Key injuries will test Brazil’s early World Cup qualifying rounds

“The chance of this turning out well is very high” — that was the self-confident declaration of new Brazil coach Fernando Diniz as he called up his squad for next month’s opening two rounds of World Cup qualification.

That confidence is necessary, because there are some early bumps on the road towards 2026. First, this is the shortest gap ever between the end of one World Cup cycle and the start of the next. There has been little preparation time — reduced in Brazil’s case to none whatsoever.

A caretaker coach took charge for the FIFA dates in March and June, and now comes another one. While also coaching Fluminense, Diniz takes charge of the national team until Carlo Ancelotti is free at the end of Real Madrid’s season. In theory. In practice there has been no official confirmation from Ancelotti — though, to be fair, he may not be free to make one until January.

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And so, for the six rounds of qualifiers between early September and mid November, Diniz is the man — while also piloting his club through Brazil’s demanding calendar.

International coaches always complain about the lack of time on the training field, and Diniz comes in with no warm-up friendlies. And to add to his woes, he had a last minute problem. The announcement of the squad was delayed for 20 minutes while he and his staff debated what to do about West Ham United‘s Lucas Paquetá, who was on the list until his name was linked with an investigation into betting activities.

On the bonus side, the expansion of the World Cup means that things would have to go extraordinarily wrong for Brazil to be in the slightest danger of missing out on 2026. Of South America’s 10 footballing nations, six will automatically qualify while the seventh goes into a play-off.

The margin for error is wide. And there are more difficult starts than Bolívia at home (Sept. 8th) and away to Peru four days later. In the absence of Paqueta — and with Éder Militão and Gabriel Jesus out through injury — there are 12 remnants of the squad that went to Qatar late last year.

One of those is Neymar, who Diniz sees as a special talent with the motivation to be an important player for the national team for some years to come. The recent Al Hilal signing is not the only recent Saudi Arabia-based star to make the squad — there is also versatile defender Roger Ibañez, who has just swapped AS Roma for Al Alhi.

There is a radical renewal in the full-back positions, with Danilo the only one from Qatar, now joined by three players based in France. In central midfield Fabinho and Fred have moved on, with a place for Joelinton and the strong probability of more importance being handed to Bruno Guimarães, who worked successfully with Diniz at the start of his career.

This sector of the field is particularly interesting. In comparison with other leading powers, Brazil have struggled to produce outstanding all-round midfielders, and the possession-based game favoured by Diniz requires crisp, accurate and imaginative passing.

In the very limited time he has on the training field, it will be fascinating to see how the new coach plans to improve this area. Up front there is an interesting addition.

Centre-forward Matheus Cunha was a key part of the last cycle of the Under-23 team, which ended with the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. He played in several of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, but fell out of contention in the last few months leading up to Qatar.

A good display for Wolverhampton Wanderers against Manchester United last Monday came just at the right time, and now he now has another chance to fight for the No. 9 position.

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