The first sign Brazil might not breeze through the Copa America Centenario was when TV cameras captured star Neymar watching Brazil’s opening 0-0 tie against Ecuador from the stands, alongside Jamie Foxx and Justin Bieber.
Neymar was forced by his club team Barcelona to choose between playing in the Copa America or the Rio Olympics later this summer. He and the Brazilian federation begged and pleaded to let him play both; but they wouldn’t budge, and the Olympics got the edge because it is on Brazilian soil.
That was just the start of Brazil’s troubles.
Bayern Munich star Douglas Costa is another notable absence. He was expected to play but injured his thigh and was replaced by Orlando City’s Kaka, who was excited to play in front of his home crowd Wednesday night against Haiti. But Kaka got injured and was replaced by Sao Paulo’s Ganso.
Neymar’s Barcelona teammate Rafinha was called up but also had to be dropped because of injury. PSG’s Lucas Moura replaced him. Ederson and Ricardo Oliveira also got injured, so they were bumped and their spots taken by Jonas, and Marcelo Grohe.
Wolfsburg midfielder Luiz Gustavo was already in the United States training with the Brazilian team when he asked to go home to tend to family matters.
So, Brazil entered the Ecuador game with plenty of talent, but a lot of new faces and uncertainty. The Brazilians were unable to get much going in the final third of the field, and escaped with a controversial scoreless tie.
An apparent goal from Ecuador’s Miller Bolanos was dropped by Brazil goalkeeper Alisson, dribbled into the net, but was waved off by the referee, who claimed the ball had gone out of bounds before Bolanos took the shot.
Replays clearly showed the ball was still in play when he made the low cross.
It was the latest disappointment for coach and former Brazilian star Dunga, who was hired to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari on July 22, 2014, shortly after Brazil’s embarrassing 7-1 semifinal World Cup loss to Germany.
Things have not gone so well under Dunga. In last year’s Copa America, Brazil beat Peru and Venezuela, but lost to Colombia in the group stage and was knocked out on PKs by Paraguay. World Cup qualifying for 2018 is off to a rocky start, as well. Through six games, Brazil sits in sixth place behind Uruguay, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.
The Brazilians, ranked No. 7 in the world, most recently lost to Chile, and tied Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Anything less than a convincing win against the 74th-ranked Haitians, and Dunga’s job could be in jeopardy.
Despite the struggles against Ecuador, PSG defender Marquinhos remained optimistic. There are young players, such as 19-year-old Santos forward Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa, who could make a splash.
“We had good ball possession versus Ecuador,” he said. “Ecuador’s controlled defense gave us problems in our counterattacks. We had a few goal-scoring opportunities that were wasted, we can’t let that happen with Haiti.”
Haiti, meanwhile, lost its opening game 1-0 to Peru in Seattle. The Haitians had a few good chances to score, the best in the 28th minute, when Mechack Jerome’s free kick sailed over the crossbar. In the 94th minute, Kervens Belfort had a header off a free kick go just wide.
The Haitian team, which includes the Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ Jean-Marc Alexandre, is considered the weakest in the group, but its players are motivated by their patriotism.
“For us, we see the country first,” Pascal Millien, a forward for the Jacksonville Armada of the NASL, told the New York Times. “We hear the money the U.S. players are making, the Brazil players are making. But we do it for the love and for the country, for the game we love. God blesses us by letting us play this game, and we give the country something back.”