SAO PAULO – Brazil's traditional yellow jersey has lost its all-conquering allure.
The most famous shirt in soccer, which graced the shoulders of Pele, Garrincha and Tostao, Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, now isn't attractive enough to lure Diego Costa, the striker who would rather play for Spain.
A decade ago, it would have been hard to find a player willing to say "No" to the Selecao. But when Costa chose a few weeks ago to play for Spain instead of Brazil, not many people were even surprised.
Quarterfinal losses at the last two World Cups left diminished the golden aura of the national team, which reached three straight World Cup finals from 1994-2002, winning two of them.
At its own World Cup next year, Brazil's team will be far from a sure thing. It has star forward Neymar. It brought back coach Luiz Felipe Scolari to try to repeat his success from 2002. It convincingly won the Confederations Cup in June, beating world champion Spain in the final of that World Cup warmup tournament.
But FIFA ranks Brazil 11th in the world — behind Colombia, Switzerland and England. Brazil wouldn't even be seeded in the World Cup draw on Dec. 6 if it wasn't the tournament host.
The five-time world champions can't even claim to be soccer's most stylish team anymore. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and the rest of the Spanish national team commandeered that label as they became the dominant power. Brazil's enduring reputation as home to the "Jogo Bonito" — the beautiful game — owes more to its glorious past than its present.
The 2002 winners arrived as a top contender at the 2006 World Cup. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, the World Cup-winning coach in 1994, packed his team with stars — Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Adriano and Roberto Carlos. But they fell to France and Zinedine Zidane in the quarterfinals.
Brazil's glow didn't return at the 2010 World Cup. Coach Dunga revamped the team after the disappointment of 2006, picking few stars and relying mostly on Kaka and Robinho. The result was identical — elimination in the quarterfinals, this time by the Netherlands.
Brazil's current squad would be the envy of lesser nations but doesn't impress compared to its most illustrious predecessors.
It must be considered a candidate for the world title in seven months — because Brazil is still Brazil, because it will be at home and because of Scolari.
The defense should be solid, with Paris Saint-Germain's Thiago Silva alongside Chelsea's David Luiz. AS Roma veteran right back Maicon will be Daniel Alves' reserve, while Real Madrid's Marcelo is set to play on the left.
Tottenham's Paulinho and Wolfburg's Luiz Gustavo will protect the defense. Chelsea's Oscar will feed the attack. Neymar carves through opponents with his speed and ball control.
But the weaknesses are glaring.
The goalkeeper will be Julio Cesar, whose mistake led to Brazil's loss to the Netherlands in 2010. He isn't playing at Queens Park Rangers, a lack of action prompting concern.
Neymar, the top player at the Confederations Cup, will be only 22 next June, carrying a lot of weight for such young shoulders.
One of Neymar's partners up front will likely be Fred, who didn't even make the 2010 team and hasn't played in nearly three months because of a muscle injury. The other is Hulk, extremely effective in Scolari's scheme but not as impressive as past Brazil strikers.
With few attacking options available, Scolari again picked Robinho to play in the team's latest exhibitions, and the 29-year-old striker now has a chance to make the World Cup squad despite playing sparingly with AC Milan.
With his goal-scoring skills, Costa could have walked into Scolari's starting lineup. Instead, in becoming an asset for Spain, his naturalized country, Costa demonstrated that soccer's center of gravity no longer lies with Brazil.
To wrest it back, Brazil must win its World Cup.
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