United this month. The fight has left Ronaldo’s reputation and career exit in flux. But nothing can repair an image and spackle a legacy like the World Cup.
The ball, and the game, revolved around Ronaldo, not unexpectedly. And when the scoreless match needed an uncorking midway through the second half, it was Ronaldo, of course, who did the honors. His penalty kick just after the hour mark sent Portugal on its way to what became — after an overflow of late goals — an uneasy 3-2 victory.
AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Not every World Cup game will be a blockbuster.
For every explosion of offense (see: England, France, Spain) and every underdog stunner (see: Saudi Arabia, Japan), there are games whose appeal might be more narrowly confined to the connoisseurs and the purists.
Consider the opening match in the World Cup’s Group H on Thursday night, where Uruguay and South Korea sparred to a scoreless draw in front of 41,663 fans at Education City Stadium. The teams circled each other before a happily buzzing crowd, sizing each other up. But neither delivered a deciding blow.
Neither fan base will be crushed by the result, either. A point each in the opener, with Portugal awaiting both teams later in the first round, can be a fine way to start a tournament.
“Neither team wants to lose points and it was a very calculated game in the end,” Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani said. “If you don’t free it up in the first few minutes, it became a game like that: physical, hard, little space, little chances.
Uruguay was favored. It brought an experienced team to Qatar, including Martin Caceres, Diego Godín and Luis Suárez, whose inclusions in the starting lineup gave them each appearances at four World Cups. When Edinson Cavani entered midway through the second half, he, too, joined the four World Cup club.
The match was played to the ceaseless drumbeat of a small but vocal group of South Korean fans, decked in bright red, in one of the corners of the stadium. The Uruguayans chimed in periodically from the opposite corner.
Those fans — and any neutrals — were subjected to a cagey tactical battle, with South Korea working quickly, crocheting short passing sequences up the field and side to side, controlling possession until the second half, when they assumed a more defensive perspective. Uruguay, meanwhile, seemed content all night to slow the game down, to defend calmly in a low block, to pick moments to charge up the field with its fearsome stable of attackers.
The Koreans’ best chance to score in the first half materialized in the 34th minute, after they worked the ball to Hwang Ui-jo, all alone directly in front of the goal. But he skied his one-time shot over the crossbar and could only smile at his mistake.
“We’re all human,” said Son Heung-min, South Korea’s captain. “We all make mistakes. Ui-jo, from our team, is the best striker.”
Uruguay responded in the 43rd, when Godín rose high to thump a header toward goal, only to see it bang tantalizingly off the left post.
The Uruguayans may have felt disappointed not to get more from their star-studded squad, which includes several players making their World Cup debuts, like Darwin Núñez, who plays for Liverpool, and Frederico Valverde, who has been sharp this season for Real Madrid.
Núñez cut inside with the ball in the 81st minute and glared determinedly at goal, but he drilled his curling shot wide of the right post. About eight minutes later, Valverde drilled a shot from the outside the box that crashed into the left post, leaving the entire goal shaking.
On the South Korean side, meanwhile, all eyes were trained on Son, who had surgery earlier this month to repair a fractured bone in his face that had threatened his participation in the tournament. Wearing a black protective mask, Son floated around the periphery of the action, drawing murmurs whenever he picked up the ball, but, other than a shot that swerved wide in the dying moments of regulation, he mostly failed to affect play.
Switzerland opened its World Cup campaign with a 1-0 victory against Cameroon on Thursday, a result delivered by a goal from a player whose life story reflects the complexity of nationality and identity in an interconnected world.
The goal arrived in the 48th minute, on a strike by Breel Embolo, a Swiss striker who was born in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé. Embolo turned in a low cross from Xherdan Shaquiri, but declined to celebrate it: Instead he held up his hands in what looked like a gesture of apology before he was swallowed by his celebrating teammates.
Embolo, 25, plays for the French club Monaco. But he was born in Cameroon and then to Europe as a child, first to France and then to Switzerland.
“I am very happy that he is playing for us,” Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer said. “That’s why we won today.”
Cameroon’s coach, Rigobert Song, spoke to Embolo after the game and said he offered his congratulations to a player he referred to as “my little brother.”
“We know each other, he is my little brother,” Song told reporters. “We often speak to each other on the phone and I wanted to congratulate him. It is fair play to do so. Just because we are on different teams, it does not mean we are not still brothers.”
“He did not celebrate his goal, but this is all part of football,” Song added. “I’m happy for him and proud of him. He is with the Swiss national team and I would have liked him to be on my side, but that is the way of life.”
Embolo has now scored for Switzerland at consecutive major championships, having opened their goal account at last summer’s European Championship, too.
Cameroon vs. Switzerland
How to watch: 5 a.m. Eastern. FS1, Telemundo, Peacock.
Cameroon takes great pride in being the most successful African team in World Cup history — thanks to eight appearances at the tournament, including one quarterfinal appearance — and expectations are high.
This week, the assistant manager, Sébastien Migné, was pushed on whether the team could win the World Cup. That’s unlikely, but overcoming Switzerland is not impossible.
Uruguay vs. South Korea
How to watch: 8 a.m. Eastern. FS1, Telemundo, Peacock.
“We respect South Korea,” Uruguay’s manager, Diego Alonso, said on Wednesday. “They have a lot of good players. It’s not just Son Heung-min.”
It does not always feel like that, admittedly, and if the Koreans are to overcome a Uruguayan team benefiting from the emergence of a promising young generation, they will need Son, Asia’s biggest star but now playing only weeks after sustaining a fractured eye socket, both fit and in form.
There has been a degree of hopefulness, in the last few days, in the desperate search for Brazil’s pressure point. Perhaps it’s the fullbacks: If Daniel Alves, his bubbling energy now finally starting to simmer at age 39, can get in the squad, the options cannot be outstanding.
Or maybe it’s the midfield: Perhaps Tite, the country’s coach, will be unable to resist the temptation to deploy his vast array of attacking talent, leaving Casemiro as the only overworked adult in the room. Or, at a pinch, it could be Neymar. Can Neymar be relied upon to deliver when it matters?
How to watch Brazil vs. Serbia: 2 p.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock.
It all feels just a little desperate. There is no guarantee that Brazil will win the World Cup, of course, not least because of the quality of some of its rivals. Argentina and now Germany might have stumbled, but France, England and, thanks to a faintly harrowing demolition of Costa Rica on Wednesday, Spain have all shown their hand. The field is taking shape.
In the weeks before the tournament, the assumption was that Brazil was at the head of it. Tite has at his disposal a “golden generation,” as his Serbian counterpart, Dragan Stojkovic, put it. Stojkovic, for those with long enough memories, knows a thing or two about golden generations. There is no obvious pressure point. This is the best team Brazil has sent to a finals since it won the tournament in 2002; it is, in fact, a substantially better team than the one that triumphed in Japan 20 years ago. It has seen the standard. Now it is time to match it.
Portugal vs. Ghana
How to watch: 11 a.m. Eastern. Fox, Telemundo, Peacock.
Remarkably, Portugal — the European champion only six years ago, and a regular contender for major honors for much of the last two decades — is likely to open its campaign to win the World Cup with a team that includes a striker currently without a club.
Cristiano Ronaldo, a little-known 37-year-old from the island of Madeira, was recently released by his former employer and will be hoping good performances at the tournament can help him catch the eye of a new club.