A Decade of Dysfunction


Editor’s Note: This article was originally written in May 2016 before Brazil played their first match in the Centenary Edition of the Copa America. It is reprinted today on footballpurists.com ahead of Canary and Blue’s audio reading of the article, which will be released next week. 

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“Lahm in all kinds of space. Lahm, to Muller. It could be embarrassing. It’s THREE! Toni Kroos. Brazil have fallen apart in twenty five minutes… The dreams of the Brazilians look like mere fantasy. Blown apart… And it’s getting more embarrassing. It could be four! It’s turned square. Klose. It’s FOUR-nil to Germany after twenty five minutes! Fernandinho was caught in possession. Brazil are being humiliated, humbled, and taken apart by Germany… The dream, the fantasy, is well and truly dead. Germany four! Brazil nil!” –BBC commentary

Two years after Germany’s throttling of Brazil, the images and the commentary retain their shock value. Germany led 5-0 within a half-hour and each time the net bulged and another German peeled away in celebration, they spilled another bucket of ice water on Brazil’s World Cup hopes. Germany shattered a dream, a fantasy as Steve Wilson from the BBC so accurately phrased it, and as the cameras fixated on the players and fans alike, helplessness emanated from their faces. Germany could score as many as they wished. The world’s greatest footballing nation had no answer for the onslaught.

I reached out to my brother about a month ago to ask him about his memories of the 2014 World Cup. We lived together that summer, two 20-somethings sharing a studio apartment to save money in San Francisco. Within a few minutes he called me to recount watching the semi-final in his cubicle, how he frantically texted everyone in his contacts after Germany scored their fourth. He asked me whether that match would eventually take on the status of those life moments where you remember where you were, who you were with, what you ate that day? I answered that in Brazil, the match already has this quality. By halftime, journalists were wracking their brains in an attempt to invent a catchphrase for what they were watching (they settled on the Mineirazo). Even in the United States, most football fans can tell you what they were doing as they watched Germany dismantle Brazil at their own World Cup.

This summer, Brazil will travel to the United States to play in the Centenary edition of the Copa America. The competition offers the Seleção an opportunity to redeem themselves after two straight summers of national embarrassment. In 2014, it was the “Mineirazo.” Last summer, it was a meek exit from the 2015 Copa America to an underwhelming Paraguay side. Without their star striker Neymar, however, who has chosen to play in the Rio Summer Olympics rather than the Copa, the Seleção have been relegated to third favorites (behind Argentina and Chile) and will see the semi-finals as a worthy achievement.

For long-time fans of the Brazilian national team, the fall from grace remains difficult to comprehend. Only ten years ago, Brazil were World Cup, Copa America, and Confederations Cup holders, and most bookies considered them heavy favorites to lift the 2006 World Cup trophy in Germany. I still remember sneaking down to the break room in between shifts working as a lifeguard that summer, just hoping to see a glimpse of the Seleção on the miniature staff TV. They played in their famous canary shirts and blue shorts, and the chance of catching a Brazil goal or trick outweighed my fear of Mr. Shultz, the bitter old disciplinarian who ran the country club. It was so far from what we would come to witness in 2014 and 2015.

Media pundits from the BBC and O Globo alike will speak until their voices grow hoarse on tactics and player selection; but when you are talking about a disastrous 7-1 loss at home, the largest in World Cup semi-final history, petty tactical arguments cease to hold weight. When the world’s greatest footballing nation exits the Copa America after only registering a single shot on goal against Paraguay, questions about the team selection only yield superficial answers. The downward spiral of the Seleção traces much deeper than the players on the field. It is institutional.

My brother often calls the Brazil-Germany the “perfect storm” because Germany as a team was everything Brazil was not. They were disciplined, organized, and tactically astute. In the eight years preceding the 2014 World Cup, the German Football Federation created a blueprint that integrated a new German generation of footballers under a unified system. Manager Joachim Low had worked with that set of players for over a decade. The 7-1 was a culmination of a plan. It was also a juxtaposition of two teams who on paper looked similar: two football-crazed nations, two squads full of trophy winning players, two historically dominant footballing powerhouses. The average age of the two squads was exactly the same, at 27. The similarities ended when the match started, as the Brazilian players fell over one another chasing German shadows, while their manager of less than 18 months watched impotently on the sideline. What happened on the field in Belo Horizonte best exemplifies the extent to which the Brazilian Football Confederation (“CBF”) has failed its constituents.

If you searched for news on the Brazilian national team in early May, two articles would have crossed your screen. First, a quote from Pele, who said that the Brazilian national team had “lost its way.” Second, photos from the Seleçãoconference on football, a meeting of dozens of football administrators in Brazil to discuss the future of the national team. Seeing the articles side by side should give fans a pause for thought. Although I never wish to disrespect the great Pele, his comments ring hollow because they imply the national team’s pathway to footballing purgatory began recently. No, the short-termism and corporatism of the CBF has infected the team for some time. We are just now beginning to pull back the wallpaper and see the full extent of the termite damage. For the full story behind their dismantling of one of the world’s greatest sporting institutions, we start in 2006, when Brazil stood at the top of the footballing world.

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ALL HAIL THE CONQUERING CHAMPIONS

During the summer of 2006, the world’s eyes fixated on twelve cities in Germany for the 18th edition of the FIFA World Cup. As bookies and pundits pontificated on the favorites for the most watched sporting event in the world, there existed a strong consensus that Brazil were not just a solid bet, they were the only bet. Odds-makers had them as 9/4 to collect the trophy, while international and domestic journalists gushed over their once in a generation talent. TV Globo’s Flavio Orro said that “the current generation is spectacular, perhaps the best ever” while the BBC wrote that “even losing in the final will be seen as a failure.” Brazil had an unprecedented aura and swagger about them, and why not? They had pedigree. They had the best players in the world. Most importantly, though, they had recent success on their side.

Three of the four summers before the 2006 World Cup, the Brazilian national team jet landed in the capital to a rapturous welcome by their fans. The jet would park near throngs of awaiting Brazilians, and after a few anticipatory moments, the team would appear with yet another trophy in hand. As of May 2006, the World Cup, Copa America, and Confederations Cup trophies were all held in a trophy case in Brasilia. It was a team that didn’t know much about losing, especially at major tournaments.

They were managed by Carlos Alberto Parreira, a journeyman who had coached on five continents and never held a job for longer than three years. Among his dozen and a half former management positions he was coach of the Seleção when they won the World Cup in 1994. Aside from his reputation for short coaching stints, he was known for his conservative tactics and man-management style. While coaching the Ghanaian national team in the 1960s, he famously shared lodging with the players and completely changed their approach to fitness and professionalism, imposing rules on sexual activity during the competition season. His approach to the media grabbed very few headlines. He was a “manager” in the truest sense of the word, sending the players out and letting them “do their thing.” With the caliber of players at his disposal, it was a luxury he could afford.

Media pundits concentrated on the Brazilian front four, the “magic square” of attacking players: Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano, and Ronaldo. Ronaldinho was the face of the team, as well as the reigning king of football. He won the Ballon D’Or in December 2005, and as if he needed to justify his win, he proceeded to play the greatest football of his career during the 2005-2006 campaign, leading Barcelona to win La Liga and the Champions League. January to May of 2006 featured a dizzying number of highlights for Ronaldinho, including a brace against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu after which fans of Los Blancos waved white handkerchiefs and clapped him off the field. When Barcelona lifted the Champions League trophy in Paris for the first time in fourteen years, most acknowledged that Ronaldinho was at the height of his powers.

But it wasn’t just that Ronaldinho scored goals, provided assists, and won trophies. It was the way he played that attracted attention, executing moves he learned on the streets of Porto Allegre as a young footballer. He was brash and audacious. He played with his heart on his sleeve. His smile was infectious and among his plaudits was the unique ability to make professional defenders look like schoolchildren in his wake. Each of his games resulted in an endless video reel of attempted rabona kicks and solo juggling competitions between opposition defenders. A few Saturdays ago, ten years removed from Ronaldinho’s dominance, a player from Real Betis fell to the ground and accidentally fielded the ball with his back. Commentator Phil Schoen remarked, “Even Ronaldinho wouldn’t try that one.” But would it surprise you if he had?

Then there was Ronaldo. During the 2002 World Cup, Ronaldo was top scorer and netted a brace in the final against Germany to give Brazil its fifth world title. Ronaldo was a complete striker: quick, prolific, with incredible vision. His goal-scoring gluts at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups meant he only needed three goals to set the all-time record for most goals in the competition. Like Ronaldinho, he was a former Ballon D’Or winner. Despite his talent, he was enigmatic in the extreme (in direct contrast to Perreira’s style, he openly admitted having sex before big matches).

As always with Ronaldo, though, there was drama, and in 2006 it came in the form of “fitness issues.” He had missed a few months of Real Madrid’s club campaign and looked overweight during the second half of the season. Michel Platini, a former World Cup winning player for France, remarked that Ronaldo “is too old and carries too many kilos.” Despite his injuries, Ronaldo scored 14 goals in 23 games for Madrid in 2005-2006, and many fans were convinced that he could “turn it on” when the tournament started.

Beyond Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, many of the best players in the world littered the Brazil starting eleven. Kaka would go on to win his Ballon D’Or during 2007. Adriano was coming off a goal glut in Serie A. Cafu, Lucio, and Roberto Carlos played along the back line and were a major force during Brazil’s past titles. Almost every player was among the world’s best at their position. This was a team of superstars for club and country, and they ran the show.

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JOGA BONITO

The confluence of the world’s greatest attackers into one team sent executives from Nike, the official kit sponsor of the Brazilian national team, into a tailspin. It was a marketing department’s wet dream and Nike knew that if they got it right, they had a chance to push their soccer brand (which had trailed Adidas for many years) into a new echelon. In February 2006, only a few months before the start of the tournament, they released one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, known as Joga Bonito.

Loosely translated as “play beautiful,” the campaign focused on the Seleção. The advertisements encouraged beautiful play rather than the cynical, tactical football that many of Europe’s top teams had been utilizing. Nike placed the awe-inspiring Brazilians at the front of the campaign, particularly the silky smooth Ronaldinho. One advert compared footage of a five-year old Ronaldinho playing futsal in Porto Allegre to his play at FC Barcelona. Another captured the Seleção singing and playing Brazilian instruments as they hopped off the team bus before their 2002 World Cup final. The players juggled a football in the locker room, laughing the entire time, before sambaing onto the pitch to dominate the Germans.

The campaign struck gold for Nike, and despite Adidas landing the official sponsorship of the World Cup, it was Joga Bonito that dominated television airways during the summer of 2006. It was successful for a number of reasons. First, it featured the perfect poster boy. As noted, Ronaldinho was the world’s best player at that time, but he was fantastic in spite of all logic around discipline and tactical play. He gave the ball away. He attempted tricks. He took shots from unthinkable distances. He didn’t want to play in a traditional formation. He didn’t always track back on defense. Young players loved him. Youth coaches hated him. As Ronaldinho wracked up the nutmegs, young fans imitated him on playgrounds across the globe.

There was also the case of this team renewing Brazil’s footballing legacy. Joga Bonito was (and still is) part of the national culture. When the team played at their best in the 1960’s, 70’s, and even 80’s, the Seleção featured players that shrugged their shoulders at conventional tactical wisdom. They enjoyed playing and fans enjoyed watching them. To separate that style from the Seleção was to pull apart what made the national team unique Brazilian. Many football purists believed that Brazil fielded a less traditional Brazilian offering between 1986 and 2002. This 2006 team promised glory both in their knack for winning trophies, and also for their return to the roots of Brazilian football. It was style over substance, and Ronaldinho and Ronaldo stood at the very center of it.

Nike wasn’t the only organization that basked in the sunshine of Joga Bonito’s success, and as the ads pushed more and more young fans to their local sporting good stores, the CBF regularly checked their bank account. Money poured into the Confederation; but with the release of the advertisements came a metaphorical handshake, a “throwing every egg into a canary and blue basket.” The Seleçãopromised a narrative of beautiful play before a ball was even kicked. It was a narrative that revolved around glorious football being played by very specific glorious players. Winning World Cups is difficult, but both the CBF and Nike insisted on doubling down on winning with a very explicit formula that included Ronaldinho & Co. sambaing and juggling past the best players in the world. Even Babe Ruth would have blushed. He promised to hit a home run, not to hit the ball out of the stadium.

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BOOM AND BUST

And so with the entire country, bookies, media pundits, and now a multinational corporation ready to coronate the team as the greatest to ever kick a ball, Brazil headed to Germany. They opened their campaign against Croatia in the Olympiastadion in Berlin.

World Cup openers – particularly for favorites – are tense affairs, and although Brazil sat in the driver’s seat for most of the match, they required a sublime Kaka strike at the end of the first half to run out 1-0 victors. Their second match against Australia yielded a 2-0 win after a fantastic strike by Adriano and a late tap-in by Fred. The Brazilian media reacted poorly to the performances, and already the conversation turned to Ronaldo’s weight.

“In 36 years of covering World Cups I have never seen something so distressing… Ronaldo looked like a groggy heavyweight boxer having been landed a sucker punch. He didn’t know what to do with the ball nor was he aware what was going on around him… Fundamentally the problem is this: someone needs to have the courage to tell Ronaldo that he needs some more time getting fit before he can start a World Cup game.” –Juca Kfouri, Brazilian football blogger

“Ronaldo is diffuse, irritated, and without focus in the World Cup.” –Rodolfo Fernandes, O Globo

“Ronaldo was unrecognizable. He didn’t even run to get back onside. When Brazil attacked he was useless. Our magic square became a triangle.” –Jose Roberto Torero, Folha de Sao Paulo

These are only a few of dozens of media comments regarding Ronaldo’s performance. If you watched the matches for the first time having only seen the Nike commercials, you would wonder what the fuss was about. He looked overweight and lazy, and moves continuously broke down when he failed to control a pass. Worse yet, several times he was caught offside and replay confirmed it was his own laziness in rejoining play. In one comical play (that came to feature in many video montages of Brazil’s World Cup), Kaka flicked a brilliant ball to Ronaldo in the box, only for the striker to whiff the volley and scream in agony on his way to the turf.

At every available opportunity, the world media asked Parreira, the other coaches, the players, the water boy, the bag carriers, the bus driver: why was Ronaldo still playing in this tournament? The now under-fire Parreira trotted out canned responses, defending his overweight striker and saying he needed time to recover from late-season injuries. Privately, rumors floated that Parreria’s patience was running thin with Ronaldo’s fitness, but none of that frustration reached the public sphere.

The question over Ronaldo would elude pundits even after Brazil left Germany. Many fans noted that Ronaldo was a “form player,” and over the course of his career, the enigmatic striker could turn the goals on and off whenever the need struck. As the poor performances wracked up, though, pundits began to look for ulterior motives.

First, there was the matter of the World Cup goal scoring record. This was the largest grenade the Brazilian media lobbed at Parreira – that Ronaldo was kept in the team solely so he could break a record. There was also the advertising angle. Ronaldo was very popular, especially in non-European markets. After the Australia match, sources leaked that Nike was holding back its final Joga Bonito advertisement given Ronaldo’s performances. It is possible Parreira was forced to play him given the CBF was eager to cash in on a final Ronaldo appearance at a World Cup. Ten years later, we still don’t know why Ronaldo continued to throw on the Seleção jersey that summer.

Nonetheless, Parreira felt the heat of the media under his collar for his tactics, and in Brazil’s final group game he changed his starting XI. While Ronaldo still started, Parreira reverted to a more conservative formation and replaced a few older players with younger, more energetic alternatives. The changes resulted in a concession to the anticipated Brazilian team, but allowed for the introduction of young star Robinho, while pushing Kaka and Ronaldinho into their more favored positions on the pitch.

Although Brazil conceded an early goal, they stormed back for a 4-1 victory. Ronaldo scored twice, tying the World Cup goals record. The result did not imply a Brazilian resurgence but it was emphatic, the kind that the Seleção faithful would have expected in their first two group games. After the match, Nike aired the final Ronaldo advertisement in time for Brazil’s next match against Ghana. Even Parreira was impressed saying, “We played very well today. We played our game. We put the ball on the ground and did our job. The goals came in a very natural way. That was the most important thing for me – to have won in the Brazilian way.” The Brazilian way. Even conservative Parreira was feeling the heat to produce classic Seleção performances.

Just as the team began to coalesce, Parreira inexplicably decided to give the old formation and the older players one more chance in their match against Ghana. Just like that, the team returned to square one. An unconvincing win against Ghana, which was closer than the 3-0 scoreline suggested, meant Brazil reached the quarterfinals for the fifth time in a row. With a goal inside ten minutes, Ronaldo broke Gerd Muller’s all-time World Cup goal scoring record, putting that conversation to bed.

The win against Ghana pitted Brazil against France, the oldest team in the history of the World Cup. Given their lackluster performance against Ghana, Parreira altered the lineup for a third straight match. It was the first time they would play this new formation in the competition. Ronaldo, as immobile as he had been, would play practically alone up top, with Ronaldinho and Kaka supporting him.

The game’s breakthrough occurred in the 57th minute, when Zinedine Zidane lofted a free kick to the back post where Thierry Henry, one of Europe’s top goal scorers during 2006, waited completely unmarked to give France a 1-0 lead. Replays showed that left-back Roberto Carlos, rather than marking the prolific Henry, was tying his shoes. France held the 1-0 lead for the remainder of the game, as the Seleção registered only a single shot on goal.

Several players on the French team played the game of their lives, particularly Zidane who turned back time to produce a vintage performance against the favorites. They would reach the final, losing to Italy in penalty kicks after Zidane’s head-butt heard around the world. But Brazil was out, and without much of a fight. Pundits raved about this “massive upset” on the world’s biggest stage. For many Brazilians it didn’t feel like much of a shock. This team hadn’t performed to its potential from the start, and unfortunately its failure would be felt for years after the the commercials stopped airing.

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THE FALL-OUT

The quarterfinal loss left many fans of the national team scratching their heads. The World Cup was over for the Seleção but it hadn’t really felt like it started. The team never “got going” and the moment they faced a team with real ambitions of winning the tournament they faltered, stymied by the more experienced and professional French.

The truth is, many of the key cogs of the team were well past their prime. Only Kaka would play the best football of his career after this tournament. Ronaldo was obscenely overweight given the stage on which he was playing. This was a World Cup, not a testimonial, and though his admirers blamed his fitness on injuries, pundits had a right to question his mental readiness for the tournament. Even looking past his weight, Ronaldo’s play on the field pointed to someone who wasn’t all there mentally. Journalists asked whether these games only mattered to him to the extent he broke Muller’s goal scoring record. Ronaldinho looked burnt out, and tired of playing out of position. The failure of this team led fans across Brazil to scramble for answers. If this team was so unstoppable, how did the French so easily stop them? Only ten days after their loss, the CBF relieved Parreira of his duties as manager.

Was he a victim of player power or influence from the CBF? We will likely never know. We know a manager like Parreira, with such a conservative pedigree, would have clenched his teeth at the thought of changing his team so many times over the course of the tournament. We know that for several matches he played an attacking formation that would have been foreign to him. He was touted as a coach that relied on experience, but were there certain players that the CBF deemed “undroppable” given the advertisements and hoopla over this edition of the Seleção? None of those Nike commercials featured the young players who featured against Japan They featured the likes of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, and Cafu. The narrative had been set. Perhaps Parreira couldn’t deviate.

Parreira shared with his players a look of exhaustion throughout the tournament. Between changing teams, appeasing egos, disciplining Ronaldo, motivating Ronaldinho, and convincing the media of the team’s cohesion, he gave the look of a tired figure that lost control of the project. He never spoke ill of his players, and during his final press conference he talked about the personal shame of being unable to find a way to get more out of this golden generation. A number of the players on the 2006 team would never see the field for Brazil in a major tournament again. Many retired, but Ronaldinho for example turned into a persona-non-grata for the national team under subsequent managers. He played only a handful of international matches before fading away at both the club and national team level. Aside from a final charity match, Ronaldo never played for the Seleção again.

The official position of the CBF was a “thank you, but we’re done.” Most of these footballers played a massive role in the Brazilian super-teams that dominated the 2002 World Cup, 2004 Copa America, and 2005 Confederations Cup. But there was something about this failure that gnawed at Brazilians. On the night of their loss against France, rabid fans in the southern town of Chapeco burned a statue of Ronaldinho to the ground. Ronaldinho failed to assuage their pain when reports emerged of a massive party at his house in Barcelona only a few days after the end of their campaign.

Hardly the first time a Brazilian team failed to live up to expectation, the Seleçãohad crashed out of many World Cups under the weight of expectation. This failure to deliver on heavy expectations was somehow different. There is a way that Brazilians view the national team: if you’re not going to win, at least play beautifully. This team accomplished neither, impressing few and making it nowhere near the Berlin final. With fire and pitchfork in hand, Brazilians turned to the CBF for answers. To save their own hides, the CBF handed them Parreira and the players, but fans wanted more, demanding even further radical changes. With popular fervor stretching across the country, the CBF delivered.

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THE DUNGA YEARS

Even given the CBF’s history of populist appointments, the July 2010 hiring of Dunga carried the hefty stench of national appeasement. Former players called Dunga, a member of the 1994 team that won the World Cup, the “anti-Brazilian.” Although he lacked flair, he compensated with grit, will, and a tactical knowledge of the game. His haircut screams military school that your parents threatened to send you to and famous Brazilian striker Tostao referred to Dunga as a player with “the pragmatism of the Italians.”

The CBF giveth the players power, and now they had taketh away. The change to Dunga was as reactionary a card as they CBF could play, and it came in response to the perceived lack of discipline that led to the team’s collapse in Germany. Just to stop for a second, it’s worth remembering that the CBF were the ones that handed the keys to the players in the first place. Parreira coached Dunga during 1994. He was a conservative manager at heart. But the CBF wanted flair in 2006. They needed aesthetics to ensure the Joga Bonito money flowed into their accounts. And when it failed, rather than issuing a mea culpa, the CBF did what they do best, tore apart the team and swung the pendulum to the other side, bringing in known hard-ass Dunga to impose martial law on the national team. The Seleção started from scratch, with a new manager and a completely new philosophy.

It suffices to say there was no more samba dancing in the locker room. Ronaldo was out. Adriano was out. Ronaldinho was out. Even Kaka, who in 2007 played the best football of his career, single-handedly winning the Champions League for AC Milan, had to prove himself. During press conferences, Dunga harped on creating a cohesive team unit, and remarked that the 2006 team “lacked a bit of collective spirit” and continued to say “when there is no collectiveness then individualism goes down the drain together with the group.” He believed in winning only, and the idea of “putting on a show” stood in direct contrast to his philosophy.

(In)famous introductions to the team during the Dunga era included Lucas Leiva and Felipe Melo, two midfield destroyers who offered little on the attack but swept up the midfield with crunching tackles and stoic defensive play. He showed a preference for playing right and left backs as right and left wingers, playing six natural defenders in their match against the Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup. He made little attempt to hide his disdain for players who featured in the 2006 World Cup team, while also refusing to include many of the country’s promising young talents. Not the Brazil of old, this was a team of technocrats, limited players who had singular tasks on the pitch and were expected to perform them efficiently. The tricks and lightning runs were replaced with tactical fouls and defensive cooperation.

For a while, it worked. They won the 2007 Copa America and battled back from a 2-0 deficit to beat a steadfast USA team in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. With Kaka and Robinho as the focal points, Dunga established a team that sunk deep in their own half waiting for the opposition to commit too many men forward, before quickly recycling the ball to their dynamic attackers to counter.

They arrived in South Africa among the contenders, but from the start it was apparent that this was not the Brazil of years’ past. They made heavy work of North Korea in their opening match, walking out 2-1 winners against one of the worst teams to ever play at a World Cup (North Korea would lose their following game against Portugal 7-0). A 3-1 win against Ivory Coast was the result of three counter-attacking goals, and they closed group play with a turgid 0-0 draw against Portugal. A quote from Des Kelly covered what most thought of the Brazil-Portugal match: “This was a clog dance; an ugly, lumpen, uninspired mess of a game, littered with fouls, stupid bookings and misplaced passes.” When the final whistle blew, fans booed the team off the pitch.

For Dunga, the jeers mattered little as Brazil continued to press forward, and after a 3-0 win against Chile, they drew the Netherlands in the quarterfinal. For all the battling, for Dunga’s changes in tactics, for all of the supposed improvements in squad mentality, the result mirrored that of four years earlier. They lost 2-1 to the Dutch, punished by two set piece goals, one of which was scored by the towering 5’7” Wesley Sneijder. No one was tying their shoes this time, but maybe it would have been better if they were. In the second half, with frustration boiling over, Felipe Melo stamped on Arjen Robben’s leg and was given a red card by the referee. The cameras turned to Dunga who threw his hands in the air in disgust. Brazil were undone by the same lack of discipline they had shown four years prior.

If the 2006 loss ignited anger, the 2010 loss ignited disinterest. Football writer Humberto Peron summarized the feeling of Brazilians in writing, “I don’t think Brazilians … ever really identified with the way that Dunga put the team together.” Dunga met the same fate as Parreira, sacked a few weeks after the end of the 2010 campaign, but his reactionary management style would haunt the Seleção for years to come. He took years of Brazilian football identity and swept it under the rug. He brought in new players (not young players, just different ones) and instilled a culture that disrespected, if not outright held in contempt, many of the country’s footballing geniuses. As if this wasn’t enough, Dunga’s refusal to play many of Brazil’s younger talents meant the new manager of the Seleção would be left with an ageing side that needed to essentially start from scratch. The CBF watched this happen and said nothing, but why?

The easy answer is that he won games. Dunga’s tenure as manager of the Seleçãoincluded a Confederations Cup and Copa America triumph. Despite the turgid, unappealing football Brazil played during those four years, they did manage to get results, and as long as that happened, the CBF were able to back him. After losing in the World Cup, however, fans across Brazil again asked questions. The team had regressed stylistically, exited the tournament at the same stage, and none of their younger exciting players were being included in the squad. The CBF responded to questions just as they did four years earlier: they straightened their ties, pulled on their suit jackets, and sacked the manager. The CBF signed off on all the damage Dunga did to the national team, but in a tradition as old as football itself, those failings would be pinned on the manager while the inner ring at the CBF continued to operate behind closed doors.

By the time of Dunga’s sacking, Brazil only had four years until the start of their World Cup on home soil. The pressure to set the Seleção on a path to victory was enormous, but by 2010 there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light’s name was Neymar.

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PREPARING FOR A DREAM

On April 15th, 2010, only a few weeks before Dunga led his troops into South Africa, Brazilian club Santos played Guarani in a domestic cup match. Among members of the crowd were a few dozen scouts, as clubs across Europe had been whispering about an eighteen year old by the name of Neymar who seemed destined to be the “next big thing.” He graduated from the same footballing academy that produced Brazilian greats Pele and Robinho, and local coaches seemed willing and eager to make comparisons to those once-in-a-generation talents. During the match, Neymar tormented Guarani with unquestionable style and cache, scoring five goals in the Santos rout. He was the real deal, and within months, football fans worldwide were fawning over blurry footage of the savior of the Brazilian national team.

Brazil’s economy exploded in 2010, and as a result, excess cash flooded into the domestic club league. Thanks to the cash infusion, many young Brazilians – including Neymar – opted to continue playing in the Brasileiro rather than flock to the more established European leagues. Neymar’s decision, born mostly from his ability to take home a paycheck comparable with Europe’s elite clubs, allowed him to ascend within a few years from exciting young prospect to impending Seleçãohero.

Make no mistake, his otherworldly talent played a massive role as well: in 2010 he scored forty-two goals in sixty games for Santos, an outrageous haul for any player, much less an eighteen year old. But beyond the statistics and his obvious talent, the adulation of young Neymar stemmed from his eerie similarities to Pele. He played for Santos, just like Pele. He insisted on staying in Brazil, just like Pele. He won South American footballer of the year, just like Pele. As time passed a narrative of the “second coming” emerged, of a 21st century Pele who could carry the Seleção back to the Promised Land. Add to it the fact that he guided Santos to their first Copa Libertadores since Pele played for the team in 1963… it was practically destiny.

Despite public outcry – which included a national petition signed by 14,000 Brazilians – Dunga refused to include Neymar in his 2010 World Cup squad (as well as a flurry of other promising youngsters). His successor wouldn’t make the same mistake. When the CBF announced the hiring of Mano Menezes as the new manager of the national team after Dunga’s sacking, Mano made two clear points: that his job as manager would revolve around ushering in this new generation of talent, and that he needed four years to fully realize his vision for the national team. Mano had a history of building sides, returning a struggling Corinthians side to the top Brazilian league after relegation, and winning the Copa do Brasil. Mano’s selections for his first match announced his intentions as he littered the field with fresh talent in a friendly against the USA.

Despite the new infusion of young faces and the firing of Dunga, the Seleção’s style of play did not immediately change. Another former defender, Mano believed in building on Dunga’s work, creating an organized side that would eventually lead to more a more expansive Brazilian team. During his first big test, the 2011 Copa America in Argentina, the Seleção achieved mixed results before losing a penalty shootout against Paraguay in the quarterfinals. After that tournament, Mano began to move outside of Dunga’s shadow, slowly introducing more lively players into the squad. The results began to improve, but questions began to be asked during the summer of 2012, when the Seleção lost to Mexico 2-1 in the Olympic gold medal match in London. With stars Neymar, Hulk, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, and Oscar all starting, Mano’s failed to win the only trophy that has eluded Brazil throughout its footballing history. Despite the disappointment, Mano managed to survive the direct aftermath and managed the team through the fall calendar. On a warm day in November, though, Brazilians woke to the news that the CBF had handed Mano a pink slip.

The timing of Mano’s sacking confused even Mano’s harshest critics. If it was truly about their failure in London, or about Brazil dropping out of the FIFA Top 10 rankings for the first time in its history, the CBF would have presumably acted as soon as the tournament concluded, as evidenced by their treatment of Dunga and Parreira. When asked for the reason for the change, the CBF replied that they wanted “new methods and new planning.” Even more bizarre was the fact that Brazil’s recent results had been promising.

Between the end of the Olympics and November, Brazil won six games, drew one, and lost one, conceding only four goals, while defeating Argentina in the Superclassico de Americas. Their performances drew praise for their balance and it appeared Mano had successfully overseen a changing of the guard both stylistically and generationally. He was handed a tough job, replacing almost the entire starting XI with new players while developing a new system for the national team. Mano had a long-term vision for the team that would bloom by 2014. As a fan, I thought the Brazil sides that played between 2011 and 2012 were the most promising the Seleção had fielded since 2006. The football was not unbelievable, but youth was scattered across the pitch, and they looked like they were building for something greater. The CBF weren’t watching the football, though. They had other things on their mind.

The guard was changing at the CBF’s headquarters in Rio. Jose Maria Marin had assumed the title of president of the CBF after former CBF president Ricardo Teixeira was fired due to allegations of corruption in the naming rights for the 2014 World Cup. Before Marin assumed his role as head of the CBF, there was a feeling among outsiders that the Confederation was being run by an old boy’s club of former players, coaches, and executives of Mano’s former club Corinthians. Marin sought to break that up, and it began with the sacking of Mano. Many familiar with the inner-workings of the Seleção political scene believe that by relieving Mano of his duties as manager, Marin was creating a new power structure within the CBF.

But the core question still remains: why choose late 2012 rather than over the summer, when the firing would have been defensible due to the loss at the Olympics? Again, politics seem the greatest influence. During September 2012, a nascent protest movement known as the Revolta do Busao, or the Bus Rebellion, began in Northeast Brazil. The marches began as a protest over public transportation costs but morphed into full-scale demonstrations regarding the corruption of the political class in Brazil. Among the complaints of many of the protestors was the government’s insistence on spending billions of public funds for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics while refusing to invest in the country’s crumbling infrastructure. By the start of the 2013 Confederations Cup, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets with signs calling for the removal of many influential ministers within the CBF.

As the protests grew in strength and frequency, the performance of the Seleção in their World Cup on home soil ballooned in importance. Eventually the decision was made that patience for Mano’s vision was not a commodity the CBF could afford. Government ministers looked out their windows to see throngs of Brazilians chanting their name, and not in a tone of praise. Their grip on power was loosening, and the concern over Brazil’s play in their own backyard turned Mano’s friends into foes within the Brazil camp. The CBF needed someone to rally the base. Former allies and players of Mano publicly denounced his management style. His lack of political support, coupled with his poor results at the 2012 Olympics and 2011 Copa America, meant he had to walk.

With only seventeen months before the start of the 2014 World Cup, the CBF reached into their bag of tricks and hired Luis Felipe Scolari as manager. Like Parreira, he was a repeat appointment, having previously managed the Seleção to its fifth World Cup title in 2002. The country’s reverence for that team carried him into the managerial position, and the national love-affair with the affable “Big Phil” allowed the CBF to wipe the sweat off their brow. The pressure on Scolari was immense, and in addition to hastening preparations for the biggest Brazil matches in fifty years, he was tasked with overturning seven years of pragmatic footballing culture in just under a year and a half. Working under an abbreviated schedule, he had to re-instill the Brazilian-ness to a team that had for years relied on practical organization.

Of all the horrendous moves the CBF have made over the last ten years, the firing of Mano and hiring of Scolari are the two decisions that most shaped the Brazilian disaster that occurred in 2014. Worse yet, they were political decisions, born out of desperation to kill two birds with one stone. By firing Mano, they chucked a member of the old boys’ club to the street. By hiring Scolari, they enhanced their reputation in the public opinion polls. These were not football decisions. They were political ones. To watch Brazil crumple in 2014 was to watch a manifestation of the corruption of the CBF.

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A DREAM DEMURRED?

While news outlets around the world scratched their head at yet another back-to-the-future appointment, the CBF remained steadfast and began to shamelessly circulate the idea of “Brazilian destiny” ahead of the World Cup. The fairy tale revolved around a group of “underrated” Brazilian players, led by the second coming of Pele, managed by the resurrected Scolari, and cheered on by every Brazilian “young, old, weak, and strong.” The CBF sold this concept to anyone willing to buy it, and while at first the line was short, as the Seleção mounted a few wins in a row, more and more fans queued.

Many doubters were converted to believers during the 2013 Confederations Cup, when Brazil turned in an inspired performance culminating in a 3-0 drubbing of World Champions and two time European champions Spain at the Maracana in the final. Pundits described their performance as breathtaking, and painted the final as the story of a “fiercely partisan crowd” that pushed their beloved Seleção into a “majestic display.” At the final whistle, Brazilian fans chanted “the champions are back” while captain Thiago Silva lifted the trophy. Despite the cringe-inducing fanfare, it was difficult for cynics to argue with the enormity of the result.

During the trophy ceremony Neymar was handed the tournament’s Golden Ball, awarded to the best player of the tournament. Without playing a single match in one of the European leagues, or rather thanks to it, Neymar had ascended to the status of savior. When the World Cup began one year later in Sao Paulo, Brazil were the bookies’ favorites. More importantly, the people of Brazil believed this was their year.

When 2014 finally arrived, the team took a precarious road to the World Cup semi-final. Only eleven minutes into their opening match against Croatia, they scored an own goal. They recovered, however, thanks to a scuffed shot by Neymar that snuck past the Croatian goalkeeper as well as a soft penalty award in the 71st minute, which was converted by Neymar. With Croatia pushing forward for an equalizer, Oscar scored a goal on the counter-attack in stoppage time. Although Brazil won, they looked shaky and disorganized. Croatia’s midfield ran circles around them for the majority of the second period, and the Seleção seemed intent on sitting in their own half waiting for a chance to counterattack. After a lack-luster 0-0 draw against Mexico, the Seleção topped the group with a 4-1 win against a Cameroonian team that was being investigated for match fixing.

Each win brought renewed confidence, and more and more Brazilians found themselves huddled around TV’s across the country, watching and hoping this team of destiny would lift the trophy on home soil. This process accelerated when Brazil began winning nervy knockout round games. After ending their match against Chile tied 1-1 they won in penalty kicks, with 34-year-old Julio Cesar (who hadn’t played but seven games during the 2014 club season) elevated to national saint with three clutch saves during the shootout. An explosive first half against tournament darlings Colombia carried Brazil to a 2-1 win in the quarterfinal.

At this point in the tournament, commentators tired of saying “though not at their best, Brazil have continued to win.” Fans had abandoned the idea of playing beautiful football, and although the Seleção lacked the same organization and acumen as the team managed by Dunga and Mano, they played the same turgid style. In each big match, they sat back and watched teams throw punch after punch, waiting for their chance to score off a counter attack, a set piece, or a moment of magic by Neymar. Every goal Brazil scored during the knockout stage to this point was off a set play, and during group play Neymar was responsible for four of their seven goals. To the fans, it mattered little though. They continued to march forward.

The wheels began to loosen during the second half of the Colombia game, as fate turned against them in the space of twenty-five minutes. Aside from being outplayed by Colombia for the balance of the second half, they also lost their two best players for their semi-final match. In the 64th minute, team captain Thiago Silva crashed into the Colombia goalkeeper after a set piece. The referee showed Silva a yellow card, meaning he was forced to miss their impending semi-final match. The camera panned to Scolari who appeared crestfallen at the stupidity of his captain. Then in the 88th minute, time stopped when a Colombian defender kneed Neymar in the back while contesting a header. Scans on the striker’s back revealed a fractured vertebra. The golden boy was out for the remainder of the competition.

Neymar’s injury led to a great gnashing of teeth by fans and media pundits alike. It was a dirty play, and Neymar had been among the tournament’s best players. But when the match-day arrived, fans yet again packed the stands and huddled around TV’s to place faith in the narrative, the dream that this “underdog team,” now without its two best players, could be buoyed to a massive win over World Cup heavyweights Germany.

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CATASTROPHE

It was a clear night in Belo Horizonte when referee Marco Rodriguez placed the ball in the center circle for Fred to kick off the semi-final. This would be the second time Brazil played at the Estadio Mineirao, the first time being their dramatic win over Chile in penalties. Local fans were still bouncing from that magical win just over a week earlier. For readers who have never watched the Mineirazo, the sheer ineptitude and comic irony fails description. Germany scored their first goal in the 11th minute. After twelve minutes of Brazil weathering the storm, Germany scored again, then proceeded to score three goals in the next six minutes.

The scenes from the match are cringe inducing, from the play on the field to the reaction of the fans, many of whom sobbed uncontrollably or stood, faces still covered in green and yellow paint, shocked at what they were watching. The players looked lost on the field, and each German goal included a baffling error from a member of the Seleção backline or midfield. These were not amateurs. These were professionals. Several of them were only a few months removed from lifting trophies with their club teams. But without their two talismen, one in the back and one in the front, Brazil collapsed. Every time Germany controlled the ball in the Brazilian half, the Seleção appeared unable to stop their onslaught. Every time Brazil pushed into the German half, they looked like deer in the headlight searching for the absent Neymar. Scolari had not built a system to stand toe to toe against the German machine, and they lacked neither the tactical organization to weather the shelling nor the flair and creativity to punch back.

The second half continued the embarrassment of the first. According to Opta Sports, striker Fred did not make a single tackle, cross, or interception in the match, and spent over half of his possession time inside the center circle because of the number of restarts from German goals. Toward the end of the match, Brazilian fans began to ole every German pass, to which BBC pundit Steve Wilson commented “these fans know good football when they see it.” The sheer humiliation of those lines would’ve rang in Brazilian ears. It was the worst loss in a World Cup semi-final or final and worst loss by a World Cup host in the history of the competition. This was not South Africa or South Korea, two nations without a footballing tradition who had recently hosted. This was Brazil. The five-time winners. The greatest footballing nation this world has ever seen.

The Germans admitted after the match they stopped trying to score in an effort to be professional and several of the Brazilian players issued formal apologies to the country, neither of which made the result any better. In the third place consolation match a few days later, Brazil surrendered to the Dutch 3-0. This was the first time Brazil lost consecutive home matches since 1940. In only a few days their World Cup goal differential had gone from +6 to -3. The team was disgraced, the manager was disgraced, and the country was disgraced. Newspapers across the country ran articles with damning headlines, the best one being “Do you even want to remember what happened? Then turn the page.”

Many commentators and pundits poured over the team selection for the two matches, singling out certain players who could have been replaced to prevent the calamity. But those were the cries of people who hadn’t been paying attention for ten years as the CBF made reckless decision after reckless decision. One of the more clairvoyant quotes after the match came from football journalist Tim Vickery, who in addition to discussing the needed reforms to Brazil’s domestic game put the “collective sense of shock, embarrassment, and national humiliation across Brazil” in the context of a footballing federation that had rested on the laurels of the national team’s prior success for too long. They believed Brazil could walk into a stadium and compete because, for lack of a better reason, they were Brazil.

Just like in 2006, it could be said that a loss would’ve been acceptable, especially in the semi-final stage. This was not the strongest generation of Brazilian players. Everyone knew that. But a combination of the swirling expectation of the hometown boys with the disgraceful way they exited meant the pitchforks came out once again. As if on queue, the CBF again reacted with infuriating short-termism. Two weeks after the Brazilian loss to the Netherlands, Dunga was re-appointed as manager of the national team. His methods have not changed, his style of management has not changed, his philosophy has not changed. The Seleção’s pathetic performance in the 2015 Copa America proves it, where they led the tournament in foul/possession ratio, and were eliminated in the quarterfinals by minnows Paraguay after registering a single shot on goal. The appointment of Dunga reeks of “definition of insanity,” and once again sets Brazil on the merry-go-round to nowhere.

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WHERE NEXT?

Last May, the Sao Paulo-based newspaper Estadao released contracts executed by the CBF and Nike in November 2006 that gave the sporting corporation influence over national team selections. Reports indicated that only players who are “marketable enough” can be chosen to play for the Seleção. It is a heavy indictment, and if true (the CBF and Nike have denied all allegations), it explains many of the head-scratching decisions that have occurred over the past ten years, and confirms the suspicions of many fans – that the Brazilian national football team, one of the world’s greatest sporting institutions, is for sale.

To look at the mounting evidence against the CBF is to determine that the goal of this governmental organization is to enrich its members and to stay in power as long as possible. They’ve been enormously successful. By “giving the people what they want” and swinging the tactical pendulum back and forth every few years, the CBF give the façade of change while retaining the corrupt core of Brazilian football.

There is a famous scene in the movie Catch Me If You Can where conman Frank Abagnale, Jr., played by Leonardo di Caprio, is speaking with his father, played by Christopher Walken. The father asks his son why the Yankees always win championships. Frank responds, “they win because they have Mickey Mantle.” His father replies, “no, they win because no one can take their eyes off those damn pinstripes.” For the CBF this is a mantra. On the field, they believe that Brazil has a right to win, that as long as they show up with their canary shirts, other teams will move out of the way because they are Brazil and that is their pedigree.

Off the field, the Confederation tosses the public a piece of meat whenever power appears to be slipping through their fingers. Under public scrutiny, the CBF have cycled through five managerial spells in ten years, three of which were second stints. In a decade, they have fired Parreira, hired Dunga, fired Dunga, hired Mano, fired Mano, hired Scolari, fired Scolari, and hired Dunga. If results do not improve during this summer’s Copa or (heaven-forbid) they lose the Olympics in Rio, they will likely fire Dunga again. Allow that to process for a moment. If Dunga is fired by the end of the summer, it will be the second time in ten years he was hired and fired as manager of the Brazilian national team.

This is just managers they have wasted. Consider the number of players whose careers have come and gone without Brazil even sniffing a World Cup win. Consider that Brazil has spurned an incredible opportunity to win a sixth title on home soil. To call this a lost decade is to ignore that Brazil have accomplished a hell of a lot since 2006. They’ve won a Copa America and two Confederations Cup, while reaching a World Cup semi-final and World Cup Final. But as fantastic as that win over Spain at the Maracana was, as the memories of that night fade, others will linger for posterity. The loss to Germany has the qualities of national tragedy. The images and the embarrassment are drawn in Sharpie. After the match Alan Hansen made an astute observation in saying he believes the careers of many of the footballers on the pitch that night may never recover. I imagine many of them will never shake the feeling of lying face down on the grass in Belo Horizonte.

The loss to Germany and the subsequent pathetic performance in the 2015 Copa America did not simply happen. They’ve been years in the making, and slip from world power to the Mineirazo began with the failure of the 2006 team and the knee jerk reactions that succeeded it. With a heavy dose of politics and populism, the CBF have taken a perennial power and replaced it with a piggy bank. A shake-up at the Confederation is needed. They need a plan that adapts to the modern game but also retains a core of those great Brazilian teams of the past, and they need to stick to it. With the political and corporate entanglements, one wonders if that is possible. Until then, we have YouTube footage of Ronaldinho at Barcelona, and can daydream about what might have been. ♦

 

If you liked this article, be sure to look out for Canary and Blue, the Football Purists’ new podcast that covers the Brazilian National Team. The podcast will cover the past, present, and future of the Seleção, providing analysis, oral histories of Brazil’s greatest moments, and discussions of the country’s greatest ever players. Ahead of the podcast’s release this October, follow us at @CanaryandBlueFP.