FEW national teams have experienced the ups and downs of Brazil over the last five years but the good news for fans of the selecao is that they are ascendant as Russia approaches.
Brazil won the 2013 Confederations Cup, hammering an all-conquering Spain side 3-0 in the final. A year later they were humiliated 7-1 at home by Germany in the World Cup semifinals and early exits at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 deepened the gloom.
But the improvement since Tite took over as coach in June 2016 has been remarkable and Brazil are now joint favourites to win a record sixth World Cup.
Much of that credit goes to the wily coach, who has instilled a sense of purpose in a team that looked lost under his predecessor Dunga.
Tite has retained a few players from 23 who failed on home soil four years ago, with Neymar, Marcelo, Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Willian and Paulinho among those included in the final 23.
The central defence has been shored up with Marquinhos and Miranda, and Brazil under Tite have conceded just five goals in 19 games. The midfield has a balance of solid and creative, with Casemiro providing the backbone, Paulinho capable of going box-to-box, and Renato Augusto offering some spark.
Up front Tite has an embarrassment of riches, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho the likely starters with able back-up on the bench from speedy wingers Willian and Douglas Costa.
Those players helped Brazil to become the first team to qualify for Russia with a record string of nine successive wins, but they must take care to rein in any euphoria.
Brazil have historically done better at World Cup tournaments when they fly off hated rather than feted by their own press and fans.
In 1970, 1994 and 2002, the selecao left home under a cloud only to silence their doubters and lift the cup.
In 1982 and 2006 it was the opposite, as teams headed to Europe expecting to canter to victory.
Tite is nothing if not pragmatic and he has worked overtime to ensure his players are focused on the task at hand.
On the field his work has been exemplary, as 15 wins in 19 games prove. How he prepares them off it may be almost as important.
FIFA ranking: 2
Brazil is the only country to appear in every World Cup and the only nation to win the trophy five times. After losing at home in the final match in 1950 they won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1962 and then made it three in Mexico in 1970 with what many consider to be the greatest team of all time. After a 24-year drought that included heart-breaking eliminations in 1982 and 1986 they won again in 1994 with Romario and Bebeto starring. A rejuvenated Ronaldo, back from a series of knee injuries, helped them win the title in Japan in 2002 but they have disappointed since, not least in losing 7-1 to Germany in the semifinal at home four years ago.
Like his three predecessors as manager, Tite is from the rugged southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Coaches there are known for their disdain of frippery and the 56-year-old (real name Adenor Leonardo Bachi) is no exception. He first rose to fame at Caixas and Gremio but it was his second spell at Corinthians that really cemented his reputation as a top-class coach when he took the underperforming Sao Paulo side to the league title in 2011 and the Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup the following year. Always dignified but firm and precise, he is popular with the media, a valuable asset in Brazil.
Neymar: So much of Brazil’s hopes rest on Neymar’s slim shoulders. The greatest player of his generation is capable of winning any game with a moment of brilliance but he will be returning from three months out with a foot injury and it remains to be seen whether the rest is positive or negative. He coasted through his debut season at Paris St Germain where he was rarely tested. How influential he will be for Brazil could depend on how he copes with the huge pressure he will face. Philippe Coutinho: This has been a rollercoaster season for Coutinho, who started at Liverpool and ended up at Barcelona. The 25-year-old has nevertheless become a regular in Tite’s side, in either a wide role or as a deeper lying central midfielder, and his long-range shooting is a powerful weapon. However, he can sometimes drift out of the action and his challenge is to take more games by the scruff of the neck and lessen the creative burden on Neymar.
Paulinho: With a superb defence and a scintillating attack, Brazil’s midfield is often overlooked. Paulinho is a key cog in Brazil’s engine room and a trusted lieutenant of coach Tite, who oversaw his rise at Corinthians. When he is on form Paulinho is an old-style box-to-box midfielder, but the Barcelona player is notorious for blowing hot and cold. One of the key questions for Brazil is which Paulinho will turn up - the rampaging bull who helped them to a stunning Confederations Cup win in 2013 or the timid player who disappeared a year later.
Brazil’s form going to Russia could hardly be bettered. Since Tite took over as coach in mid-2016 they have lost once in 19 games, in a friendly against Argentina in Australia. The key to their form is at the back. They have conceded just five goals in those 19 games.
How they qualified
Brazil were the first team to qualify for the tournament as they walked away with South America’s famously competitive 10-team group. The campaign, though, was not without its hiccups. Brazil were languishing in sixth place, outside the qualification spots, after six matches but coach Dunga’s sacking and Tite’s arrival turned things around. Brazil won 10 of their next 12 games to top the section 10 points ahead of Uruguay.
This tournament is an unusual one for Brazil, who will arrive as joint favourites and as a side that need to prove themselves all over again after their disastrous 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 semifinals. They should sail through Group E against Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia but, with little experience playing competitively against top European sides, a question mark still exists. One mouth-watering prospect could come as early as the last 16. If Brazil or Germany qualify in second place from their groups, the two heavyweights will slug it out much earlier than they would like.