When Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup five years ago last month two things became immediately certain. One: the Selecão would participate in the competition for a record 20th time; two: the buildup to the tournament would be an angst-ridden process, the preparations clumsy and, at times, embarrassing.
What no one knew on October 30, 2007 was that a half-decade on the two would be mutually exclusive.
While work on venues and infrastructure schemes has occasionally stuttered, Brazil’s primary source of anxiety with 19 months between now and kickoff is its national team, that most famous of sporting institutions—the one element of this World Cup that was supposed to be a sure thing.
It has been anything but. In the little more than two years since Mano Menezes was appointed manager, the Selecão has surpassed unfinished airports, labour unrest and pits in the ground where stadiums should be as the host nation’s most vulnerable project.
And it was amid this uncertainty that Brazil celebrated its 1,000th international match on Wednesday against Colombia. Talk about an occasion for some serious reflection.
In the 98 years since a team compiled of national all stars from Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro played Exeter City at Fluminense’s home ground (the hosts won 2-0) Brazil, thanks to a legacy of iconic players, five World Cups and eight continental titles, has established itself as the spiritual home of football.
That hasn’t changed—more Brazilian footballers are playing abroad than ever before—but rarely has the Selecão seemed more disconnected from its reputation.
Menezes, while not the sole culprit, has at least had the misfortune of overseeing the national team during this period of uncertainty. Heralded as the man who would bring Brazil back to its roots following the strict pragmatism of Dunga, he has instead struggled with his selections, fumbled around with tactics and failed to instill any trace of identity in his team.
Dunga, the critics will say, at least had a scowl, a trench-coat and a counter-attacking style that took Brazil to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup. At this point it’s almost inconceivable that Brazil could progress that far in 2014, nevermind win the thing on home soil.
Their fixture list has been a big part of the problem. Automatic World Cup qualification exempted them from the gruelling campaign their South American rivals are currently undertaking, and for whatever reason they have either been unable or unwilling to schedule regular friendly matches against top international opponents.
Not that they’ve done particularly well in the few matches they’ve played against the likes of France and Germany. Under Menezes, Brazil have yet to beat a side ranked higher than them by FIFA (they’re currently 13th) and only once—against Denmark in May—have they won against a team in the top 10.
Instead (and perhaps at least partly because of their poor record against elite opposition), Brazil’s schedule has included lots of Iran, Gabon and China and little of Spain, Italy and Portugal. That said, more competitive matches would not necessarily have been much of a benefit.
Menezes, to his credit, has hit on something with the central defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and David Luiz, but in front of them the only consistency has been chaos. The 50-year-old has experimented with formations ranging from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 to 4-3-1-2 and seems to presently prefer the very Brazilian 4-2-2-2, but no matter how he arranges his team Menezes cannot escape the very obvious fact that his players continue to run all over each other, like half-a-dozen rubber balls thrown at once in a rubber room.
Oscar, who has taken on the primary playmaking duties, looked completely lost on Wednesday, and when he wasn’t being manhandled by the Colombian midfielders he was being cut off by plodding teammate Thiago Neves, whose place in the team is a riddle only Menezes knows the answer to.
With the World Cup draw just 13 months away you get the feeling Menezes has no idea what his best XI is, which players he can trust and what combination that, at the very least, will not produce an embarrassment for the ages in 2014.
World Cup preparations were always going to be a struggle in Brazil, but at no time was the nation’s football team expected to supply the majority of the worry.