THE pigeon dance probably brought the cat out. Brazil’s latest move, sparked by forward Richarlison, to celebrate its goals has become a talking point at the World Cup in Qatar. There have been accusations that it’s disrespectful towards opponents. Then, there was the cat; a stray that became the showstopper of Vinicius Jr’s press conference on Wednesday night. The Brazilian media officer’s efforts to get the cat out of the way, then garnered more attention.
On the eve of their quarter-final against Croatia, at Brazil’s press conference on Thursday which was packed to the brim, their coach Tite was even inquired about the well-being of the cat. An odd question ahead of a crucial World Cup game, but there was also an enquiry from wing-back Danilo about a potential meeting in the final with Morocco, the Arab side who have punched above their weight to become the first Arab team to reach the last eight of the tournament.
“The focus is on Croatia right now,” Danilo, once derided by Brazil for his lack of attacking qualities but not appreciated for his defensive solidity under Tite, said. “The high level of competition here doesn’t allow us to focus beyond the game.”
An act under focus remains the pigeon dance, though. Tite joined Richarlison in his imitation of a pigeon after he scored in their 4-1 demolition of South Korea in the last-16 and on Thursday defended his decision of doing that, saying joining his young players in their celebratory moves helps him foster a connection with them.
“I’m 61 and I work with players who are 22 or 23,” said Tite. “They could well be my grandchildren. If I have to dance to connect with them, I will continue doing it with them. There will be more of the same.”
Fostering that connection has been crucial for Tite, only the second Brazil coach to have hung on to his job after failing to deliver a World Cup. Four years ago in Russia, Brazil crashed out in the quarter-finals but Tite is still here, looking to end a two-decade wait for the title that Brazilians believe is always theirs to win.
Their opponents Croatia too have carried on with the same coach who was there in Russia. Zlatko Dalic oversaw a memorable run by the Croatians, who reached the final for the first time in history before they were beaten by France in Moscow.
With the pigeon dance being a major talking point, Dalic too was asked about the Brazilian celebration during Croatia’s news conference on Thursday. “They have their own way to celebrate and it’s their right,” he said. “I would of course not like my players dancing like that but that’s probably because there is a difference of culture.”
The dance moves for Brazil, though, only come on when they are in full flow and it begs the question whether there will be a similar celebration if they were to be chasing the game.
The victory over the Koreans eased some pressure off Brazil, who saw their second-string go down to Cameroon in their final group game. But Croatia’s battle-hardened team, willing to go the full distance to win their games, won’t be pushovers.
In their very first knockout match at this World Cup, they ousted Japan in a penalty shootout. It’s something they relish, sucking out the energy of their opponents before beating them into submission. In Russia, all their knockout ties apart from the final went beyond 90 minutes.
“In terms of players, they have excellent players in Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic and Ivan Perisic,” admitted Danilo. “This match will require us to perform at our maximum level.” Assistant coach Cleber Xavier, sitting alongside Tite and Danilo, noted Croatia had “players with high technical skills”. “We respect their personality and resilience,” he added.
The 37-year-old Modric, Croatia’s talismanic captain, remains key for Dalic’s side. On Thursday, it promises to be an intriguing battle between him and Brazil’s lodestar Neymar. Modric will also come across his Real Madrid team-mate Vinicius.
“I will try to help out my team-mates by advising them on how we can stop Vinicius who is a quality player,” Modric, sitting alongside Dalic, told reporters at the news conference.
A day earlier, Vinicius spoke about Modric and his ability to influence matches despite his advancing years.
“It’s always very difficult to play against players with such quality and Modric has always taught me a lot and continues to do it every day. I’m happy to play against him and may the best man win.”
He also had a word of praise for Neymar, his idol.
“He takes the pressure off all the young players and takes it upon himself,” said Vinicius.
There is huge pressure on Neymar to deliver, especially after Brazil failed to advance from this stage in Russia and there being widespread belief that the current side is ripe for success.
Croatia have undergone an overhaul after their campaign four years ago and yet they have lost just one game in 11 under Dalic at World Cups; the one being the final against France.
“I believe the match ahead of us would be the most amazing one,” said Dalic. “… I can compare it with the final against France. I wish such a game could’ve come for us later in the tournament but we’ve been playing well and we will try to get a win tomorrow.”
Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2022