Four-time champion Brazil was held to a 1-1 draw by a physical Switzerland side Sunday in the World Cup opener for these Group F teams in Rostov-on-Don.
Steven Zuber’s header on a corner kick by Xherdan Shaqiri in the 50th minute did not come without controversy, however, as Brazil’s players implored referee Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos to consult with the video assistant referee for a foul.
While replays showed Zuber clearly pushed Miranda from behind for the half-foot of space needed to drill Shaqiri’s inch-perfect left-footed inswinger, Palazuelos had a clear line of vision watching the play unfold, no call from the replay booth came and the Swiss were level.
Their plan of punishing Brazilian playmaker Neymar to slow down the game also worked. The star forward was fouled 10 times as he was knocked to the pitch repeatedly and had his jersey pulled on multiple occasions to slow him down with and without the ball. Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic, however, did not pay a high price for his team’s consistent fouling as it accrued only three yellow cards.
While the scars from their 7-1 hammering at the hands of Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup in front of their fans were not fully evident in this game as Brazil showed plenty of jogo bonito, it mixed with moments of non-chalance that eventually proved costly.
Marcelo was the only player in this starting XI carried over from that disastrous match, and while Neymar had returned, it was still just his second start since a foot injury cost him more than three months
The only goal for the Selecao came courtesy of a world-class strike from Philippe Coutinho, who punished a poor headed clearance from the penalty area that came right to him just outside the top of the box on the left in the 20th minute. He took one touch to settle before uncorking a curling right-footed effort that kissed the right post and went in, a shot Swiss keeper Yann Sommer had no chance of stopping.
Brazil put Switzerland on its back foot early and should have gone ahead through Paulinho, whose effort from close range was scuffed enough that Sommer got a fingertip to to push it wide of the right post. Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus had plenty of interplay early, and Sommer had to intervene and intercept a cross by Coutinho trying to pick out the Manchester City forward.
Just after the half-hour, Brazil had a gilt-edged change to double its lead. Neymar whipped in a cross from the left that Jesus met and sent back across goal, but no one was there to finish the play and the ball got all the way back to Neymar, who was whistled for offsides.
The Swiss, though, were finally finding a comfort level that carried from the end of the first half and into the second. Marcelo did well to cut out a through ball from Haris Seforovic intended for Blerim Dzemaili shortly before Zuber planted his header past Alisson.
The goal snapped Brazil into urgency, but it also became clear the lack of match fitness was affecting Neymar, who also was dealing with the residual pain recovering from his foot surgery. Tite’s first substitution was to lift Casemiro, who had picked up a yellow card shortly after the interval.
Brazil had another cause to shout for VAR in the 73rd minute when Jesus tumbled to the pitch in the penalty area while being defended by Manuel Akanji. While it appeared Akanji had briefly wrapped his arms around Jesus, there was no call to make Palazuelos review the play a second time.
While Brazil had the chances, Switzerland had spots of time with the ball on the counter. Shaqiri led one foray to set up Dzemaili, but he fired from 20 yards directly at Alisson to start the final quarter-hour. Tite introduced Coutinho’s former club teammate Roberto Firmino in the 77th minute for Jesus, and the Liverpool man volleyed a sharp-angled shot over the bar from the eight minutes from time.
Neymar latched onto a cross from Willian in the 88th minute, but Sommer was able to collect his downward header from 12 yards. Shaqiri once more tried to lead a counter down the right channel, but his tired legs betrayed him, and he fired a sliced shot wide in frustration.
The Selecao’s best chance to claim all three points came in the 90th minute when Firmino headed Neymar’s cross looking to pick out the lower left corner, but Sommer did well to dive in that direction to knock it away. Fernandinho did not react fast enough to the rebound as it was cleared from danger. Brazil had one last chance in stoppage time, but Neymar chipped his free kick into the penalty area and it failed to generate a quality chance.
The yellow cards to Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schar and Valeri Behrami were all for fouls on Neymar.
The draw ended a nine-match winning streak in World Cup openers for Brazil, which last failed to claim all three points in a 1-1 draw with Sweden in 1978. Both the Selecao and the Swiss are looking up to Serbia, which leads Group E on the strength of its 1-0 victory over Costa Rica earlier Sunday.
Brazil next faces Costa Rica in St. Petersburg on Friday while Switzerland will try to pull in Serbia later that day in Kaliningrad.