The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And, with a crash reverberating across the footballing hemisphere, the final remnants of Brazil’s all-conquering empire crumbled into dust. Forget their history-laden eminence, the five World Cups, the countless superstars; annual humiliation is rapidly becoming modern-day Brazil’s biennial ritual.
After all, the 44th Copa America offered an opportunity to clear the slate, rebuild the dynasty from the ashes of failure. Last year’s Mineirão massacre, a slaughter so brutal it silenced the perennial party-nation, lingers ominously, a recurring nightmare from which they cannot wake. Redemption, therefore, was required. A reacquaintance with glory, albeit on a smaller, localised scale, would go some way to righting the cumulative wrongs of 12 months past. However, despite much soul-searching, a major revamp on and off the pitch, Brazil once again buckled under the crushing weight of expectation. As in 2011, they stuttered, stumbled, their illustrious phenoms redefining underperformance. A quarter-final exit, on penalties, against Paraguay for the second successive Copa. Hardly what the doctor ordered. The disease, it seems, is spreading; its symptoms unchanged.
Dunga Equals Discontent
However, despite desperate underachievement, an obstinate failure to acclimatise to the national stage, Brazil’s floundering protégés have largely escaped the nation’s ire. Instead, Dunga, re-elected among disillusion and disappointment, suffered the brunt of the blame. After all, Brazil are unique in their expectations. It’s not enough to win. Results must be achieved, of course, but with class, craft, an overriding panache nodding reverently to their fabled forefathers. Though Dunga’s hands may be tied, by mercenary players enticed by the nouveau-riche to unrelenting Neymar-dependency, further failure does nothing to abate the cacophony of negativity.
After all, Dunga, or ‘Dopey’, a moniker referencing his diminutive stature rather than perceived tactical limitations, hardly departed amid a blaze of glory as his initial stint in the national hotseat descended into disappointment. There were no tear-soaked farewells, no roses at his feet. Brazil’s underwhelming South African jaunt in 2010, marred by pragmatic conservatism and vexing indiscipline, hammered the nails into Dunga’s managerial coffin. His reappointment, therefore, as the dust settled on Brazil’s lowest ebb, hardly reigned in a new dawn. Fans and pundits, united in their demand for revolution, were left underwhelmed, perplexed. The appointment screamed safety-first, a result-heavy drive to steady a sinking ship. Furthermore, it only expanded Brazil’s burgeoning identity crisis.
Formerly a rugged, ankle-biting enforcer, Dunga’s hard-nosed playing style distinctly contrasted his ball-juggling, innately expressive peers. Something of an antithesis; he defines the modern day Brazil, on-pitch conservatism spilling over into his managerial mindset. Pragmatism over pliability. Substance over style. 55 wins in 75 games across two spells hardly screams incompetence. In 2007, he led Brazil to the Copa America. Two years later, the Confederations Cup. Understandably, however, his reputation is now in tatters, initial triumphs rendered insignificant by preceding failure. Furthermore, for a nation reared on jogo bonito, Dunga’s assiduous caution goes against the grain. Despite preceding the apathetic Mano Menezes, the tainted Luis Felipe Scolari, Dunga epitomised something of a backwards step while Brazil’s continental counterparts, namely Argentina, Chile and Colombia, built on their burgeoning momentum. A fact evidenced, quite emphatically, throughout their doomed Copa campaign.
Ominously, Dunga’s oft-analysed limitations remain alarmingly evident. Despite embracing Brazil’s revamped workforce, Paulinho for Philippe Coutinho, Jo for Roberto Firmino, he failed to strike a balance between free-flowing interplay and rugged defensive durability. A team of two halves, flickering feebly between disparate elements. A far cry from the joyful lustre of their ‘70s vintage, while lacking the rugged discipline of ’94. More worryingly, Dunga’s renowned pragmatism failed in its implementation, a lack of organisation characterising their Copa comedown. A fact more worrying, more debilitating, than any stylistic preference.
In each encounter, against Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Paraguay, Brazil surrendered on the midfield battleground, the decisive, match-winning terrain. Tactical warfare escalated into uncontrolled, end-to-end melees. The underwhelming pivot of Fernandinho and Elias, a far cry from the dynamic enforcers of yesteryear, toiled throughout, overran and overwhelmed. However, context cannot be disregarded. After all, they are not, and will never be, reliable watercarriers, successors to the Felipe Melo-Gilberto Silva partnership that came to define Dunga’s diffidence. They lack defensive restraint, overcompensating for positional indiscipline with maddening imprudence. Fernandinho, the subject of unfair reproach, is more a resourceful ball-player, less a single-minded destroyer. Elias, also, implements more creative tasks for club side Corinthians. Therefore, with gun-toting footsoldiers Dani Alves and Felipe Luis innately patrolling the flanks, Brazil were increasingly vulnerable to quick counters. A weakness Paraguay, through the enigmatic trickery of Edgar Benitez and Derlis Gonzalez, exploited with shocking regularity. One-touch interplay and incisive movement comfortably bisected a chaotic, haphazard midfield.
Dunga, stubbornly forcing square pegs into misshaped holes, refused to alter an ill-fitting system, or mind-set, contributed directly to Brazil’s broadening nadir. Lethargic in attack, disordered at the back. Lacking in inspiration, devoid of instruction.
Neymar or Bust
However, a greater threat to Brazil’s rejuvenation took root before the Copa, before Dunga’s unwelcome return. In context, Gareth Bale remains Wales’ unrivalled inspiration, augmenting a mismatched unit with a blast of explosive volatility. Portugal, meanwhile, rely incessantly on Cristiano Ronaldo, the damsel in distress to his muscle-clad match-winner. Their adoring nations, after all, lack star quality, the required personnel to evolve from a ‘one-man-team’ into a multi-faceted unit. Brazil, however, cannot be excused so easily. Their talent pool plumbs uncharted depths, beyond the dive of their international rivals. Though they remain completely, almost dotingly reliant upon the inspirational, rabbit-out-of-the-hat eminence of Pele’s quick-stepping protégé.
In Neymar’s absence, Brazil simply crumble. In 2014, his tournament-ending injury coincided with that back-yard butchery in the final-four. 12 months on, Brazil furthered the theory. Against Peru in the Copa curtain-raiser, Neymar almost single-handedly dragged his defective peers to an undeserved success, netting the opener before sublimely crafting Douglas Costa’s last-gasp clincher. Brazil screamed ‘one-man-team’. A hypothesis confirmed, emphatically, during his enforced absence. With Neymar suspended, Brazil’s collapsed, their lethargic displays lacking the verve, vigour and inspiration that apparently only he can provide.
Fortunate against Venezuela, insipid versus Paraguay, Brazil’s predictable, one-paced approach play makes a mockery of their jogo bonito traditions. Barring Willian’s occasional brilliance, Robinho’s controlled guile, Brazil lacked any remnants of flair, any palpable self-confidence. There was no committing of defenders, no inspirational positivity. Merely eleven underwhelming individuals passing the buck, lacking the will, or desire, to fulfil Neymar’s game-changing functions. A fact made all the more baffling by Brazil’s limitless quality. The playmaking triumvirate of Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Robinho often failed to click, each performing their own, distinct tune. Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s second-most expensive arrival, lacked physicality as a false nine, rendering him ineffective against black-booted, hard-nosed defensive units.
Ultimately, Dunga failed to assemble a well-balanced ecosystem when shorn of his primary predator. Misusing Firmino, restricting Coutinho, further questions will be rallied at his inability to meld impressive components into a competent unit. This, inevitably, casts further doubt on his ability to coach a nation historically reverential of individual articulation. Following Dunga’s blueprint, Brazil remain an underachieving sum of their illustrious parts.
Dark Days Ahead
“We have to rethink Brazilian football, not only on the field. We have to recognize that other nations have improved, and we must be humble and understand that it’s time to get to work. We know we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Dunga, mercifully, acknowledges the sheer necessity for change. Evolution is insufficient. Revolution is required. True, Dunga presided over belated rejuvenation, discarding Scolari’s motley crew of the overrated and over-the-hill, embracing promising proteges, from Firmino to Fabinho, Costa to Casemiro. His disapproval of the profit-seeking few, from China-based Diego Tardelli to Everton Ribeiro, trading Player of the Year awards in his homeland for the petrodollars of Al-Ahli, hint at traditional, football-first values. Meanwhile, his results, pre-tournament that is, suggest increasing efficiency. Brazil, after all, quashed Argentina, humbled France in their own backyard. A mark of the very best.
However, positivity pales into insignificance, overshadowed by further failure on the competitive front. Dunga’s continued failure to strike a balance, to shape a convincing philosophy, to learn from his cumulative tactical mistakes, only enhance the general consensus that the Brazilian Football Federation, once again, placed their faith in the wrong man. Lurching from crisis to calamity, his second coming is innately following the first. If Brazil’s require reconstruction, Dunga is something of a cowboy builder. Whether he possesses the necessary tools, or the specialist nous, to cement the first bricks of recovery appear increasingly doubtful. Another year, another early exit, Brazil and Dunga are less a match made in heaven, more a marriage of convenience. One that, almost inevitably, will end with a very messy divorce.