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SAO PAULO — Brazil is about to start its sixth attempt to add a sixth star to its famous soccer shirt.

The vibe is very different from the start of its past five South American World Cup qualifying campaigns, though, because the Selecao is rebuilding with an interim coach, its star player not based in Europe and promising young players are either struggling for form or injured.

New coach Fernando Diniz, Al-Hilal striker Neymar and low-scoring Richarlison represent the different faces of Brazil’s uncertainty at the beginning of the road leading to the 2026 World Cup. And this time the Selecao will be under more pressure because its archrival, Argentina, is the World Cup champion.

[Argentina starts as favorite when South American World Cup qualifying kicks off]

Diniz, a coach without a lot of silverware but with a lot of attacking style, will start his interim tenure Friday in the Amazon city of Belem against Bolivia. He is not expected to keep the position for long. The Fluminense coach, who has not left his club, is regarded as a caretaker until Carlo Ancelotti’s contract with Real Madrid expires at the end of the season.

Brazilian soccer executives in Rio de Janeiro have no doubt the 64-year-old Ancelotti will lead the Selecao into the next Copa America next July and are aiming to keep Diniz on as an assistant, but that is far from certain. Ancelotti has never confirmed in public that he will become Brazil’s first full-time foreign coach.

Still, Brazil’s players seem curious about the new coach, who encourages teams to build their game from the back and offers a lot of liberty for attacking players. So far Diniz has won nothing but a Rio de Janeiro state championship, but Fluminense is in the Copa Libertadores semifinals despite having a much smaller budget than other rivals.

“Diniz sees soccer in a different way,” striker Rodrygo told journalists upon arrival in Belem in the early hours of Tuesday. “Everyone here is very excited, with a lot of anticipation about this new cycle.”

The new coach has some important immediate tasks, including keeping the 31-year-old Neymar competitive for the national team. Neymar won’t be playing in Europe after signing with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal for two years.

Neymar is yet to debut for Al-Hilal and is not sure to play against Bolivia or at Peru because of a hip injury that has sidelined him since February. Diniz has not given any hints on who might cover for the star forward.

Brazil will be without the injured Vinicius Jr, and two other players who were also in the latest World Cup. Lucas Paquetá was removed from the squad due to a Premier League investigation that reportedly links him to illegal betting. Antony was dropped on Monday after details of a domestic violence accusation against him emerged this week.

Brazil’s doubts grow further if the current form of its strikers is considered.

Richarlison was Brazil’s center forward at the last World Cup, and scored three goals until the team’s quarterfinals elimination against Croatia. He hasn’t scored for Tottenham in the first three rounds of the Premier League, a trend that is not exactly new for the Brazilian at his club.

Every angle of Richarlison’s JAW-DROPPING scissor kick goal for Brazil in the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Every angle of Richarlison's JAW-DROPPING scissor kick goal for Brazil in the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Diniz’ apparent second option, Matheus Cunha, has three goals in 24 matches for Wolverhampton. Gabriel Jesus, who was called as Antony’s replacement, is returning from injury and scored once in his two Premier League matches for Arsenal this season.

Brazil’s difficulties are unlikely to harm the team’s chances of reaching the next World Cup, the first to be played with a 48-team format. South America’s direct spots have grown from four to six, and the seventh-place in the round-robin competition will go into an intercontinental playoff for another berth.

But Brazil’s doubts are likely to linger at the very least until they have secured a permanent coach for the next World Cup.

Reporting by The Associated Press.


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