Busting Brazil’s football myth

Opinion by Dr Liam Lenten

If you think Australia has a monumental task against its three highly fancied rivals in the World Cup's pool of death, spare a thought for Brazil's Group A opponents Mexico, Cameroon and Croatia, the latter of which plays the host (and most successful) nation in the tournament opener on Friday morning.

In front of their religious fans, the 'Selaçao' are tough for any team to beat. On home soil, Brazil has never lost a World Cup qualifier and is unbeaten there since 2002

However, an old myth about Brazilian football – if believed – could provide a tactical clue for how underdogs should approach this daunting fixture.

The myth says that when playing against Brazil it is unwise to score early in the game as it merely serves to make them angry, and provides them with extra incentive to attack furiously and score repeatedly for the remainder of the game, thus handing a football lesson to any opposition who dares go 1-0 up early on.

The myth probably owes its existence to a small number of identifiable (and famous) cases where this chain of events played out. In the final of the 1958 World Cup, hosts Sweden went ahead after four minutes, only for Brazil to open the floodgates and win 5-2 (17-year-old Pelé scoring a double). Four years later in Santiago, the déjà vu was palpable in the final when Czechoslovakia scored on 15 minutes; Brazil equalised two minutes later and went on to win 3-1.

There are numerous other such instances.

For prospective opponents, perhaps the optimal strategy is to keep the game at 0-0 until the final few minutes and then score, thus circumventing Brazil's scope to react?

A casual look at Brazil's record suggests there may be something in this theory – of Brazil's 335 international matches since 8 August 1993 (soon after FIFA began its first ranking system), Brazil has lost 43 (in regulation time), of which 16 were lost by a 0-1 score line. In a disproportionate six out of those 16 (almost 40%), their opponent scored the winner in the final 10 minutes.

So does taking a more statistical approach to the myth confirm or bust it?

By analysing Brazil's scoring outcomes after various cut-off times of 15, 25 and 35 minutes, it was found that the side scores goals more frequently when its opponent does not score an early goal, which is in direct contrast to the myth.

When matches in which Brazil score early on before the opposition are removed from the sample, the results actually get very close to confirming the myth. However, the hypothesis was framed in such a way to give the myth every possible chance to hold, hence the ruling that the myth, in the words of television's Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, is 'totally busted'.

What can be confirmed is that Brazil will be a very tough side to beat at the World Cup, and sides that face up to them should not fear coming out of the blocks with an early goal.

A version of this article was published in the Australian Financial Review (paywall).

Dr Liam Lenten is a senior lecturer in sports economics at La Trobe University.

Image credit: warrenski (CC BY-SA 2.0)