Blue-collar Brazil still Kaká's team
Defense-minded, counterattacking Brazil is undefeated at the Confederations Cup
Still, Kaká has been the architect of non-star oriented attack preached by Dunga
Coach's preference has been for more team play, but Kaká's skills fit in perfectly
Like many fans, my editor used the word "impressive" when he asked me to write about Brazil at the Confederations Cup. And it's hard to argue with the results. The Seleçăo won their three group-stage games by a combined 10-3.
But even in the face of that, not everyone would share his analysis. After Sunday's 3-0 win over Italy, a reader from Africa named Terry Jeevanantham sent me the following e-mail:
"While watching the game, surrounded by enthusiastic Brazil supporters, it occurred to me that the romance surrounding the South Americans is all that is needed to satiate the masses," he wrote. "There is a decided absence of the fantasy that we associate with the Seleçăo. I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand the magic of the class of 1982. Conversely, in Germany in 1974, I witnessed the anti-football of possibly the worst team that Brazil has ever sent to a World Cup. The 2009 team, in its muscularity, athleticism and counterattacking style of play, is definitely a throwback to the early- and mid-70s."
All of which bears out the point I made in my last piece: It's hard to escape from your own tradition. Like the ghost of an old steam train, memories and images of the beautiful '82 team and some of its illustrious predecessors rattle around the head of many Brazil fans. The majority are happy just to win -- but there are plenty out there who don't feel truly represented by the style of the current team, and the replacement of elaborate midfield passing by power-play counterattacking. Readers may recall the excellent debate on this topic two years ago after Brazil won the '07 Copa América.
The failure of that much-loved '82 side was a key factor behind the switch in style. Intellectually, it was underpinned by the physical development of the game and the rise in northern European soccer in the '60s and '70s -- especially the Dutch of '74. They put so much pressure on the ball, hustling the South American playmakers out of their stride, that many in Brazil decided there was little point in a team trying to pass its way through packed midfields.
Since then, as I wrote in my last column, the recipe has been "an emphasis on bulking up to match the physical power of the Europeans, closing down the center of midfield with markers and runners, and relying on quick breaks and set pieces. Since then, Brazil has been efficient and pragmatic, with breathtaking individual skills but without the fluidity of old. It also has been successful, winning two of the last four World Cups, and reaching the final in one of the others."
And now Brazil marches into the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. It might not be to the liking of old-fashioned purists such as Mr. Jeevanantham -- and I include myself in the same camp -- but we can hardly deny that it's being well done. The set pieces are superb, the counterattacks devastating and the more recent variation -- bringing in a right-sided midfielder to free right back Maicon to crash forward -- has worked beautifully.
First comes the idea, then comes the formation of players to put it into practice. As the case of Hernanes shows, current Brazilian soccer hardly knows what to do with an old-style central midfield passer of the ball -- Săo Paulo will play him too far forward and even last week left him on the bench for a crunch game in the Copa Libertadores, with disastrous results. But tall, strong, athletic players who either can burst forward with pace, power and skill or block up the midfield and attack the ball at set pieces -- Brazilian soccer can slot these in with no problems.
The main man in the current team is, no surprise, Kaká. He was under suspicion when Dunga took over as national-team manager after the failure of Germany '06. The new coach came in on a "team vs. stars" ticket, a reaction to the inability of the much-hyped "Magic Quartet" to fire when it mattered in the World Cup.
Kaká was left out of the squad for Dunga's debut game against Norway, and left on the bench for the second against Argentina in London in September '06. He accepted it with good grace, and soon made his point when he was brought on around the hour mark. Less than 10 minutes after his introduction, he turned his marker and sent Elano away to score. And right at the end he produced a masterpiece, charging almost the entire length of the field before calmly slotting past Argentina keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri.
From that moment on, Brazil has been Kaká's team. Quick, powerful, intelligent, skilled and the most potent counterattacking weapon in world soccer, Kaká is perfect for the tactical approach of Dunga's lineup. The figures tell the story. Injury ruled Kaká out of five games in the World Cup qualification campaign -- in which Brazil scored just four goals and accumulated some of its worst performances. In the nine rounds where he did play, the team managed 21 goals, Kaká weighing in with five.
I had always assumed that, if Kaká were to leave AC Milan, he would do so after the next World Cup. South Africa is where he will want to make his definitive statement as an international footballer, and it made sense to think that he'd be unwilling to rock the boat before 2010. But the dynamic of history and the global financial crisis had other ideas, so he's taking a step into the unknown by joining Real Madrid. Dunga will be hoping that, despite the risk of burn-out by taking him to the Confederations Cup, Kaká will not be overly drained by his debut season in Spain.
There are other players who Brazil would find hard to replace with exactly the same quality. Captain Lúcio is the rock of the defense, and keeper Júlio César has come to the rescue time and time again during World Cup qualifying. But Kaká is the one who really must be firing on all cylinders if Brazil is to counterattack its way to glory in South Africa next summer.