In Neymar's absence, Brazil look for Copa confidence

LOS ANGELES • Two years after their traumatic World Cup semi-final exit, Brazil are haunted by the past as they head into the Copa America Centenario, aiming for their first title in nearly a decade.

In previous eras, they would arrive at the Copa America brimming with confidence, with the only debate revolving around who they could expect to face - and defeat - in the final.

Between 1997 and 2007, they won four out of five editions of the tournament, helping to make them the most successful nation since 1975, when the Copa America began to be held regularly after an eight-year absence.

Yet, as they prepare to embark on this year's tournament, the familiar swagger is gone.

The humiliating 7-1 thrashing by Germany in 2014 has left a team in search of an identity, torn between a more pragmatic, defensive approach and the hard-wired instincts towards flamboyance.

So far, under the second managerial tenure of 1994 World Cup-winning captain Dunga, the results have been mixed.

A quarter-final exit at last year's Copa in Chile has been followed by a stuttering start to South America's marathon qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.

Brazil currently lie in sixth place after six matches, outside the qualifying positions.

Their form has been inconsistent, where they have produced flashes of attacking brilliance only to be undermined by defensive frailty.

For Dunga, the Copa represents a happy return to the scene of his greatest triumph as a player.

Brazil will kick off their Group B campaign against Ecuador on Saturday at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, where Dunga led his team to victory in the World Cup final against Italy 22 years ago.

"Hopefully now Brazil can get back to winning here," he told reporters in Los Angeles last week during a training camp.

His task has been complicated by the proximity of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Brazil's determination to win the only international title that has eluded them - an Olympic gold medal - has meant hard choices have had to be made.

Neymar, their talismanic captain, will miss the Copa in order to be available for the Olympics.

Other notable absentees include defenders Thiago Silva and David Luiz, who both seem to have fallen out of favour, along with midfielder Oscar and injured Bayern Munich star Douglas Costa.

"Obviously we'd like to have Neymar here, but this is a top team," Dunga said. "Some of them are very young, but they have quality. This is (their) opportunity... to show they deserve to be on the first team."

That could give an opportunity for emerging talent Gabriel, the 19-year-old Santos prodigy known affectionately as "Gabigol". He scored on his Brazil debut in a 2-0 win over Panama on Sunday, signalling that he is ready to fill the void left by Neymar.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'In Neymar's absence, Brazil look for Copa confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe