Brazil is making a mistake by continuing to stick with Gilberto
Brazil coach Dunga named aging veteran Gilberto Silva to the national team again
Gilberto isn't the player he was, and his inclusion exploits Brazil's big weaknesses
Brazilians haven't inspired in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
As players, the two men currently in charge of the Brazilian national team -- Dunga and Jorginho -- were both terrific.
Dunga worked at his game so much that he transformed himself from a limited, battling ball-winner into a central midfielder adept at reading the game and making good passing choices. And Brazil has had some great right backs in its time, but Jorginho can measure up to any of them. He was a magnificent crosser.
But for all their achievements on the field, as coaches, there's no doubt they lack experience. Dunga drew attention to this when the duo was appointed shortly after the 2006 World Cup. He was honest enough to admit they were going to make mistakes along the way.
I think they're making one now -- and it concerns our old friend Gilberto Silva. Regular readers may recall that I am not a fan of Gilberto. I'm old enough to remember when Brazil selected its best passers in the heart of the midfield rather than converted center backs. Gilberto can point to a cartload of titles and medals in his defense -- but soccer is in constant evolution, and the tide of opinion in Brazil now seems to have turned against him.
Even after Brazil had won 4-0 at Venezuela last month in World Cup qualifying, 1970 World Cup great Tostão, the country's most astute soccer writer, was unimpressed. Some magical moments from Kaká and Robinho had supplied the goals, while at the other end, only an excellent display from keeper Júlio Cesar had kept Venezuela at bay.
Tostão concluded that Gilberto had contributed little with the ball, and that he is "slow and marks the opposing players from distance." He also predicted that Brazil's No. 8 would be little use three days later in Rio de Janeiro against Colombia, when the team would "need midfielders who burst forward to shoot or give decisive passes. Gilberto does not do this well."
A scoreless draw proved him right. After the game, former international striker Müller, now a TV pundit, almost had his head in his hands with anguish at the level of Brazil's midfield play. Gilberto, he said, had no future with the national team.
How will Dunga and his assistant Jorginho deal with this criticism? It's clear there's something wrong with their team. Brazil shines only on the counterattack, when its stars are given space. Against well-organized opponents, its lack of midfield guile can be painful to watch.
Perhaps the worst mistake the coaching duo could make would be to bend to every criticism. Trying to play the populist card, giving in to the pundits and picking the team the public wants to see is a road with no future. It shows weakness, it undermines team spirit and, when it fails, the public will boo and jeer just the same.
But the opposite path is a mistake as well: ignoring all the criticism and plowing on as if nothing was wrong. Failing to take the necessary steps because you're afraid of being seen to back down. It's stubbornness taken to excess -- and this is the line Brazil's coaching staff seems to be taking on Gilberto.
A little more than a week ago, I took part in a roundtable debate on Brazilian TV, where Jorginho was the big name present. As always, he struck me as a man of integrity, but I was astonished by what he had to say when I raised the subject of Gilberto's continued presence on the national team.
The midfielder, he said, had been a victim of Arsène Wenger's rotation policy in his last season at Arsenal. This isn't true. Gilberto lost his place to Mathieu Flamini, and played poorly on those occasions when the Frenchman was injured or needed a rest. Arsenal no longer wanted Gilberto even when it had reluctantly parted company with Flamini. The Brazilian was sold on to Greece's Panathinaikos.
Arsenal had seen that Gilberto didn't possess the dynamic passing and movement game that is needed to accompany Cesc Fàbregas. Moreover, his defensive skills have eroded over the years. The best defensive midfielders tend to have a low center of gravity. Now 32, the giant Gilberto is more prone to be caught off balance, hence the trait identified by Tostão: a growing tendency to mark his opponent from distance.
Jorginho described Gilberto as an excellent organizer of the midfield -- and contradicted his own argument when he confessed the midfield's lack of organization. Against Colombia, he said, they had kept trying to get the team to be patient in possession, to keep patient, keep passing and wait for the opportunity to slip a runner behind the defense.
It never happened. As he said, the center backs frequently launched hopeful long balls forward because there wasn't enough movement in front of them, there was no patience, no midfield triangles. Jorginho emphasized the difficulty of playing in front of such a demanding crowd as the one in Rio's Maracanã stadium, always quick to turn on the home side if there are no early goals. But, at the age of 32 and with a World Cup winners' medal to point to, if Gilberto finds this hard to cope with, one wonders when he will be ready.
Jorginho said he found it hard to understand the negative climate around Gilberto. And the following day, Gilberto was named in the squad for next week's friendly against Portugal.
While defending one's players in public is a laudable thing, selecting Gilberto for this match is truly baffling. The World Cup qualification campaign doesn't resume until the end of March. Brazil has this friendly and another one in February to have a look at fringe players or try something new. The central midfield area is surely crying out for some experimentation.
But there is none at all on this squad. There is no place for Hernanes of São Paulo, described by Palmeiras (and former Brazil and Real Madrid) coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo as the only true world-class player in Brazilian soccer. There is no place for Denílson, in such good form at Arsenal. The central midfielders are exactly the same as those selected for the recent games against Venezuela and Colombia -- with the exception of the fact that Lucas Leiva of Liverpool has been left out.
What is the point of bringing Gilberto back across the Atlantic to win his 69th international cap in this friendly in Brasília? It looks like an overdose of stubbornness -- that Dunga is trying too hard not to appear weak, so hard that he might be overlooking the fact that there are times when the strongest thing to do is admit your mistake and move on.
An alternative reading is that Brazil's coaching staff genuinely sees Gilberto as part of its team for the 2010 World Cup. But do they honestly believe that he will be able to do a job in South Africa just a few months away from his 34th birthday?