SOS to Big Phil? Brazil’s Post-Olympic Quandary

A sombre, the shadow: Luiz Felipe Scolari has always had a looming presence in Brazilian football.

This is not only owed to his towering 6ft 1in presence or the fact that he is the only manager ever to win the World Cup and Copa Libertadores (twice, in Scolari’s case). Nor is it his achievement in becoming, arguably, A Selecao’s first ever formal manager, that is, a man who wants to foster team spirit through a structured tactical set-up and shrewd team selections, and bravely bypass once-accepted, overhead interference from players’ agents, clubs, sponsors and, of course, the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF). Rather, Scolari has always been seen as something of a firefighter, even in his career pinnacle: winning the 2002 World Cup.

After all, his predecessors, the similarly-aged Vanderlei Luxembergo and Émerson Leão, were, separately, the men that coached Brazil for the first twelve of the eighteen roller-coaster qualifying matches for the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea. Luxemburgo – as well as unforgivably (Brazil had a two-man advantage, after Geremi and Aaron Nguimbat were sent-off before extra-time) failing to defeat Cameroon in the 2000 Olympic quarter-final – claimed a fairly average fourteen points from a possible twenty-one in the first eight rounds of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. His eventual downfall, too, originated in his aim of fostering a dressing-room of seemingly mouldable, international inexperienced (Dida, Evanílson, Alexsandro de Souza, Élber and Mario Jardel) players with old, past their peak Luxemburgo favourites (Aldair and Zago).

Luxemburgo’s successor, Leão, claimed just four points from a possible nine (Candinho was caretaker for the 0-6 victory over Venezuela on 8 October, 2000) and seriously lacked presence and authority. So, while Leão was innovative in becoming the first Brazilian coach to travel to Europe to scout potential internationals, his brief, seven-month stint as coach was defined by his weak stance towards the boisterous Romário, whereby he failed to drop or pick him consistently. Of course, in Scolari’s immediate decision to drop Romário in 2001, he was to be helped by the coincidental return of Ronaldo and, in theory, it was a simple choice. After all, among those games without O Fenômeno, Brazil had drawn three qualifiers without scoring more than one goal and lost four games by a single goal in qualification. However, Scolari’s decision to take Ronaldo was incredibly brave, given that the striker had spent an excruciating fifteen months in rehabilitation for his ruptured patellar tendon, had undergone a strenuous, one-month long strengthening of his right knee (following sixteen games with Internazionale) before the tournament, and because doubts existed over a noticeably chunkier, twenty-six year old Ronaldo’s appearance and potential loss of pace.

Ronaldo's shadow-like performance was encapsulated in a weak mid-air challenge with Fabien Barthez for a high ball in the first-half

Still, in finishing a historical low of third in qualifying, Brazil had room to gamble and express themselves given that the Brazilian media, pre-tournament, seriously feared a potential second-round exit to the co-hosts, Japan. After all, Brazil had been directionless up to Scolari’s arrival, with the ghosts of the 1998 World Cup final still looming large. From this – after Ronaldo’s infamous fit and eventual, despondent, near-breathless performance against France – much was made of Ronaldo’s and Brazil’s multi-million contract with Nike (similar commercial criticism would rear its head again in 2006, amid the Joga Bonito adverts), with Brazil having to organise fifty friendlies as part of the contract. Such was the hysteria in Brazil, a high-profile court investigation over Ronaldo’s traumatic episode even began in 1999 where leading figures like Mario Zagallo, Edmundo and Ronaldo all testified. Little was revealed, though, about the Nike contract or Lideo Toledo, the team medic who was, surely, the deliverer of the near-fatal xylocaine injection, and Ronaldo’s opening words summed up the absurdity of the investigation and the chaos that Brazilian football embodied at the time:

Do I, as a witness, have the right to a glass of water?

Luxemburgo’s glorious 1999 Copa América victory apart, Brazil had seriously stagnated since that 1998 final, with a huge turnover of squads and a failure to marry star names with a sustainable philosophy and tactical set-up. Scolari, though, had a clear plan and while even he was to prove surprised by Brazil’s eventual fluidity, his insularity was crucial. After all, Scolari was berated over his refusal to pick a still-prolific and still-patriotic (cried on national television in a plea to Scolari) Romário; claimed just nine points from a  possible eighteen in achieving a narrow qualification and also lost to Honduras and Mexico at the 2001 Copa América; and, in utilising Gilberto Silva (ahead of the fatefully-injured, and dynamically underrated, Émerson on the eve of the tournament) and Kléberson (dropped the immensely-talented Juninho Paulista once Brazil reached the quarter-final against England) as medianos, had seemingly betrayed Brazil’s proud footballing past. However, that is without looking in hindsight of Scolari’s eventual achievement.

Firstly, somewhat ironically (although, this was in part owed to the out datedness of Scolari’s Brian Clough-like approach with short, tactical instructions) given his incredible tactical limitations with Chelsea in 2008, Scolari gave Brazil an astute, future European template in his 3-4-2-1/4-3-3 variant. He knew that the likes of England, Turkey and Germany would stick to the somewhat naive 4-4-2 and, from this, could exploit this advantage with a balanced set-up. Also, he still retained the crucial Brazilian trademark of velocistas – that is, accelerative, attacking full-backs  – in Cafu and Roberto Carlos; and, bravely, deployed Rivaldo (had been particularly lost, internationally, without the inlet of Ronaldo), Ronaldinho and Ronaldo in a dynamic front line for the first time in Brazilian football history. Remarkably, to accentuate Scolari’s bravery, it must be noted that an inferiority complex of sorts was in danger of gripping Brazil had they tasted another disappointing (last World Cup victory, pre-2002, was Carlos Alberto Parreira’s unpopular bruisers in 1994) World Cup exit.

Due to his insularity, more than his soon to be trademark stubbornness in this instance, Scolari was hell-bent on proving outsiders wrong and continued to cocoon his squad with his infamous use of Sun Tsu’s Art of War and his incessant airing of the Brazilian Ivete Sangalo’s uplifting, patriotic song, Festa. The rest, of course, was history: from Ronaldinho’s purposeful, near-byline, forty-yard free-kick against England on 21 June to Oliver Kahn’s telling failure to not look a smiling Ronaldo in the eyes in the handshake after the anthems in the final on 30 June, Brazil were worthy champions. Scolari had, in a whirlwind thirteen months, become A Seleção’s most successful manager of all-time: winning all seven of their World Cup matches (all in normal time) – scoring eighteen goals and conceding just four – and amassing a win percentage of 75% after winning eighteen of the twenty-four matches he oversaw during his tenure, from June, 2001 to July, 2002.

So, while Scolari departed after the tournament – and went on to become Portugal’s most successful manager of all-time, in leading them to the final of Euro 2004, the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 – the Brazilian media never forgot his remarkable parachuting success from 2001-2002. From this, Scolari’s achievement has always hovered in the background – particularly while he has been a tangible appointment post-2009. Thus, this was to affect Dunga who, like Leão, was keen to scour wider Europe – with talents like Daniel Carvalho, Vágner Love and Dudu Cearense all being capped numerous times during his tenure –but, like Luxemburgo, failed to achieve Olympic gold, in 2008, and seriously struggled to harness a solid tactical structure and philosophy (unashamedly centered on the counter-attack) with flair.

This should not have come as too much of a surprise, given Dunga’s uncompromising playing style as a player, but his stubborn preference for the likes of Juan, Felipe Melo, Gilberto Silva and Daniel Alves (as an unnatural winger) meant that media-backed names such as Thiago Silva, Ramires, Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato (without even mentioning the then still-maturing Ganso and Neymar) missed out. Also, the way that the seemingly-dominant Brazil capitulated in the second-half of the 2010 World Cup quarter-final against the Netherlands on 2 July, 2010 was telling. The Dutch – who, infamously and ironically, given their hearted display in second-half of the Brazil match, went on to tarnish their proud footballing past with a hack-filled display in the final against Spain on 11 July, 2010 –  were continually fouled by the restless Gilberto and Melo. This apprehension spread throughout Brazil’s spine and, rattled, Júlio César unnecessarily attempted to catch a looping, but harmless, Wesley Sneijder cross for the Netherlands’ equaliser (skimmed off Melo’s head) on 53’.

Augmenting his downfall, Dunga had an incredibly strained relationship with a football-obsessed Brazilian media so while his emotions were plain to see in arguing for every decision (would be echoed by Mano Menezes at the 2012 Olympic final on 11 August, 2012), this was used for lampoonery rather than abject consolation by the press. Also, another mistake Dunga made was in the pressure he placed on a petulant Robinho and an out of form Kaká – with little other attacking options due to his stubbornness – which left Brazil’s play incredibly central-focused, too. From this, Brazil, yet again, needed a new direction and template and while Muricy Ramalho had been the CBF’s original target – prohibited, due to Fluimenese refusing to release him from his club contract –  it was felt that Menezes, even if not being as hard-line as Ramalho, was more than an adept alternative. The near-decade long problems post-Scolari remained, though, regardless of yet another change in managerial personnel.

So, while Menezes, certainly, has been more proactive regarding youthful selections, tactics and philosophy compared to Dunga, that has not prevented Brazil suffering from a similar lack of cohesion. Theoretically, the 2011 Copa América should have been the perfect stage to show that Menezes was, in effect, Dunga’s antithesis but it brought newfound doubts: what style of central striker should Brazil use, with Pato proving flaky and Fred a fairly desperate international alternative; how could the pressure be eased on a stagefright-filled Neymar, when he was Brazil’s only world-class attacker; and, should a regista be brought into the 4-2-3-1 to function alongside the mediano, Lucas Leiva, after a seeming lack of understanding between the shuttling, non-regista Ramires and the Liverpool midfielder. Regardless, given the young average age of the squad, it was perhaps no surprise that Brazil went out on penalties to Paraguay in the quarter-final on 17 July and this clearly influenced Menezes post-tournament. So, while Dunga ultimately died by his stubborn principles, Menezes quickly re-convened.

Firstly, he dropped Ramires completely from his squad for the following twelve months, despite his brilliant form with Chelsea; Rafael Cabral was made first-choice goalkeeper; and Leandro Damião was brought in as one of Brazil’s first near-permanent number nines since Ronaldo. Then, in giving into media pressure, Menezes brought back Ronaldinho into the international fold and this led to mixed results, with Ronaldinho being used  to good effect in a deeper, creative role against Mexico on 11 October, 2011 but – despite being used as something of a static, Beckham-like (2007-2009 for England) operator – desperately struggling with his passing and set-piece delivery against Bosnia and Herzegovina on 28 February, 2012. Intriguingly, though, it was Ronaldinho’s decadence at Flamengo that accentuated the emergence of the immensely- talented Oscar in the number ten position ahead of the injury-plagued Ganso. Still, results have been mixed for Menezes since, which,  ironically, has not been helped by the fact that Brazil automatically qualify for the 2014 World Cup (which placed even more emphasis than usual on claiming an elusive, footballing gold medal at the Olympics).

Glaring weak links: Rafael da Silva and Juan Jesus

So, from this, in the thirteen friendlies since the Copa América, Brazil have won nine (apart from Argentina, opponents were Ghana, Mexico, Gabon, Egypt, Bosnia, Denmark, the U.S and Sweden) lost three (Germany, Mexico and Argentina) and drawn one (Argentina). Still, somewhat sensibly for the Olympics, Menezes planned for the 2014 World Cup – with the core of Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Rômulo , Oscar, Neymar, Hulk and Damiao all partaking – but a failure to utilise the precocious Lucas Moura in attack or, even, the bold Bruno Uvini ahead of the glaringly out of depth Juan Jesus was unforgivable. Even though Brazil were certainly not as limited and bereft of ideas as they had been at the 2011 Copa América, in part owed to the fact that Menezes has such a flair-filled, tactically-mouldable (can prove a vice, too, with Rafael da Silva terribly naive in possession and positioning) plethora of young talents, Brazil struggled against well-drilled, highly-motivated opposition: namely Egypt, Honduras and, of course, Mexico.

Thus – even with a further two years experience and the likes of David Luiz, Dedé and Ramires returning to the senior squad – it seems unlikely that the, ironically, near-justly ranked (in 13th) Brazil will be able to seriously trouble Germany and Spain for the 2014 World Cup. From this, the option of Scolari, not to mention Ramalho, will continue to linger but, as a word of caution, often, one should never go back (from Javier Clemente to Kenny Dalglish) and the case of Carlos Alberto Parreira strikes a haunting resemblance: a man who led Brazil to World Cup glory in 1994, but badly struggled with a new footballing generation and an outdated brand of football twelve years later in 2006.

So, while Scolari’s man managerial ability and international experience would certainly improve Brazil’s defensive stability and get the consistent best out of the likes of David Luiz, Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and Leonardo Damaio, the CBF may well believe that parachuting him into a short-term situation again – like in 2001 – will strike the right balance between relative loyalty towards Menezes (0-3 victory over Sweden on 15 August was impressive, but not out of character with Brazil’s results against teams ranked below them) and respect towards Palmeiras (Scolari’s contract expires at the end of 2012). In potentially doing so, the CBF could re-create the, somewhat bizarre, conditions and lower expectations that made the 2002  World Cup triumph such an incredible success.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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