DOHA, Qatar -- Casemiro had just left the stage with his Player of the Match award. The Brazil midfielder had scored the stunning winner in their 1-0 win over Switzerland in their second group-stage match, but he dodged any personal praise, instead spreading the acclaim throughout the team.
It's part of Brazil's squad dynamic here in Qatar: The strength of the team outweighs any individual performance. But coach Tite allowed himself one brief moment to go off-message when asked whether Neymar -- who had watched the performance from his hotel bed when recovering from illness and an ankle injury -- was right when he tweeted that Casemiro was "the best defensive midfielder in the world."
"I normally don't comment other people's opinion, but this one time I will allow myself: I agree with Neymar," Tite said. "He's the best."
Talk to the Brazil fans here in Qatar, and if you ask them who their best player is, they'll likely say Neymar or Vinicius Junior. But ask them who their most important player is, and the answer comes back unanimously as Casemiro. In this age of young midfielders -- where the likes of Enzo Fernandez, Jude Bellingham, Gavi and Pedri have all received worldwide plaudits -- it's the 30-year-old veteran who is setting the benchmark for players in his position. World-class players in his own team are in awe of him; legends who helped Brazil earn each of the five stars on their jersey are similarly impressed.
"Leadership, technique, defensively -- everything about him is impressive," ex-Brazil midfielder Zinho, who was part of the 1994 squad, tells ESPN. "He's a reference for all our players in this position."
If Brazil end up earning that sixth star in the World Cup final on Dec. 18, Casemiro will be a huge reason behind their success.
The quantifiable qualities of Casemiro
Cesar Sampaio can help explain Casemiro's role. Part of the Brazil coaching staff in Qatar, Sampaio won 47 caps for the Selecao over a decade that included him featuring at the 1998 World Cup.
"In the defensive side, Casemiro is the reference point for the line of four," he told a news conference. "He does the management, as that first 'filter.' In offense, he offers the short support for the other midfield teammates. And he has that virtue of the medium kick [a shot from outside the box], which is a differential in his position. For me, he's the reference point for world football in his position at the moment."
Casemiro is like a "vacuum" -- according to his ex-Brazil teammate Filipe Luis -- as he cleans up everything in midfield. Casemiro joked about that in a news conference here and said his old Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti used to call him the "firefighter," as he "put out the fires" for his team.
"He is exceptional at all the fundamental aspects of the game -- such as heading, using both feet, he can tackle, can shoot from outside the box, he can assist too," explains former Brazil midfielder Paulo Silas, who played in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups. "But above all, he always performs in big games."
While the likes of Neymar, Richarlison and Vinicius were pulling South Korea apart in the 4-1 win in the round of 16, Zinho spent the match just watching Casemiro. "He seems to be everywhere, you know?" Zinho tells ESPN. "He has the physical condition and he positions himself very well. He always made the right read, as I said before, very well."
In a team where so much focus is on Brazil's attacking talent, Zinho is quick to point out the role Casemiro plays. "The ball always passes through him first, people forget that," he says. "He is the balance of the team. He is always in the correct place, at the right time, at the right moment to touch the ball -- not only just tackling the opponent, but also building some play with possession.
"But positionally he is so good; he sees things earlier than others. He hardly misses the tackle; he doesn't get badly positioned, so, where the ball is heading to him, he sees the move before it happens. It must be so difficult to face a guy like that: He's well positioned, he gets there before you. Even when an attacker like Richarlison or Vinicius gets tackled, he's already there positioning himself for the second ball, you know? For me, until now, he's been Brazil's best player."
But Casemiro is also a danger at the other end. He scored the winner against Switzerland with a beautifully struck half volley -- arrowing it into the top corner -- while in the Serbia match he rattled one long-range shot against the post. Those trademark thunderbolts are part of the Casemiro plan, as Tite explains: "This is a player who works as a central player, but he's [also] the surprise element who can appear from the back. When he's appearing from the back he can cause a surprise."
But in a role with such jeopardy as the "firefighter," he's also managed to stay on the right side of the law at the World Cup. "He can get the best player of the other team into a clamp without necessarily being punished with a yellow card," Silas adds. "He is a guy that everyone loves, referees and opponents too, they respect him a lot."
Former Brazil striker Luis Fabiano tells ESPN: "He has a lot of quality, yes, but we've seen other great No. 5s in football with this quality too. It's just that he's really playing great football today. So that means we talk about him a lot, but he's got a lot of qualities. A lot of them. He's a very special midfielder. He's almost complete. To be complete you need to be a huge genius, but he's almost complete. I think he's the best in the world in his position today."
Pablo Zabaleta has faced him while on Argentina duty and knows Casemiro's qualities well. "He's a special player, the complete midfielder and gives them balance," Zabaleta adds. "He can be aggressive on the field, but he's so clever, especially with those tactical fouls in the opposite half. Between the lines he's also brilliant, and he's great at reading the game."
Casemiro's leadership and mindset
Casemiro's nickname in the Brazil team is "Casao" -- loosely translates to "big Casemiro," a sign of affection, reflecting his stature but also presence. While Brazil's captain is Thiago Silva, Casemiro is one of the leaders alongside Marquinhos, Daniel Alves, Alisson and Neymar.
Neymar is the technical one, Silva and Alves are the most experienced, but Casemiro leads by example and the players look up to him with reverence, especially those from his old Real Madrid days like Rodrygo, Vinicius and Eder Militao.
"When you try to say something, mainly for the youngest ones, you have to be careful and respect the player's sensibilities," Casemiro said of his own leadership skills back on Nov. 26 at Brazil's training base. "You must stay calm so they can be themselves at a World Cup. If they're here it's because they are brave, fearless, then you want them to do what they do for their clubs with us here. You must stay focused and do what they are used to."
Away from Brazil, for those who know him well from Real Madrid, his form here is no surprise. He played there from 2013 to 2022, and was loved at the club, according to ESPN sources. He was called [Real Madrid president] Florentino Perez's "son" in the changing room, and was so admired by the board as he never caused trouble, and was always open to helping the club in any way, to the extent they had lined up as the team's new leader when Sergio Ramos left. He was a father figure to the younger players in the team, and central to their charge to win five Champions League titles between 2014 and 2022.
"To be huge, like he is, you need to be humble," Silas says. "A lot of players didn't go well in Real Madrid because they weren't humble, they didn't know how to manage the anxiety, with the greatness and glamour that is playing for Real Madrid. Casemiro knows. He understands everything from that."
Manchester United are now benefiting from the Casemiro factor. United had pursued Netherlands defensive midfielder Frenkie de Jong for so much of the summer, but after it became clear he wasn't going to join, they switched attention to alternatives. Casemiro had long been on their list, but those inside the corridors of Old Trafford weren't convinced they'd be able to tempt him away from Real Madrid.
But there were reports in Spain that Real Madrid were going to phase out the veteran, to make room for new €80m signing Aurelien Tchouameni. The reality was -- Ancelotti had told Casemiro he'd still be their No. 1 choice for the big matches, but he wouldn't start every game. They desperately wanted to keep him. He started their Super Cup win over Eintracht Frankfurt and came off the bench in their LaLiga opener against Almeria, and it looked likely Casemiro would stay. But then United offered €70m -- and Real Madrid reluctantly accepted -- recognizing that he was 30 years old and wouldn't have many more years at the highest level.
United were reeling from their 4-0 collapse at Brentford, but the following day Casemiro contacted the club saying he was desperate to join, eager to help the team get back on track.
When Casemiro arrived, United prioritized improving his condition so he could manage the rigors of the Premier League. Moving countries is tough, but sources say United were pleasantly surprised that Casemiro threw himself into it all, installing equipment in his house, and trusting the club to help with relocating his family as he focused on his fitness plan. New United boss Erik ten Hag calls him the "cement between the stones."
"At Manchester United he has just arrived, he is still getting used to the team and adapting," Silas says. "But he is going to be irreplaceable in United, as he was in Real Madrid and he is in Brazil team today."
The search for his first star, and Brazil's sixth
It is testament to Casemiro's ability that Liverpool's Fabinho has been watching on from the bench. "When you have two players like me and Casemiro is good for Brazil and Tite," Fabinho explained to ESPN before their match against Cameroon. "Since I started to come here [to the national team] more frequently, Casemiro always played in the highest level. But, when I played, I did well too, this shows to the coach that he have excellent options."
Fabinho was one of Brazil's best players against Cameroon but will have to settle for a spot on the bench against Croatia. "I think this is funny because Fabinho would be starter for almost every other team in this World Cup," Zinho says. "But he is immediately reserve, for me, of the best defender midfielder of the world today, which is Casemiro. Until now, he is the best player in Brazilian team.
"Casemiro takes great care of himself, he's a great midfielder and he's still in this great moment. I've never followed him like I have this time in the World Cup and I'm not surprised, but I'm impressed with him. I see him as a point of balance in the Brazil squad: as a player defending or building the possession, which is just incredible from one man."
James Olley details the key factor in Brazil's 4-1 win over South Korea in the World Cup round of 16.
Silas sees Casemiro as an "indispensable player for the Selecao," and to highlight that importance, he remembers Brazil's campaign from four years ago and where that went wrong. Back in Russia they ran into Belgium in the quarterfinals but had to play without Casemiro, who was suspended.
"He is the leader, and we missed him so much against Belgium back in 2018," Silas says. "We really felt his absence."
But Brazil will have him in their ranks for Croatia on Friday, just three matches away from adding a sixth star to their famous yellow jersey. If they achieve it, a huge part will be down to Casemiro.
"He knows how to build the game, knows how to score goals, but he is a simple guy," Silas says. "He is like a father to the Selecao."
With additional reporting by Thiago Cara, Rob Dawson and Rodrigo Faez.