Brazil’s World Cup hopes in peril

SOCHI, Russia (Associated Press) — This is unfamiliar territory for five-time World Cup champion Brazil.

The last time it didn’t win its first game in a World Cup, Pele had just retired from soccer. The “Selecao” had won every one of its opening matches since 1978, a year after “The King’s” farewell.

Brazil drew Sweden 1-1 back then, the same score of its match against Switzerland in Rostov-on-Don on Sunday, when all the hype surrounding Neymar and his teammates turned into disappointment and concern.

The result that ended Brazil’s nine-match winning streak in openers left the national team two points behind group leader Serbia, which defeated Costa Rica 1-0 earlier Sunday.

One of the main title favorites, Brazil suddenly sees itself having to come from behind to keep alive its hopes of winning the team’s first world title since 2002. But although the result felt like a loss, there was no reason to panic just yet, as Brazil remains heavily favored to advance. Switzerland, No. 6 in the world, was considered Brazil’s toughest opponent in Group E.

Another consolation was the fact that in 2010, Spain lost its opener against Switzerland but went on to win the title anyway. Also, Argentina and Germany also failed win in their openers in Russia, while Spain and Portugal drew when they played each other in their initial match.

Nobody can win or lose the World Cup in the first match,’’ Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus said. We have two decisive matches ahead of us. Of course we didn’t want to draw, but we also didn’t lose. We are more alive than ever.’’

Brazil next faces Costa Rica on Friday in St. Petersburg and anything but victory will be a disaster. But three points would put Brazil right back in position to advance from the group. Its final game will be against Serbia on June 27 in Nizhny Novgorod.

“This is only the beginning,” defender Miranda said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We have to move on and keep going match by match. We’ll try to win the three points in the next one.”

Brazil now hasn’t won in three straight World Cup matches, following the 2014 losses to Germany in the semifinals and to the Netherlands in the third-place match at the home tournament. It’s a winless streak that hadn’t happened since 1978, when it reached four World Cup games without a victory.

Brazil followed that 1978 draw against Sweden with a scoreless tie against Spain before defeating Austria 1-0 in the last group match to survive and advance to the second round. It eventually finished the tournament in third place.

Brazil has conceded goals in six straight World Cup matches, going back to a 0-0 draw against Mexico in the second match of the group stage in 2014.

The Brazilians complained of two key refereeing decisions that went against the five-time champions Sunday: A push on Miranda that aided Switzerland’s goal, and a no-call they felt should have produced a penalty.

But coach Tite acknowledged his side could have played better. “This team can produce more,” he said.

Brazil made too many mistakes with the ball, missing easy passes throughout the field and failing to capitalize on the chances it created, especially in the second half after conceding the equalizer.

Switzerland marked Neymar well and didn’t let him play by making several fouls on the Paris Saint-Germain star. He was limping when he talked to reporters after the match but said it was nothing serious.

Team doctors also dismissed any significant problem with Neymar, who was out for about three months earlier this year because of a foot injury.

Tite said Neymar might not be fully fit until the team’s third match in Russia.

A fully fit Neymar will be needed if Brazil can’t turn things around and arrive for the deciding match against Serbia on the brink of elimination.

Reach James Harney at (718) 260-2529 or e-mail him at jharn[email protected]

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