World Cup Ones to Watch: Paulinho, Brazil


Barring the sort of collapse that turned their home tournament into a national embarrassment, Brazil can consider progress to the World Cup last 16 all but assured. They were the first team (behind the hosts) to qualify for Russia 2018, atoning in part for that humiliation in Belo Horizonte by topping the arduous CONMEBOL qualification group with plenty to spare. The five-time world champions will find little to fear in a group containing Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica.

But this is an intriguing Brazil team, largely bereft of the star quality that illuminated previous generations of the Seleção. Beyond poster boy Neymar, this is a largely workmanlike team. Coach Tite has discovered a thus far successful formula with a midfield built on the sturdy qualities of Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho. Ahead of them, Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and a rotating cast of right-sided attackers will attempt to fill the shoes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Good luck to them.

Arguably the least glamorous element of a comparatively unglamorous Brazil side, Paulinho's inclusion nevertheless provides the greatest intrigue. The midfielder remained a Seleção regular during his self-imposed Chinese exile, his ability to link defence and attack valued by both Tite and his predecessor, Dunga. Paulinho looked a cut above his opponents and teammates in China – a league where, despite expectations, many foreign imports have struggled to impress. Still, some scoffed when the former Spurs man moved to Barcelona in the summer of 2017 – but Paulinho proved an instant success at the Camp Nou. By late March, the midfielder had scored only one league goal fewer than Gareth Bale, while acting as a stabilising influence on Ernesto Valverde's runaway league leaders. 

Now, a man written off by many in England is all but guaranteed to start for Brazil in Russia. It's another chance to prove his doubters wrong – if indeed any remain. Paulinho – a veteran of that era-defining 7-1 semi final loss to Germany – will be as hungry as anyone for World Cup success. He has as good a chance as any of achieving it.

The dream: Atonement for humiliation in his own backyard with a final win over Germany.

The nightmare: Repeat of the heinous performance that tarnished a generation of Brazil players.