USA Cup triumph transformed Brazil (cont.)
And the Brazil coaching staff was guilty of glaring self-deception in the case of Dunga. Deep down, they must have been aware he didn't have enough gas in the tank at age 34 to last another World Cup -- but this was conveniently forgotten because they thought he was indispensable. It inevitably ended in tears, with Zinedine Zidane waltzing his way through the middle of the pitch as France cruised to a 3-0 win in the final.
This issue has yet to be entirely resolved. Recently, '70 great-turned-pundit Tostăo posed an interesting question: "Does Brazil no longer impose its style, its rhythm and dominate the game against any opponent because we no longer have outstanding players in midfield?" he asked. "Or because coaches, progressively, have changed the style of the Brazilian game in such a way that the brilliant central midfielders have disappeared?"
I would argue humbly that it's not a case of either-or. One is true because the other is. First comes the idea -- the concept that the central midfielder is there to defend. Players are then selected in accordance with the demands. Some three years ago, I asked Mário Zagallo, who won the World Cup as both player and coach, the following question:
What had happened to the likes of Clodoaldo from his team in '70, or Falcăo and Cerezo from '82, players with a range of passing to run the game from central midfield? Zagallo shrugged. "These days we're paying much more attention to marking," he said.
There is plenty of talent in other positions. The last World Cup side was overloaded with top-class attacking options: Ronaldo and Adriano backed up by Kaká and Ronaldinho. After Brazil's bid for a sixth title came up short in the quarterfinals, the coach of the team confessed he had contradicted his own philosophy by selecting a side that effectively played in a 4-2-4 formation.
That coach, of course, was Parreira, the very man who had found the formula in the U.S. 12 years earlier. Parreira always had been a coach whose sides were characterized by their possession game. But the dynamic of the very movement he had unleashed left him with a side ill-suited to exercise controlled possession.
In the wake of Romário and Bebeto, lots of attacking stars had emerged. So too had millions of dollars from Nike, also attracted by that '94 win, which helped raise their global profile. But in central midfield, Parreira was fielding Gilberto Silva, a converted center back, and Zé Roberto, a converted left back -- two players with undoubted merits, but neither of whom were schooled in the arts of directing possession from center field.
During that '06 World Cup, Dunga appeared as a pundit on Brazilian TV. One of his main criticisms was that the team was not a typical Parreira side, in that the team was clearly unable to play a game based on retaining possession of the ball.
A month later, to general surprise, Dunga was announced as Parreira's replacement. Since then, Brazil has gone even further away from a possession-based game. As the recent Confederations Cup made abundantly clear, Brazil's present-day weapons are a variety of well-worked set pieces and a devastating counterattack.
"The team is unable to exchange passes in midfield," wrote Tostăo after a World Cup qualifier at Uruguay at the start of June. Uruguay kept the pressure on, and had forced 15 corners to Brazil's two. No matter, Brazil won 4-0. The team is on top of South America's 2010 World Cup qualification table, it won the '07 Copa América even without its biggest stars and it just added the Confederations Cup this past June.
Will it be good enough to land the big prize on its return to South Africa for next year's World Cup? Or has time moved on, exposing Brazil as too limited in central midfield to beat the best when it matters? That promises to be one of the many fascinating questions at the first African World Cup, where a new chapter will be written in a story that began 15 years ago when Brazil set off on a run of success by striking gold in America.