Brazil and football have always been synonymous. Brazil stands for the beautiful game and its players excel in technical superiority, tactical refinement and natural improvisation. The history of Brazilian football at international level is rich and illustrious: five World Cup wins have provided numerous legends such as Leonidas da Silva, Garrincha, Pele, Zico, Socrates and Ronaldo, and some unforgettable moments.
That heritage is in danger of becoming a distant memory. At the centenary Copa America, Peru and a controversial goal by Raul Ruidiaz knocked Brazil out in the first round. There was a possible injustice to Peru’s goal: in the replays, Ruidiaz seemed to turn the ball into the Brazilian net with his hand. Referee Andres Cunha discussed the goal with his assistant linesman for a good two minutes, but he waved away the vociferous Brazilian protests.
A full-fledged crisis
Peru had not defeated Brazil in the South American continental tournament since 1975. On account of this shock loss, Brazil finished third in their group and exited the tournament. They trashed minnows Haiti, but failed to score a goal in a draw with Ecuador. The elimination is a stinging indictment of the Brazilian game – from post-World Cup crisis to depression and now a complete standstill.
After the World Cup, Carlos Dunga’s appointment as new coach was an utterly bizarre and conservative move by the Brazilian Football Confederation, the CBF. Dunga was assigned the role of a bedel, a largely ceremonious position in the sense of never really shaking up Brazilian football. The new coach played his part with verve, but his tactical deficiencies and emotional instability cost Brazil.
Last year, at the Copa America, in the dying minutes of a group stage game against Venezuela, Dunga fielded four central defenders to run down the clock. His cynicism wasn’t rewarded as the Seleção went out in the quarterfinals. At the time, the excuse that the 2014-'15 season was a transitional phase for Brazil was warranted. That story doesn’t hold anymore, now that it is 2016.
Brazil want to win the coveted Olympic gold medal – a feat they have never have achieved so far – on home soil. They are also in the midst of a gruelling World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia 2018 and, at this moment, are outside the qualifying slots. Back in spring, Brazil drew with both Paraguay and Uruguay. This Copa America was a survival test for Dunga.
No Neymar, no chance
In the USA, Brazil was always going to struggle without Neymar. The tournament offered Dunga a chance to test his team and reduce the dependence on the FC Barcelona star. Instead, Brazil was a team without direction and purpose. Dunga, though, must be given credit for trying to play a more expansive game, based on possession, rather than going for the counter-attack, which has been a heavy feature of Brazil in the last couple of years.
Against Peru, in the absence of the suspended Casemiro, Dunga played with one defensive midfielder and two offensive midfielders in Lucas Limas and Renato Augusto. In general, Brazil have been playing with two holding midfielders and just one attacking midfielders. The gamble backfired, but at least Dunga, who is supremely pragmatic, tried to implement a progressive idea. In the previous two group games, Dunga had also put the emphasis on ball possession.
Brazil’s footballing depression also has institutional origins, with the autocrats at the CBF maintaining a regime of self-enrichment, without any accountability. That climate scarcely invites widespread change in the Brazilian game. There is simply no over-arching long-term vision.
Dunga doesn’t have one either. For the Rio Olympics, Neymar’s return to the Brazilian squad will a boost for the hosts, but even an Olympic gold medal won’t obfuscate the dire state of the Brazilian game. Brazilian football needs to change because, otherwise, there is the even bigger danger of not making it to Russia. At least that may open the eyes of the rich and the powerful in the game, because the 7-1 against Germany clearly didn’t.