Fernando Duarte’s Shocking Brazi looks at six crucial World Cup defeats that radically altered Brazilian football, and after last night’s crushing defeat the author will be updating his book with a new chapter. Here is the final chapter from the current edition of book by Fernando Duarte :
AT HALF-TIME AT the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, in Port Elizabeth, the search for the smallest queue for the bathrooms was a bigger priority to Brazilian fans who had travelled to the World Cup in South Africa than looking at the sponsor or institutional messages that flashed across the big screens in the ground. But for those who did look up when Beyoncé’s ‘Single Lady’ began to boom loudly over a short film promoting Brazilian poultry giants Seara, there would have been a sense of mocking irony at the images on show. Seleção striker Robinho and two of his Santos FC team-mates were shown doing tricks with footballs. It was not necessarily a typical sports-related commercial, but what made it notable was the fact that both the young footballers playing second fiddle to Robinho had been the subject of a fierce debate in the national media in the build-up to the Seleção’s South African campaign – one that had been focused particularly on the pint-sized and spikey-haired teenager who seemed so at ease in the presence of the camera, unlike his co-stars.
That teenager was Neymar Jr. Alongside Robinho and midfielder Paulo Henrique Ganso, he had set Brazilian football alight in 2010. The trio featured in a Santos XI that had won plaudits for a brand of attacking football that had enthused both fans and media. Thanks to a remarkable crop of players from the youth academy and the presence of more seasoned players like Robinho, himself a former teenage sensation at the club, Santos would finish the year with 180 goals scored and the São Paulo state championship and the Brazilian Cup double. Managed by Dorival Junior, who had won kudos after helping four-times Brazilian champions Vasco da Gama bounce back from a season in Second Division hell in 2009, he attracted a lot of attention for combining a disciplinarian style of player management with a surprisingly liberal way of playing the game. Santos played in a 4-3-3 formation that was made even more exciting because of the presence of Ganso as a playmaker whose deft touch and sharp reading of the game made commentators purr. A gangly 20-year-old, Ganso (‘goose’ in Portuguese) had caught the eye of the legendary Sócrates. ‘The way he never seems to look at the ball amazes me,’ said the Doctor. ‘Ganso can pass like no other I have seen in the last 20 years. Why this kid has not been called up for the national team is something that I still don’t understand.’
But while Ganso had become a player that both media and fans loudly demanded to see in a Seleção shirt, Neymarmania was already eclipsing him. Smiling and frequently attempting some outrageous dribble, the striker had quickly formed a substantial fan club, helped by a scoring tally that would automatically be compared with Pelé in his early days – Neymar would finish the 2010 season with 43 goals, but at the beginning of the year had already earned the status of ‘next big thing’. Pelé himself decided to butt in and asked Seleção manager Dunga to consider recruiting the services of the then 17-year-old, claiming, rather unnecessarily, that he himself had been a risky bet in the 1958 World Cup team but ended up being crucial to that campaign.
The son of a former footballer who never really made it at the top level and had to hang up his boots to earn a living in low-paid jobs, Neymar was born on 5 February 1992 in Mogi das Cruzes, a working-class district in Greater São Paulo. Struggling to put food on the table for a family that included daughter Rafaella, Neymar Sr was forced to move his family to a room in his mother’s house in São Vicente, near the seaside town of Santos. Despite their financial woes, one of the few luxuries that the family splashed out on was the fee to join Tumiaru, a local and humble social club where Neymar would spend hours kicking a futsal ball around. Soon another working-class club, Gremetal, a place where Santos steelworkers and their families would wind down, had spotted him and recruited the boy. Alcides Magri, who managed the youth department, was stunned by what he saw: at ten years old, Neymar was already playing against older kids and making them look like fools. ‘We actually won a city tournament against Santos FC and Neymar destroyed them,’ Magri recalls. ‘I never taught him to do anything, my only job was not to inhibit all that talent.’
The year was 2002, when Brazil lifted the World Cup for a fifth time in a campaign that featured a reborn Ronaldo. Neymar was one of the kids who would idolise the striker and didn’t hesitate in copying everything he did – including the horrendous haircut the Inter Milan player would parade in the final game against Germany in Japan. It was, however, one of the few flirts with footballers’ perks that Neymar Sr would allow. A strict education, alongside the low family income, meant the father had to always keep his son on a tight leash. When word about Gremetal’s futsal phenomenon started going round and Portuguesa Santista, a feeder club in Santos, came knocking, Neymar Sr demanded the club provide educational support for his son. One might be surprised to know it was quite a rare demand. In 1990, one in five Brazilians over the age of 15 was illiterate. Among football players, the most recent estimates by the Brazilian Football Confederation are that the vast majority only studied to primary school level, which is tricky when most jobs in the formal market demand many more years in formal education. Neymar Sr was also preparing himself for the eventuality that Neymar might not make it to the professional level at all or find himself playing at a low level like the majority of professional players in the country – a CBF study published in 2012 showed that 82 per cent of the 30,000 registered professionals in the country earn between £200 and £400 a month to ply their trade.
Neymar Sr dug his heels in and his son won a scholarship to Liceu São Paulo, one of Santos’ finest schools, after Portuguesa Santista argued his case. Neymar was duly enrolled in classes and in the futsal team that would play the Interschool Championship, a traditional grassroots tournament that is shown on regional TV. In Neymar’s first year, Liceu’s team lost the final game to city rivals Anglo-American School. Neymar played well and immediately caused a diplomatic incident: rival schools lodged a formal complaint to the educational authorities, claiming that Neymar was merely being used by Liceu to play football and was not attending classes. Rather than a mere sporting matter, the accusation also reflected old prejudices – Neymar and sister Rafaella were poor kids now rubbing shoulders with privileged children. Headmaster Ermenegildo Costa had to attend a meeting to present attendance records in order to convince the authorities that the boy should be allowed to play. Thus, unlike many of his neighbours, Neymar spent very little time on the streets bunking off school. His kickabouts were actually training sessions and games for Portuguesa. His reputation quickly grew and game attendances followed suit. It would not take long for local top dogs to take notice.
After decades living in the shadow of Pelé’s exploits, Santos FC experienced a radical turnaround in fortunes in the new millennium’s first decade. In 2002, the club had finally broken their major honours drought by winning the Campeonato Brasileiro, beating Corinthians in the final – that was the last year the tournament was played in a play-off format. Under former goalkeeper Émerson Leão, a young team peppered with youth academy graduates shone brightly. But Robinho, Diego Ribas, Elano Blumer and Alex would soon be snatched up by European clubs and Santos needed replacements fast. The success of the Robinho generation led to a reshuffle of the youth system that placed ever more emphasis on the younger squads. Under-12s were a priority and securing the services of the most famous under-12 player in town became an obvious coup. ‘We were looking for the best players and Neymar had to be part of our team,’ said coach Alberto Vieira. ‘His potential was already spoken of far and wide and if we didn’t sign him somebody else would.’
Two-time world champion Zito, then working for his former club as youth academy coordinator, was brought in to take a look at Neymar and have the final word on the deal. On the same day, Santos president Marcelo Teixeira got an exasperated phone call. ‘I told him we need to close the deal at once,’ said Zito. ‘The little guy was just unbelievable with the ball at his feet.’
On 10 May 2004, Neymar Jr signed his first contract with Santos: a five-year deal worth a little over £100 a month. Not a fortune but a welcome top-up to the family. It would not stay like that for long, though: just a year later, the boy would be on the verge of becoming Real Madrid’s answer to Lionel Messi. While negotiating selling Robinho to Real Madrid in 2005, agent Wagner Ribeiro spoke to the Spanish club about a much younger hot prospect back in Brazil. Real offered a trial and after assessing Neymar they got excited. Just like Barcelona did with Messi, they offered jobs for both the kid’s parents in an attempt to make the transfer go through. ‘We won’t deny that the Real offer rattled us,’ said Neymar Sr. But president Teixeira had other plans. In reality, just one plan: open up the coffers and treat Neymar like a professional player. The player was offered £250,000 to stay put and a monthly pay cheque of £5,000.
He hit the ground running, netting ten goals in the Brazilian championship, even though Santos finished in a less-than-flattering 12th place. It was enough, though, to get people raving about how he could help the Seleção in South Africa. Fast and intelligent, Neymar was also cheeky enough to try stunts such as nutmegs, keepie-uppies and even ‘Panenkas’ (softly chipping a penalty kick down the middle as the keeper dives to the side, named after Antonín Panenka who won the 1976 European Championship for Czechoslovakia with the move against West Germany) that incensed opponents but also excited whoever was watching his shenanigans. ‘Neymar and Santos are the only reasons that prevent me from falling asleep in front of the TV whenever I try to watch Brazilian football these days,’ raved Sócrates a few months before the 2010 World Cup. The Doctor, like many other people in Brazil, subscribed to the argument that the Seleção had diverted too far from its entertaining traditions – a debate that had become one of the hottest and touchiest topics in Brazilian football in 2010. At home, however, Neymar Sr still ruled the roost. His son was given a hefty allowance (something around £2,500 a month) and a credit card with what his father described as ‘a reasonable limit’, but he would have to work hard to earn further indulgences. Things like earrings and fancy clothes would be subject to performance. In 2010, when he turned 18, Neymar wanted what every Brazilian at a legal age always does: a new car. He got one, but only after reaching the target established by his father of winning the Under-20 South American championships with Brazil and scoring at least a brace in the final game. ‘Just because we can afford things now I will not simply allow him to burn his money,’ said Neymar Sr in an interview he gave at the beginning of 2010. ‘He needs to learn the value of things – so Neymar will get treats as long as he reaches targets.’
By then Neymar was already living in a grand apartment near the seafront in Santos. His monthly wages would amount to almost £40,000. Success had also attracted interest from companies keen to sponsor him and soon his earnings would rocket as a result. Unsurprisingly, the whole lobby for Neymar to join the Seleção grew louder. From the outside, it was puzzling to see so much ado about a player who had shown potential but who still remained relatively untested at a senior level; but at the twilight of the noughties Brazilians were desperate for new heroes to replace some of their most iconic figures who were either disappearing into the sunset or morphing into villains.
To understand why, it is necessary to go back in time four years.
In early March 2006, Moscow was not the place where one would expect a voluntary visit from Brazil. With temperatures constantly falling below minus 15°C, the Russian capital could not have been a more inappropriate place for the Seleção to play their last friendly before the World Cup in Germany – even the Russian league does not finish its winter break until the middle of the month. But there the defending champions were, ready to fulfil a contractual obligation with brewery Ambev, one of their biggest sponsors, who after lengthy efforts to secure an opponent for the last FIFA-approved international date, had managed to conveniently find a team whose rich financial backers had paid around £1 million for the privilege and where the company was actively looking for business opportunities.
Three months before the World Cup, the Seleção were in festive mood. After a wobbly start to another cycle as world champions, where they had been unceremoniously dumped from 2003’s Confederations Cup in the group stages, the team had gelled during the South American qualifiers – after 2002, FIFA had decided that current world champions would lose the right to an automatic spot in the following World Cup. With only two defeats in 18 games, the Seleção had easily topped the ten-team mini-league, scoring 36 goals, and looked pretty confident that they were on course for a good show in Germany. To make matters sweeter, the team had won the 2005 Confederations Cup. After a jittery group stage, where they lost to Mexico and were held to a 2-2 draw by Japan, Brazil beat hosts Germany 3-2 in the semi-finals before thrashing Argentina 4-1 in the final.
However, by the time they reported back to duty a couple of months later in Moscow, the tables had turned. Both Ronaldo and Adriano, Brazil’s formidable striking partnership, were struggling at their clubs (Real Madrid and Inter Milan) and looked worryingly out of shape – an accusation that could be particularly levelled at Ronaldo, who at the time still had the chants of ‘fat boy’ from Real’s own fans ringing in his ears. It looked increasingly evident that the Brazilian would struggle to build upon his spectacular 2002 resurrection.
In 2006, Ronaldo was still young at 29, but with each passing day it seemed that he had lost the hunger for another tilt at the FIFA trophy. The fact that Brazil defeated the Russians with a single goal after a Roberto Carlos shot was deflected by Ronaldo’s belly just made the whole thing even sadder.
As for Adriano, the problem was his thirst. Shy and homesick at an Inter side dominated by Argentine players, he had resorted to drowning his sorrows with alcohol. Knowing this, manager Carlos Alberto Parreira probably wasn’t shocked by the sight of both strikers arriving at the World Cup training camp several kilos over their ideal weight. It would be revealed after Germany 2006 that Ronaldo showed up weighing almost 100kg, 13 more than his official 2002 weight. Chances of a focused recovery were spoiled by the CBF’s decision to turn the training camp into a money-spinning opportunity. Following an agreement with Swiss-based company Kentaro, the Seleção set up camp in Weggis, near Lake Lucerne, and would stay there for two weeks. Training would be witnessed by a battalion of journalists and by an average crowd of 7,000 people who would pay for the privilege. ‘For two weeks we trained with fans screaming in our ears and the press broadcasting training sessions live,’ explains midfielder Gilberto Silva. ‘We never had the chance to work in peace and that left everybody a bit edgy.’ Compounding the difficulties, some of his colleagues decided to hit the Lucerne nightclubs and reportedly regularly arrived back at the team hotel at dawn, drunk and dishevelled, which didn’t really contribute to a harmonious, professional atmosphere either.
With 11 players returning from the 2002 World Cup-winning team, the 2006 squad was dominated by stars such as Ronaldo, Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho – the latter on fire for Barcelona, winning that year’s Champions League and at the time the back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year. They were a pretty difficult bunch to handle and Parreira was struggling to get them under control. ‘At the end of the day, there are limits to what a manager can tell players to do when they are not on national team duty. Different from a club, where there is a daily routine, in international football you spend months without actually seeing the players in person. So you just tell them to look after themselves, you can’t really foresee that players might turn up overweight. That group, perhaps, wasn’t as hungry to win as one that had never won a major tournament.’
Despite the problems, those were the players Parreira would take to his second World Cup as the Seleção manager. Alongside him as assistant coach was Mario Zagallo, who, during the 1994 World Cup, had become famous for his public displays of naïve optimism whenever he was asked a tricky question on live TV. Brazil had been drawn alongside Croatia, Australia and Japan. Without any great flamboyance, Brazil negotiated safe passage to the knockout stages with three victories, seven goals scored and only one conceded – to a Japan side managed by Zico, who for the second tournament in a row had the strange experience of trying to mastermind a defeat of the Seleção. Ghana were comfortably brushed aside in the round of 16 and then came a match-up against France. For all the talk of revenge for 1998, Brazil were a pale bunch against a revived Zidane. The 1-0 defeat stung badly and would provoke a generational cull. Above all, it would make CBF president Ricardo Teixeira decide that the new manager would have to be a disciplinarian. Teixeira, nonetheless, had also witnessed an interesting phenomenon that had taken place at Germany 2006: the Klinsmann effect.
Under the guidance of Jürgen Klinsmann, a Mannschaft legend who had never even managed a pub side before being catapulted to the main job, Germany had been one of the feelgood sporting stories of 2006. Amidst a wave of national euphoria in a country where patriotism still raises eyebrows within and without its borders, a discredited German team had endeared themselves to fans by making it to the semi-finals before a tearful capitulation against Italy. Klinsmann’s enthusiasm had become a trademark of the team and the experience did not go unnoticed. But while the former Inter Milan and Tottenham striker had sought to bring more flair and inventiveness to his side, Brazilians were looking for someone who could tame inflated egos. Teixeira would not even need to go back to Brazil to talk to the man he wanted, for Dunga had been working in Germany as a TV pundit. The man who captained Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning side would become the Brazilian answer to the Klinsmann effect. He would take no prisoners.
Like Klinsmann, Dunga had never worked as a coach before and in his own words he never expected to. Two years before being unveiled at the CBF headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, the former captain would be found killing time in sporadic tours with the Brazilian Masters team. He was part of the XI who faced Exeter City in a friendly to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Seleção’s first ever game and after the match he spoke freely about his reservations of the dugout experience. ‘Our football directors are amateurs and I don’t think I can stomach the lack of competence they show in running our teams,’ he said, while sipping a pint of bitter in a nondescript Dorset pub. ‘It is enough for me to be remembered as a guy who gave his heart for his country as a player.’
For all this, Dunga’s change of heart was understandable: apart from an unbelievable professional opportunity, the call from the Seleção also meant the Seleção once again needed Dunga. And that always mattered to him. A member of the class that in 1983 won the U-23 Youth World Cup, at a time when Brazilians were still licking the wounds of the Seleção’s painful exit from the 1982 World Cup, Dunga had been awarded a handful of caps since 1984, the year he represented Brazil in the Los Angeles Olympics, but failed to impress as vividly as team-mates Jorginho and Bebeto. After playing for Internacional, Corinthians, Santos and Vasco in the space of seven years, he left for Italy in 1987 to defend for minnows Pisa.
Away from the spotlight, he fell down the pecking order and hardly featured for the Seleção until 1989, when new manager Sebastião Lazaroni, who had worked with the midfielder at Vasco, brought him back for his ambitious experiment for the 1990 World Cup. A no-nonsense midfielder forged in the tough, physical environment of southern Brazilian football, Dunga rose through the ranks to help Lazaroni’s 3-5-2 system, a formation which had raised a lot of controversy on the back of some poor results, such as a 4-0 routing by Denmark in June. A month later, he was lining up for the national anthems in Salvador, where Brazil would open their 1989 Copa America campaign. While strikers Bebeto and Romário became media darlings after the Seleção recovered from an inauspicious start to become South American champions for the first time in 40 years, it was Dunga who the media turned into a symbol, for better or worse. The ‘Dunga Era’ was the term created to explain the transition from Telê Santana’s artistic style into a more tactically conscious (‘Europeanised’) way of playing football. Brazil went on to beat Italy and European champions Holland away in the final months of 1989 and Lazaroni seemed to have won the battle against his critics. But it all fell apart spectacularly in the 1990 World Cup – after negotiating hard-fought wins against Sweden, Costa Rica and Scotland, Brazil were sent packing by Argentina in the round of 16, after a great Diego Maradona move was finished by Claudio Cannigia. Ironically, Brazil had lost after their best game in the competition and were unlucky not to have won quite comfortably after hitting the post several times. The knives were out back home, however, after the Seleção’s worst result since the 1966 shambles and the public and media were quick to condemn Lazaroni and to turn Dunga into the symbol of a failed generation.
The midfielder would not get a game for Brazil under new manager Falcão and even his successor, Carlos Alberto Parreira, took his time to bring Dunga back to the fold. Between June 1990 and June 1993 Dunga would only start one game under Parreira and it was only after Brazil’s horrendous start to the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign that he was drafted in to help. The press immediately cried foul and the midfielder spent the whole campaign under fire – his goal against Ecuador in São Paulo, a venomous shot with the outside of the right boot, was celebrated with a hug from team-mate Jorginho and some less than kind words for the crowd that had been booing the team’s nervous performance. By the time Brazil went to the United States for the 1994 World Cup, Dunga was already a crucial cog in Parreira’s machine on and off the pitch. Tactically, his midfield partnership with Mauro Silva would be an effective shield to the centre-backs and led to a formidable defensive record in that tournament, with only two goals conceded in seven matches. But Dunga was also a leader in a group eager to bounce back from the horrors of 1990, when players were pelted with coins at the airport in Rio, and Parreira did not hesitate in using him as a ‘shadow’ for the temperamental Romário, on whose goals Brazil depended in order to succeed. The two players were chalk and cheese – Romário a cheeky chap and Dunga the man with the eternal frown – but they formed an extraordinarily close bond.
Dunga wasn’t Parreira’s formal choice of captain. The armband had been given to Rai, the stylish midfielder and brother of the legendary Sócrates. But the player failed miserably to deliver in Brazil’s group stage matches and was duly dropped, with Dunga stepping into what was his natural role. That meant the man so reviled by his fellow countrymen in 1990 would be the one to lift the FIFA trophy on 17 July 1994, when Brazil broke a 24-year duck in the World Cup. Liked or not, his detractors would have to acknowledge that Dunga was now a World Cup winner. But the fact that the player had used the occasion to address the press corps in less than flattering terms while still holding the trophy had left a sour taste.
Twelve years later, Dunga was a near universal choice to try to pick up the pieces after the disaster of 2006. Even sectors more opposed to his appointment agreed that the former captain was the right name to symbolise a new regime for the Seleção after the perception that the big stars had outstayed their welcome. In his first interview, the new manager repeated exhaustively that collectiveness would trump prestige in his team. ‘The real star here is the Brazilian shirt, which represents the country that has won more World Cups than any other. No player is more important that this shirt.’
Dunga was swift to put his money where his mouth was: when the Seleção reconvened in August 2006 for their first game since the France defeat in Frankfurt, a friendly against Norway in Oslo, only eight of the 23 players who had gone to Germany made Dunga’s new squad. Among the surviving members were defenders Lúcio, Juan and Luisão, midfielder Gilberto Silva, full-backs Cicinho and Gilberto and strikers Fred and Robinho. In the space of a month, the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu had been retired by one of their former team-mates, while Ronaldinho and Kaká, both younger than the aforementioned trio, were used as an example of stars who would have to earn back their places in the squad. Dunga also made a point that not only players plying their trade in top Europeans leagues would get a shot: the first call-up was peppered with Eastern Europe-based players, including midfielder Elano, whose 2004 move from Santos to Shakhtar Donetsk had been publicly criticised by the then Seleção manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had frequently left out players based in clubs east of Berlin. One of them, CSKA Moscow’s Daniel Carvalho, would score the first goal of the ‘New Dunga Era’ and spare Brazil some blushes in a 1-1 draw against the Norwegians.
Although they were bundled together in Dunga’s push for a humble pie banquet, Kaká and Ronaldinho were experiencing very different outcomes from the debacle in Germany. Kaká was one of the few Seleção stars spared the vitriolic criticism directed at the team. A devout Christian, the AC Milan forward not only stood aside from the party animal lot led by Ronaldo, but he was also much younger than the veterans. He was only 20 when taking part in the 2002 World Cup as a sub (and only saw 20 minutes of action in a group stage game against Costa Rica). Four years later, however, he had become an influential player on the pitch, having won Serie A with Milan and reached a Champions League final in which he supplied two assists for Hernán Crespo to score a brace in the Italian club’s dream first half against Liverpool, when they led 3-0. In Germany, he scored the winner for the Seleção in the opening game against Croatia but couldn’t really fulfil his potential in a team that was so unbalanced with its heavy attacking duo and fading full-backs. Dunga’s decision to have Kaká sit out the Norway friendly received mixed reactions in Brazil. The player himself was surprised, but chose not to antagonise the new manager. Especially as he agreed with Dunga’s new humble approach. Kaká had witnessed up close how Ronaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos had lorded it up in 2006, to the point where manager Parreira was seen by many other players as having lost control of the group. ‘I appreciate Dunga’s proposal to make the group more important than the individuals,’ Kaká said when questioned about his absence from the squad. ‘That is the way teams win. But I would like this idea not to be restricted to speeches.’ Ronaldinho, however, was quite another story. After winning the FIFA World Player of the Year trophy in 2004 and 2005 and leading Barcelona to the 2006 Champions League title, he had become a messianic figure in the football world and Brazilians were certain that the ‘Buck-Toothed One’, as they tenderly referred to him, would lead the charge in Germany. Reality proved very different: Ronaldinho failed to ignite the World Cup and left the tournament with no goals, one assist and only four shots on target. Saying that he underperformed was an understatement, no matter how naïve it was to imagine Ronaldinho could carry the entire team on his shoulders, especially when Parreira did not use him on the left wing where he so powerfully dominated for his club. While at Barcelona the Brazilian could rely on sharper and faster team-mates such as Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Iniesta and a blossoming Lionel Messi, and his team-mates at the Seleção weren’t of the same calibre. And to compound matters, Ronaldinho’s name is still associated with partying hard in Barcelona, which he did overtly in the build-up to the 2006 tournament; this, and his appearance in a number of TV commercials, became a source of criticism in Brazil after the France game. So it was that Ronaldinho’s omission from Dunga’s first squad earned the manager kudos in the media.
Despite this, the Barcelona man and Kaká were back in the fold in September for Brazil’s London friendlies against Argentina and Wales. Struggling with back spasms, Ronaldinho limited himself to watching the displaced South American derby at the Emirates Stadium. Kaká had suffered the same fate during the first 45 minutes, having been benched by Dunga. It was another controversial decision fully exploited in the news ahead of the game, but the manager could barely hide his grin when Brazil went 1-0 up through Elano. If Dunga wanted to put Kaká on his mettle, the plan worked brilliantly: the Milan man set Elano up for his second before scoring the third in the 89th minute, after stealing possession from Messi in Brazil’s own half and slaloming past the Argentine defence.
Two days later, at White Hart Lane, Ronaldinho finally made it on to the pitch under Dunga’s watch, but the 2-0 win against Ryan Giggs’ Wales did not mask another underwhelming performance by the Barcelona forward, the 11th consecutive game in which he had failed to score for the Seleção.
One month later, Ronaldinho would start the Seleção’s next friendly – a bizarre match against Al-Kuwait – but he sat on the bench for the following two games against Ecuador and Switzerland and Dunga did nothing to hide his lack of enthusiasm for the player’s performances. ‘Ronaldinho needs to adapt himself to the team,’ ranted the manager, in what sounded like criticism towards Ronaldinho’s celebrated set of skills. ‘A great player is the one that can steal balls, give assists and score goals. The rest is just folklore.’ Statements like that helped to reignite old controversies involving the former captain. Dunga had always been specifically sensitive to criticism about the tactical rigidity that marked Brazil’s displays in the 1994 World Cup. He wouldn’t hold back even if comments came from ‘sacred cows’ such as Zico and Sócrates. ‘The 1982 generation was a losing one but people still love to hail the beautiful way they played football,’ said Dunga scathingly. ‘But what is the point of playing artistically if the results don’t come? My generation was one of the most accomplished in the history of Brazilian football. We won the U-23 world title, reached two Olympic finals and lifted a World Cup for Brazil after 24 years. We taught Brazil how to win again. People said we played ugly, but the fact is that we brought the trophies home and some people, including former players, still can’t cope with that.’
Zico, then coaching Turkish side Fenerbahçe, responded by blasting what he saw as a lack of recognition for coaches who had been working in Brazil. ‘I am not questioning what Dunga represents for Brazilian football, but I do think his appointment sent the wrong message. Experience in the job should count at the time when somebody picks the manager of a national team. What about the guys who have invested time in careers and courses? A good CV should be crucial for a job like managing Brazil.’ It should be noted that Zico had ruled himself out of contention for the job, so his words were not the result of any bitterness at having lost out. Dunga, however, could point to results like the drubbing of Argentina as evidence that the rebuilding of the Seleção was not going as badly as some people were making out. But by the time Brazil returned to London, in February 2007, the atmosphere had changed. Rumours were rife that Ronaldinho and Kaká had approached Dunga to ask to be relieved from playing in that year’s Copa America so that they could focus on their club form, but the manager had vehemently denied that anyone would get time off like that. The week got more tense after Portugal dealt Dunga his first defeat in the job, a result that knocked Brazil off the top of the FIFA rankings for the first time in 55 months; the result was especially bitter as Portugal were being managed by Luiz Felipe Scolari, a fact that the Brazilian media couldn’t seem to mention enough.
Criticism intensified after Brazil needed a 92nd-minute equaliser to avoid defeat to England at Wembley, although the team had bounced back from the Portugal defeat with wins over Chile and Ghana. A goalless draw against Turkey in Dortmund didn’t help Dunga’s case and when it was officially announced that he and the Brazilian FA had granted the wishes of Kaká and Ronaldinho and excused them from playing in the Copa America in Venezuela, expectations for Brazil’s first official tournament since the 2006 World Cup could hardly have been more deflated.
Brazil opened their campaign with a 2-0 defeat to Mexico but recovered by beating Chile and Ecuador. A 6-1 drubbing of the Chileans put the Seleção in the semi-finals, where a penalty shoot-out triumph against Uruguay sent them to another final against Argentina. Against the odds, since Argentina were unbeaten in the tournament, Brazil triumphed with a 3-0 scoreline. Amid enthusiastic celebrations, players and manager complained about a perceived lack of respect for the team, and Dunga spouted some extraordinary quasi-philosophical quips. ‘I dedicate our title to every child in the world who suffers with war and hunger. These are people who are pure, they don’t have envy or evil.’ A month later, Ronaldinho and Kaká were back in the team and helped the Seleção beat Algeria, the USA and Mexico comfortably. But then came the South American qualifiers for South Africa 2010 and Brazil stumbled: the Seleção drew two of the first five games and lost so convincingly to Paraguay that panic set in. A 2-0 defeat to Venezuela in a friendly in Boston, the first ever loss suffered by Brazil against their northern neighbours, sparked a public taunt by General Hugo Chávez in a meeting with president Lula da Silva; public outrage, meanwhile, was exemplified by the crowd’s behaviour during Brazil’s goalless draw against Argentina in Belo Horizonte: Brazilian fans booed the Seleção while applauding Messi whenever he touched the ball. It was at this time that sources close to the CBF started briefing Brazilian journalists that the manager would be put to the sword if Brazil didn’t come back from the Beijing Olympics with anything less than gold. Thus, when Brazil were sent packing after Argentina repaid the past drubbings with a 3-0 win of their own in the semi-finals, the cover of influential newspaper O Globo was designed like the funeral classifieds and communicated the ‘demise’ of the manager. The scene was all set for the mercy shot from CBF president Ricardo Teixeira.
Only it didn’t come. Dunga was kept in the job and was obviously less than amused by O Globo’s announcement. The episode resulted in a siege mentality among the management which was very quickly transmitted to the players. Brazil stumbled again in the qualifiers, drawing against Bolivia and Colombia, but were still in one of the four qualifying spots. A 6-2 win against Portugal in the last friendly of 2008 bought Dunga some breathing space over the holidays. It seemed to be just what he and his squad needed. Refreshed and refocused, 2009 started with a win against Italy in London in February and qualification for the World Cup a month later – with three rounds to spare – after a 3-1 win in Argentina, the first triumph in their most famous rivals’ territory in 14 years. There were barely 1,000 Brazilian fans at the Arroyito, but their singing in praise of the manager must have felt good for the man who just a couple of months before had been hounded by donkey chants. At the press conference, however, he showed that forgiveness would take time. Asked if he thought Argentina had played badly, the manager addressed the local hacks with a scowl. ‘I don’t know if you understood the question. It’s because in Brazil we never think we have merited our victories; instead we have to think our opponents didn’t do enough.’
Dunga seemed, at last, to have galvanised the players. Brazil went to the Confederations Cup in South Africa and after a nervous 4-3 win over Egypt they went on to win the tournament for the second time in a row with a remarkable comeback against the USA in the final – the Seleção went 2-0 down but won the game with a last-gasp header by defender and captain Lúcio. Since Dunga had taken over, Brazil had finished at the top in every competition they took part in – including the qualifying tournament, which they eventually topped despite the stumbles. While it could be argued that they often didn’t win pretty, the results were undeniably remarkable and the players took notice. ‘We knew Dunga had arrived at the Seleção without any management experience but that didn’t mean that he did not know football,’ said Gilberto Silva. ‘Above all, he seemed to be getting the best out of the players during a changing of the guard. The players respected him as a leader, a world champion, but above all he never tried to hide behind excuses or to blame us when things went wrong. That appeals to a lot of footballers, let me tell you.’
The manager had control of the dressing room and could finally look forward to a fourth World Cup. The year ended with lukewarm friendlies in the Middle East – a 1-0 win over an injury-ridden England in Doha and a 2-0 triumph against Oman in Muscat. Between June 2008 and October 2009 the Seleção had been unbeaten for 19 games, a sequence only broken by a 2-1 away defeat to Bolivia in the last qualifier.
They had also parted company with Ronaldinho, whose last appearance under Dunga came as a substitute in Brazil’s 3-0 win over Peru in April 2009. Sent packing from Barcelona at the end of the 2007/08 season as part of Pep Guardiola’s attempts to rejuvenate the squad and avoid having Messi dragged down by the Brazilian’s hell-raising lifestyle, Ronaldinho had signed for AC Milan and had once again begun to show some glimpses of his phenomenal ability. It was enough to convince Dunga to give him another chance. Attentions then immediately turned to Neymar as a means of giving the Seleção a touch of unpredictability. Thanks to FIFA’s changes in the calendar during the ’90s, the number of friendlies played before the World Cup during the European club season had been reduced to a single match. When the Santos youngster’s name didn’t show up in the squad for Brazil’s visit to Ireland in Dublin in March 2010, it had become clear that only an injury to another squad member would see Neymar make it to South Africa. To make sure everybody understood the message, Dunga gave his own take on the player’s development. ‘In the history of the Brazilian national team you can see that the players that worked out the best were the ones that were tested over time. In Brazil we are always saying that this or that player is special, but many never live up to expectations. If a new Pelé comes through you can be sure I will call him up.’
So in May 2010, the manager announced his 23-man squad. No place for Robinho, Ganso and Ronaldinho. Brazil would be challenging for a sixth crown with a squad that contained a combination of physicality, tactical discipline and counter-attacking speed, mixed with individual attributes such as Kaká’s skills and Luis Fabiano’s poaching instincts. It was seldom pleasant to watch this Brazil in action, but they were also a team that had put five goals past Italy and six past Argentina with no response. Goalkeeper Júlio César, right-back Maicon and centre-back Lúcio were fresh from winning a Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble with José Mourinho’s Inter. Lucio, as a matter of fact, formed with Roma’s Juan a centre-back partnership that only lost three out of 37 games for Brazil, with an impressive average of less than one goal per game. Gilberto was indeed eight years older than in 2002, but was still a rare case of a Brazilian defensive midfielder who didn’t have to resort to heavy tackling to disarm opponents, a task more appropriate to Felipe Melo of Juventus, whose fiery temper often diverted attention from his work with the ball. Elano had already departed Manchester City after an unhappy time under Mark Hughes, who had also lost the respect of fellow Seleção player Robinho. After City broke the then British transfer record in 2008 to buy Robinho from Real Madrid for £32.5 million, the player had a promising first season at Eastlands but failed to establish himself in the Premiership and had to resort to forcing a loan move back to Santos in order to get first-team football. For the Seleção, though, Robinho had been instrumental, scoring 19 goals since the beginning of the new World Cup cycle.
On paper, Dunga had put together a team that had to be considered as a contender for the title in South Africa. The only visible chink in the armour was the absence of a convincing option for left-back. The decision to retire Roberto Carlos exposed a curious quality gap in a position where Brazil had traditionally churned out talent after talent. The Seleção had boasted the legendary Nilton Santos, the player who broke the mould that restricted full-backs to defensive duties and who became one of the symbols of the 1958–62 double-winning generation. Leovegildo Gama Júnior was immortalised in the 1982 side and later reinvented his career as a resourceful midfielder and even featured under Parreira in the rebuilding work for USA 1994. In that tournament, the heroics of left-back Branco, who scored the winning goal in a tricky quarter-final against Holland, stood out. Since Carlos’ departure, however, nobody had owned that left side of the pitch. Under Dunga, a string of players had been tested in the position, including a promising mercurial Fluminense FC player named Marcelo, later a Real Madrid household name. The drought had forced Dunga to use right-back Dani Alves as improvised cover during the World Cup qualifiers but at the end of 2009 Dunga decided to give a maiden cap to Lyon’s Michel Bastos, to the surprise of fans, public and even the player. Especially the player, since Bastos had, for at least three seasons, played in midfield for Lille and Lyon, information that didn’t go unnoticed in Brazil. In fairness, the then Lyon winger had been initially brought in as cover for Liverpool’s Fábio Aurélio, who Dunga had hoped would resolve the positional problem. But injuries hampered the plan and Bastos was catapulted into the spotlight. The manager’s choice for a second left-back also raised eyebrows: in came veteran Gilberto, Carlos’ deputy in 2006, and remembered in Europe for a difficult time at Tottenham Hotspur, where over two season he played a mere ten games before returning to Brazil to play for Cruzeiro. At 34, he had also abandoned the left-back role to earn his living in midfield.
Brazil had been dealt an interesting draw in South Africa. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast, the Seleção were pooled with North Korea, back in the World Cup for the first time since their 1966 exploits – they had knocked out Italy before capitulating against Portugal, after going 3-0 up against Eusébio and co. The team from the reclusive rogue state would be Brazil’s first opponents, followed by the Africans and the Portuguese. While qualifying was not supposed to be a major concern for Dunga’s team, the fact that European champions Spain could be waiting in the round of 16 put extra pressure on the campaign. But it also offered the manager a perfect excuse to score points in his tussles with the media: the Seleção would prepare for South Africa in what could be called an isolation regime, where players would have restricted contact with fans and journalists ahead of the already restricted FIFA guidelines for activities during the tournament. While Dunga’s approach was attacked as being draconian, it was not a top down resolution. The players had made it clear to the former captain that they wanted to distance themselves from any festive mood. ‘Even the guys who had not been part of the 2006 squad knew about the problems created by the preparations in Weggis,’ explains Gilberto. ‘Nobody wanted to be exposed to that atmosphere because we knew it wouldn’t do us any good and in the end the players could get a lot of flak if things went wrong at the World Cup. After we qualified, Dunga approached the players and asked what we wanted to do in terms of preparations. We were the ones saying we needed exactly the opposite from what had happened in 2006.’The former Arsenal player insists the manager was more messenger than enforcer, but the fact is that Dunga himself had the chance to witness the Swiss circus in 2006 when he worked as a TV pundit. In his conversations with the CBF to take over the Seleção he had reinforced the need to avoid a similar situation, just like he had protested against the infamous cancellation of a training session for a Seleção promotional appearance in France 1998. ‘I am here to address the Seleção’s needs, not wishes,’ he had informed president Teixeira. Dunga, however, had made powerful enemies with his style of command. If moans from the press seem to come with any national team manager’s job description, the former captain looked particularly pleased to frustrate Globo TV, for decades the powerful holder of the rights for every game played by the Seleção. They had enjoyed special access to players for as long as people could remember and did not expect the situation to change under the new command. But relations had begun to sour in 2008, right at the time where the manager’s position had been particularly under threat, and Dunga retaliated by turning down interview requests and creating what he called a ‘discomfort zone’ for the channel. To have an idea of how much power Globo TV holds in Brazil, one has just to point to the 1989 presidential election, the first time in almost 30 years that the country could vote freely. The winner was Fernando Collor de Mello, who before Globo’s patronage had been the governor of minnow state Alagoas in the north of the country. Collor ended up beating some major Brazilian political heavyweights, but not without the help of massively skewed coverage from a channel that to this day still commands the highest audiences in Brazil and is still the main reason why cable TV didn’t manage to upset the apple cart in sport broadcasting in the country.
But Dunga did not feel intimidated and bickered openly with Globo TV, issuing a ban on exclusive interviews and any media activities outside the daily 30-minute press conferences – a scenario that was in complete contrast to Germany 2006, when players were made available for the channel even after midnight. The ban contributed to an understandable increase in the already tense relationship between manager and media, which also spiralled into the playing ranks. Robinho was forced to apologise in front of the other players for daring to speak to an ‘enemy’ camera crew while walking around a Johannesburg shopping mall.
Other players were also far from buffered from controversy. Since Brazil had been firmly cautioned by FIFA in 2009, when the players had prayed in the centre of the pitch and wore shirts with religious messages during celebrations for the Confederations Cup title, the issue of religious behaviour within the Seleção had been rekindled. During a press conference, Kaká, who openly professed his Christian devotion by having ‘I Belong to Jesus’ sewn on his boots, would lash out against reports that he had a serious groin injury and was playing through pain by playing the religious card. ‘I am being attacked because of my faith in Jesus Christ,’ vented the 2007 World Player of the Year. ‘In the same way as I respect non-believers, I’d like to be respected for my religious beliefs.’
As well as Kaká, Lúcio was a vocal evangelist whose public displays of faith had openly bothered FIFA, the governing body clearly uncomfortable with the involvement of religion in football. But in Brazil the warning to calm the religious fervour of the players touched deeper issues. Although it still has the biggest Catholic population in the world (123 million out of a population of 190 million people), the country has witnessed a substantial growth in Protestantism over the last 40 years and Catholicism has decreased in that time from 92 per cent of the population to 57 per cent. If the bulk of this swing can be seen in the political sphere, where the so-called ‘Evangelical Block’ became a force to be reckoned with in the Brazilian Congress, football became a much more visible arena for religious militancy. In 1984, a group of footballers led by Baltazar, a cult hero centre-forward nicknamed ‘God’s Striker’ given his professed faith, founded Christ’s Athletes, an association of Protestant sportsmen that would prove to be one of the most influential power groups in Brazilian football over the next decade. Their influence within the Seleção was specifically felt during the 1990 World Cup, during which they would meet regularly for prayer, invariably led by right-back Jorginho, who 20 years later would be working alongside Dunga in South Africa.
Jorginho never shied away from giving faith testimonials and even in informal conversations with journalists he liked to bring the subject to the fore – during a 2009 trip to Qatar, he even spoke openly about Jesus and the Holy Spirit while sitting down for lunch, oblivious to the heretical nature of that kind of conversation in a Muslim country. In a more heated press conference before the World Cup, the assistant coach and 1994 World Cup winner actually said that people wishing bad things to the Seleção would be ‘excommunicated by Jesus’.
Religious fervour was hardly a monopoly of the evangelical lot. As previously mentioned, references to the supposed colour of Mother Mary’s shroud (blue) were dropped to reassure a superstitious Brazilian squad ahead of the 1958 final after the Swedes won the right to play in yellow. In 1994, the whole Brazilian squad prayed together in the centre of the Rose Bowl pitch in Pasadena after the penalty shoot-out victory against Italy – and the Buddhist beliefs of Roberto Baggio, who skied the deciding penalty, were often mentioned in the aftermath of that World Cup by the Brazilian media. And while Luiz Felipe Scolari may hardly come across as a religious figure, the manager walked 18km between the cities of Goiania and Trindade (‘trinity’ in Portuguese) in 2003 to visit a Catholic sanctuary as a thanksgiving exercise after the World Cup win he masterminded in the previous year. But the preaching of the evangelicals had never been comfortably received by large swathes of the public or the CBF.
No pun intended, but spirits were far from jovial when Brazil stepped on to the Ellis Park pitch for their opener against North Korea. On a cold night, the Seleção looked frozen and struggled to impose themselves against a team ranked far below the FIFA leaders. After a goalless first half, Brazil opened their World Cup account in the 55th minute courtesy of a Maicon strike that exploited the naivety of keeper Guk, who had expected a cross to the right-back. On the 71st minute, Elano put the result beyond doubt after latching on to a Robinho low pass from almost the halfway line. It wasn’t the routing predicted by many and the mood turned sour when Maicon was caught out of position which allowed Yun Nam to rove into the Brazilian box and hit a howitzer of a shot past César two minutes from time.
The Seleção had failed to impress and had failed to build a comfortable goal cushion, but at least a goalless draw between Portugal and Ivory Coast made the result in Johannesburg a bit less grim. Still, during his press conference, Dunga lashed out at a Brazilian journalist who had asked about Robinho’s good game. ‘I have the memory of an elephant and I remember you were one of the experts demanding for Robinho to be dropped from the national team last year because he wasn’t doing well at Manchester City,’ he scowled.
Five days later, this time at Soccer City, the Seleção lined up to face the Ivory Coast with a point to prove. Drogba, who had picked up an elbow injury a few days before the tournament, had recovered in time to face the Brazilians. The Africans needed a win to keep their chances of qualifying for the second round (without depending on Portugal’s results) alive, but their game plan under Sven-Göran Eriksson revolved around physical intimidation, which Dunga’s team responded to accordingly: a total of 40 fouls would be registered by FIFA’s statisticians and French referee Stéphane Lannoy would hand out five yellow cards and one red. But Brazil took control of the match in footballing terms in the 25th minute: a Kaká pass put Luis Fabiano into space with only goalkeeper Boubacar to beat and the Sevilla forward whacked the ball past him to put an end to a six-match goal drought. Fabiano would controversially increase Brazil’s advantage five minutes into the second half when the striker escaped the attentions of two markers with the help of what appeared to be a handball. After 62 minutes, a great run by Kaká on the left ended up with a low cross for an Elano tap-in. Brazil couldn’t be playing better after the underwhelming performance against the North Koreans. The feelgood factor, though, was dented seconds after the third goal: Elano was hit by a reckless challenge by Tioté and left the pitch in tears. Kaká, who had spent a good part of the second half complaining to the referee about the rough treatment from the Ivorians, was sent off after a clash with Keïta that incensed the Brazilians, particularly Dunga. It was Kaká’s first career red card and it gave a worrying sign of tensions within the team and in Kaká’s mind.
Three years before, Kaká could hardly put a foot wrong. He led Milan to their fifth Champions League title in 2007, when the Italians avenged their shocking 2005 defeat to Liverpool by overcoming the Merseysiders in Athens. He finished the tournament as top scorer with ten goals, the first time a Brazilian player had managed the feat and even though Milan finished their domestic season 36 points adrift of local rivals and title winners Internazionale it did not diminish the impact of his season. The Brazilian won the FIFA World Player of the Year vote by a landslide, with 1,047 points against 504 for Lionel Messi and 426 for Cristiano Ronaldo. His place as Brazilian football’s focal point was duly ratified. Two years later, he would become the second-most expensive signing of all time when Real Madrid paid Milan £56 million for his services. By that time, though, Kaká was beginning to struggle with his fitness. Groin problems were plaguing him; his left knee was also feeling the stress of so many games for club and country. In his last three seasons in Italy he had played 148 games, including his Seleção commitments, and his body was showing signs of fatigue. In his first Real season, leading up to the World Cup, he still managed 33 outings for Real but missed over ten matches through injury and by the time he joined his Seleção team-mates he was in far from his best condition. It would later be revealed by Brazilian physician Turibio Leite that Kaká had played through pain since 2008 and by the time South Africa kicked off the strength in the player’s left leg was significantly compromised. So it was understandable that Kaká wasn’t feeling particularly happy at the tournament and that the special attention received from Drogba’s companions had worn his patience thin. Unlike biblical figure Job, Kaká’s threshold was approaching its limit.
Between Elano’s injury and Kaká’s red card there was still time for Didier Drogba to poach a goal back for the Ivorians, but it didn’t change the course of the game. Brazil won 3-1 with a convincing display that should have steadied the nerves of the Seleção. Instead, Dunga managed to attract more controversy: during his press conference, the manager swore at a TV Globo presenter who was talking on the phone during one of his answers – he whispered the words, but they were captured by the microphones. The channel promptly latched on to the episode in their post-game coverage and a complaint was lodged with FIFA. It was another chapter in a battle that once again looked to be taking up a precious chunk of the manager’s time. It would later transpire that some of the media company’s bosses had negotiated with CBF president Ricardo Teixeira a series of exclusive interviews that would be broadcast live during Fantástico, TV Globo’s flagship Sunday night news magazine programme, only for Dunga to veto them.
Still, Brazil only needed a draw against Portugal to secure first place in Group G and theoretically avoid the early clash with Spain. At least theoretically: the European champions had made a mess of things by losing their opener against Switzerland, a weird game where La Roja had almost 40 shots on goal but were still unable to respond to a bundled goal by Gelson Fernandes after some comical and pathetic defending. Spain bounced back with a 2-0 win against Honduras and would play Chile on 25 June knowing that even a win might not be enough to guarantee passage to the knockout stages. They lay third after two games, a point behind Switzerland and three behind the valiant Chileans. Their encounter with the South American side would take place on the same day and at the same time as the Brazilians and Portuguese locked horns, so nobody could try to cherry-pick opponents.
Dunga, as expected, refused to be drawn into discussions about relying on Brazil’s advantage, but it was clearly a tricky match for the Seleção. After drawing with the Ivory Coast in their opening game in South Africa, Portugal had gone on to dismantle the North Koreans 7-0. If they won the game against their former colony in Durban, they would nail the first-place spot on goal difference. Moreover, Cristiano Ronaldo and co had several points to prove. First, they were desperate to avenge the 6-2 defeat to the Seleção in a 2008 friendly. Second, the squad hadn’t taken kindly to Dunga’s taunts at the time of the Final Draw, in December 2009, when the manager sarcastically alluded to the presence of Brazilian-born Deco, Liédson and Pepe in Carlos Queiroz’ side. ‘We will be playing against Brazil B in the World Cup,’ he said after the ceremony. Queiroz responded with the argument that more letters of the alphabet should be used, since a significant number of Brazilians could trace their origins to Portugal.
Since 1966, encounters between the two sides had understandably become more charged, but geopolitics also played a big part in the banter. After almost 400 years of an often-oppressive Portuguese colonising experience, Brazil had declared independence in 1822 and although relations with the former power had normalised since, an element of resentment persisted on both sides. Jokes about a perceived lack of intelligence from the Portuguese are a common feature in Brazilian comedy while back in Lisbon the image of the inhabitants of their former colony as lazy and cunning persists to this day. As previously described, the Brazilian presence in Portuguese football had been influential for the development of the game in the 1960s. Cultural affinities also meant the Portuguese league would become the most popular destination for Brazilian football expatriates. Rivalries were heated even at youth level – Brazil and Portugal played a highly charged FIFA Youth Championship final in 1991 in Lisbon, where the European side featuring Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Nuno Gomes overcame the South Americans in a penalty shoot-out in front of a fanatical 127,000 crowd at Estadio da Luz, in Lisbon, two years after they had beaten Brazil in the semi-finals of the same competition in Saudi Arabia.
In South Africa, Portuguese fans had reasons to feel they could once again celebrate: Portugal had gone further than Brazil in Germany 2006 (they lost to France in the semi-final) and they also boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player. Brazil would have to do it without the suspended Kaká and were also deprived of Elano: the midfielder was out of the World Cup with a shin injury. Durban, the venue for the match, was also a place where Brazilian fans would find themselves in the minority: the city had been a major centre for Portuguese immigration to South Africa and also a refuge to whites of Portuguese origin fleeing the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique during the ’70s and ’80s. That meant that the Portuguese supporters went in numbers to the match. Both sets of fans, however, were in for a disappointment.
Much as he wanted to avoid playing Spain, Carlos Queiroz still preferred to go through to the knockout stage rather than risk Portugal being overtaken by the Ivorians – mathematically, the Ivory Coast could steamroll the North Koreans and then qualify if Portugual were defeated. Thus, both Brazil and Portugal entered the Moses Mabhida Stadium determined to play counter-attacking football instead of going for the kill.
Dunga was forced to make changes because of Kaká’s red card and Elano’s injury, so in came Júlio Baptista and Dani Alves – improvised as a midfielder – while striker Nilmar gave Robinho a breather. Portugal’s intentions were clearly stated by a 4-5-1 formation, with Ronaldo as the sole striker.
Despite the reticent formations and approach from both sides, the Portuguese could have opened the scoring with a Tiago volley in the 18th minute. Brazil, meanwhile, went close twice: Nilmar hit the bar after 30 minutes and Fabiano could have done better with a free header in the 39th. Both teams were determined to win the battle for midfield and some flying tackles went in. Mexican referee Benito Téllez waved seven yellow cards in the first 45 minutes. Two of them were for Pepe and Felipe Melo, who were squaring up to each other frequently. This situation forced Dunga to substitute the Juventus man for Wolfsburg’s Josué before half-time, fearing a sending off – in hindsight, a move that could have helped the Seleção immensely a couple of days later.
Portugal started the second half looking for an opener that almost came in the 55th minute after Raul Meireles managed to hit wide from inside the six-yard box. Two minutes into injury time, Portuguese goalie Eduardo did well to turn a deflected Ramires shot over the bar. In the end, Brazil had 61 per cent of possession, which motivated a frustrated comment from Dunga: ‘Portugal turned up to defend today and only Brazil actually bothered trying to win this game,’ he said. Nevertheless, Brazil at least managed to secure the first qualifying spot and Portugal earned a precious point that rendered the Ivory Coast’s 3-0 win over North Korea worthless. Meanwhile, Spain’s hard-fought 2-1 win over the Chileans meant the round of 16 pairings would be all-European and all-South American.
Under Dunga, Brazil had beaten Chile in five consecutive matches so the Seleção didn’t fear another encounter with them, even though they had been outstanding in the continental qualifiers, finishing only a point behind the Brazilians in the round-robin tournament. Under Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa, the Chileans had qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1998 playing an unusual 3-3-1-3 formation with a lot of player reshuffling going on. They had pushed Spain to the limit and were confident they could do the same against their much more successful neighbours – Brazil had won 44 out of 64 previous meetings. It would have been a major upset if Chile had left Ellis Park on 28 June with a victory.
In the 34th minute, defender Juan rose above the Chilean defence to head in Brazil’s first. Chile barely had time to compose themselves before, four minutes later, Kaká played in Luis Fabiano, who rounded goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and increased Brazil’s advantage. Chilean hopes were all but extinguished 14 minutes into the second half: Ramires set off on a rampaging run and found Robinho for a first-time shot to Bravo’s left. For the fifth World Cup in a row the Seleção had reached the quarter-finals. But they suffered another loss thanks to a silly yellow card picked up by Ramires. The midfielder had pounced on the opportunity to fill the gap left by Elano’s departure and after Dani Alves’ improvisation in the role hadn’t particularly impressed Dunga. But Ramires picked up a second yellow card by fouling Alexis Sánchez in the 72nd minute and that meant the Seleção had a selection jigsaw to solve for the quarter-final.
Felipe Melo had missed both the Portugal and Chile games with an ankle injury and Baptista also had to sit out the round of 16 match against Chile. Brazil’s opponents in the quarter-finals would once again be Holland, who had reached the last eight with four victories in four matches. After emerging from a group with Denmark, Japan and Cameroon, the Dutch overcame Slovakia 2-1 and for the first time since France ’98 had managed to reach that stage in a World Cup. Led by playmaker Wesley Sneijder and winger Arjen Robben, Holland didn’t particularly make their always-demanding public and media jump with joy. Like Brazil, they were criticised for a perceived compromise of style in favour of efficiency.
On 2 July, both Brazil and Holland were facing their strongest challenge yet in South Africa. Melo had recovered in time to re-join the Seleção’s midfield, but Dunga once again resorted to deploying Alves on the right to make up for the absences of Elano and Ramires. Holland had lost defender Joris Mathijsen during the warm-up, drafting in former Ajax and Blackburn Rovers man André Ooijer, who had so far not featured at all in the competition.
Brazil were quick off the blocks and after eight minutes had already given the Dutch a scare – a Robinho goal disallowed thanks to a marginal offside call on Dani Alves. Two minutes later, Melo split the Dutch defence with a pass that Robinho diverted past Maarten Stekelenburg’s reach with the softest of touches. Brazil followed this up with wave after wave of attacks that could have killed the game. Maicon side-netted and Stekelenburg produced an outstanding save from a Kaká curling shot. When Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura blew for half-time, the Dutch players were visibly relieved. It would take something quite special to change the run of play. In this case, a single moment of madness from one of Dunga’s most trusted lieutenants: Júlio César.
Although his first Seleção caps dated from 2003 and the then Inter Milan goalie had been the hero in Brazil’s 2004 Copa America victory – he saved a penalty in the final against Argentina – César had failed to establish himself as Brazil’s first-choice goalkeeper. Even after Dunga’s arrival he still found himself behind choices such as Heurelho Gomes, Doni and Helton. César finally got the gig in late 2007 and after his exploits with Inter few people in Brazil contested his status. That the Rio-born player picked a World Cup quarter-final to make a mess of an innocuous ball was cruel. But César completely misjudged the trajectory of a Sneijder cross in the 53rd minute and almost punched Melo’s head away instead of the ball, which bounced on the midfielder’s scalp and went into the net. Just like that, Holland were level and the incident clearly rattled Dunga’s team. Their psychological advantage from the first half seemed to have vanished. Holland smelled blood and concentrated their actions on the left side of the Brazilian defence, where Robben’s pace had already created problems. Bastos had been booked for upending the Bayern player and Dunga, fearing a sending-off, replaced the young improvised left-back with the veteran improvised one, Gilberto. But Brazil were still shell-shocked and in the 68th minute would find themselves with a mountain to climb: Robben swung in a corner from the left and Dirk Kuyt had no trouble in flicking the ball for Sneijder, just 5ft 7in tall, to head in. The player celebrated the goal by repeatedly tapping his head, a part of Sneijder’s body that until that game in Port Elizabeth had never been used to score. The climb for Brazil turned almost vertical soon after: having lost his temper after another of Robben’s daunting runs, Melo got a red card for stamping on the winger.
With ten men, the Seleção would need something miraculous to get back into the game and a look at their bench made it clear that they didn’t have that ace up their sleeve. Alongside goalies Gomes and Doni, Brazil had defenders Luisão and Thiago, midfielders Josué and Júlio Baptista and strikers Nilmar and Grafite. None of the attacking men were known for their prowess in operating far away from the box, which was what Brazil needed badly to try to get level. Nilmar was mobile enough to help create problems if he was deployed as a second man up front, but Dunga instead decided to send him into the game as a replacement for Luis Fabiano.
Brazil launched themselves forward desperately and had a good chance through Kaká in the dying minutes but Holland could and should have scored more goals. The final whistle brought a flow of tears to many Brazilian players, some heartbroken enough to sit sobbing on the pitch. Dunga, after punching the dugout cover, made his way straight to the dressing room without waiting for his players or trying to console them. For the second time in a row, Brazil were leaving a World Cup in the last eight. Players who had been in both campaigns were hurting. ‘We were a group of experienced players who stuck together during some really tough times and we were certain we could have done something special in South Africa,’ said Gilberto Silva. ‘That first half against Holland was the best we had played in the competition, but all of a sudden we were going home. It just seemed unfair.’ Our talk takes place more than three years after that game but the former Arsenal player’s eyes well up with the memories of Port Elizabeth.
In the press conference, Dunga looked so defeated that his explanation about why he had elected not to use his third substitution sounded like gibberish. He used his time to announce he was leaving the job and before the squad departed South Africa the following morning speculation about his replacement was rife. Former Seleção player Leonardo, who had recently cut his managerial teeth at AC Milan, became the odds-on favourite to replace him.
Having dreamt of a triumphant closure to his Seleção story, Dunga once again left as public enemy number one. He was criticised for everything from his methods to his fashion sense (he had used his Seleção outings to promote the work of his daughter, a fashion designer). Dunga would disappear from public view, only returning to management in January 2013, taking over Internacional, his first club – he lasted nine months there. Meanwhile, a lot of soul-searching was going on in Brazil and the debate about a possible foreign replacement for the Seleção job for the first time became more than a wild proposition by media columnists. Technically, the Seleção had already had a foreign manager, but the Argentinian Filipo Nuñes was in charge for only one game, a friendly against Uruguay in 1965, when his Palmeiras side was invited by the Brazilian FA to represent the country. Practically, hiring an Eriksson or a Capello had never been seriously considered. But after two World Cup quarter-final exits in a row, some Brazilians had to be excused if they thought the country was running out of ideas.
As previously discussed, the Hungarians Béla Guttmann and Dori Kürschner were a major influence in the 4-2-4 system which helped Pelé, Garrincha and co pick up Brazil’s first World Cup trophy in 1958. Furthermore, Brazilian footballers had become the pinnacle of football globalisation, with top players already spending most of their careers working with foreign managers, languages and ideas. So the idea was not as preposterous as many in Brazil felt.
Three weeks after the Seleção’s capitulation in Port Elizabeth, the CBF thought they were moving on by announcing Muricy Ramalho as the new national team coach. They had to backtrack the same day, though, after Fluminense, the club that had Ramalho under contract, refused to give them permission to talk to the manager. It would later transpire that president Ricardo Teixeira had also tried to entice 2002 World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari back to the job, only to be turned down. As a plan C, Mano Menezes was duly unveiled and in his first statement announced his intention to adopt a playing style more pleasant to the eye. On 26 July, Menezes released a list of players for the first Seleção game after the World Cup – a friendly against the USA in New Jersey two weeks later. The 24-name list contained only four players from the World Cup squad (Robinho, Ramires, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves), but the fundamental difference from the Dunga era was symbolised by the presence of Neymar. By the end of 2013, the striker was already the most prolific Brazilian player in the Seleção, having netted 27 goals in 46 games. He was already 12th in the list of all-time Seleção scorers, tied with the legendary 1950 World Cup runner-up Zizinho.
Nonetheless, South Africa 2010 exposed a problem of quality in this generation of Brazilian footballers. It would take more than three years for the Seleção to beat a top international side and in their first competition after the World Cup, the 2011 Copa America, Brazil crashed and burned spectacularly in the quarter-finals, missing four penalties in a shoot-out against Paraguay. Catapulted to the post of next best thing, Neymar struggled with the pressure and the attention. European clubs started knocking at the door, which led Santos to take incredible measures to try to keep the player in Brazil until the World Cup. They waived their participation in Neymar’s image rights, sold part of his playing rights to a group of investors and encouraged the player to look for as many personal sponsors as he wanted. By 2012, Neymar was already showing up among the ten best-paid players in the world and that level of earning was proving enough to fend off suitors such as Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona – although the Catalans would finally secure Neymar’s services in May 2013. ‘If you look around, however, Neymar is the only outstanding player Brazilian football has produced in the last few years,’ said Roberto Rivelino. ‘There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we are preparing players at youth level. Our strength has always been the type of player that could work tactically but at the same time should not be burdened by formations and always brings that level of unpredictability. We seem to be losing that.’ For 1970 legend Tostão, Brazil seem to be struggling to catch up with the changes in the game: ‘It’s a much more level playing field now and you see countries that a few decades ago would not be noticed now producing top-level players. But Brazilians sometimes think they are the only country with talented players. Worse, our managers seem to still believe we are going to win tournaments just by being Brazil.’
More contemporary players agree. Gilberto Silva, who returned to Brazil in 2011 after almost ten years in European football, believes Brazil have to change from within. ‘For many years we have become used to thinking of the Seleção as a separate unit from the domestic game in our country,’ he said. ‘There are organisational issues in the domestic game that need to be addressed for Brazilian football to remain strong in the future. It is unacceptable that in the 21st century we still have clubs run so poorly. From what I have seen in my career abroad, Brazil are hiding behind the five world titles instead of building upon them.’
How long this scenario will remain the case is the most important question Brazilian football has to address. Sooner or later.
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