Prior to Sunday night’s Confederations Cup final against World and European champions Spain at the Maracanã, Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari anticipated that victory for his team “would regain a lot of credibility and respect from our fans.”
It’s worth remembering, more so than ever in the afterglow of their astonishing 3-0 win, what state the Seleção were in as they approached the competition a month ago. Confidence wasn’t high. People around the world were sceptical about the team and its individual components.
The received wisdom was that this Brazil side wasn’t up to the high standards set by its predecessors. They had slipped to 22nd in the FIFA rankings, an imperfect and often derided metric, but an indicator nonetheless of how a country rates.
After their elimination in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup by the Netherlands, Dunga was replaced as head coach with Mano Menezes. It was supposedly a move away from a counter-attacking, un-Brazilian style of play, in which the physical appeared to take the priority over the technical, to one that was closer to their traditions of flair, seizing the initiative and entertaining the crowd.
There was a transition from one generation to another too. The old guard was more or less done away with and a new breed brought through in order to prepare them for the 2014 World Cup. So Brazil went from one extreme to the other. Many of the players weren’t ready. For the most part, they were based at home and so lacked international experience. It would take time to make the adjustment.
In the meantime, Brazil looked like a soft touch. They lost some of their aura. Paraguay knocked them out in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Copa America on penalties. Mexico beat them in the final of 2012 Olympic football tournament.
If Menezes had been sacked there and then few would have been surprised. Ironically, his dismissal came a few months later just as Brazil had started to show signs of real progress under his management. Were they shooting themselves in the foot?
One of the reasons put forward for Menezes’ firing in November last year was delicate timing; it was only then that the Brazilian Football Federation’s first choice replacement become available. This, of course, was Scolari. By turning to him Brazil pulled another U-turn. In the space of two years they had gone from pragmatist to purist and back again.
Of course there was plenty of reassurance to be found in Scolari’s track record in international football. The last coach to win the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, he had also guided Portugal to the final of Euro 2004, a tournament they hosted, which, you might argue, is his minimum objective for 2014 with this particular Seleção.
Scolari didn’t get off to an encouraging start. But then, these were early days. Brazil lost to England at Wembley, then threw away a 2-0 lead away against Italy in Geneva with whom they drew 2-2 before being held to a 1-1 draw by Russia at Stamford Bridge.
Scolari’s first win in his second stint in charge came against Bolivia. A 2-2 draw with Chile then followed, as did another by the same scoreline against England in which they came back from behind at the Maracanã.
The first sign Brazil might do something at the Confederations Cup came in their final warm-up game against France, who they beat 3-0 in Porto Alegre. There was less pessimism after that result. Even so, few expected them to win every game in the Confederations Cup.
Scolari and his players deserve a lot of credit. They handled the pressure surprisingly well and didn’t let what was happening around them in the streets across the country affect their performances.
By playing the same system in every match and more or less the same XI, Brazil seemed to come together as a team. A defined game pattern emerged. Players developed a real understanding with each other. Take for instance the burgeoning centreback partnership between David Luiz and Thiago Silva. They recorded a trio of clean sheets and were excellent in the final against Spain.
Those players who were starters derived confidence from knowing that they had the coach’s full trust and it showed on the pitch. For example, after not scoring against Mexico and Japan, Fred came in for some flak from the local press. Taking him to one side, Scolari told the striker not to worry about it and that, unless he was injured, he’d play the full 90 minutes against Italy. With that peace of mind, Fred went out and scored five goals in his next three matches. It was excellent man-management from Scolari.
Deciding how much should be read into this Confederations Cup is hard. True, it’s the least meaningful of the major international competitions but, with the exception of Tahiti, the standard of the teams involved was high. Each of those who participated in it wanted to be there and, as a result, took it seriously.
Winning it of course doesn’t necessarily mean Brazil will lift the World Cup for a sixth time next summer. As they know from past experience, the Confederations Cup is something of a poison chalice. Its winner has never triumphed in the World Cup the following year. Spain, one anticipates, will still be the favourites even after Sunday’s defeat, which was their heaviest since they lost to Wales in 1985.
While it should neither be held up as an excuse or be used to take anything away from the impressiveness of Brazil, La Roja were clearly tired. Their semifinal against Italy had gone to extra time and then penalties in high temperatures. They had a day less to prepare for the final and were traveling from further away. Brazil’s semi against Uruguay was in Belo Horizonte, an hour’s flight from Rio. Spain’s was in Fortaleza, four hours away. These small details do make a difference.
Scolari has admitted that Brazil are far from the finished article. “We are still not a team that is complete,” he said. “We know that we have a good group but we still have to prove a lot.”
It will be interesting to see whether winning the Confederations Cup makes life easier or harder for Brazil.
On the one hand, they might look forward to the World Cup more and view it with less trepidation. Playing at the Maracanã is daunting for opponents—Brazil haven’t lost there since 1998—but it will also hold less fear for the home nation now that a demanding crowd has been satisfied. The ghosts of 1950 were, to an extent, laid to rest. Brazil beat Uruguay in the semi and didn’t choke in a final. The X Factor the home support could provide was abundantly clear on Sunday. On the other hand, expectations now risk being sky high. Everyone could get carried away and forget that this team is imperfect.
Today, though, Brazil fans should take no shame in savouring the moment. There’s cause for optimism. “Now I am able to dream that we have an idea, that we have a path ahead of us,” Scolari said, “and that we have a good team to play in the World Cup next year as equals with other strong contenders.” That is the real success of this Confederations Cup campaign.