In a previous article, Five Thoughts on Brazil vs Argentina, I wrote the following:
“Dunga, I’ll always love you for what you did as a player. If I were to name my all-time Seleção starting XI , you’d be in it. I’ll always defend your first tenure as being underrated and under-appreciated. But it’s time for you to go.”
The line about naming to my all-time Starting XI raised some eyebrows, as these things tend to do. I still remember the consternation that arose when I put Bebeto in my list of top 20 Brazilians of all time.
So how could I name Dunga into my all-time starting XI? What exactly is my reasoning?
It’s a fair question. But rather than simply answer it and move on, I figured that now was as good a time as any for an article I’d long planned on anyway:
My Brazil All-Time Starting XI
In this article (which I’ve broken up into three parts because Part One alone is over 4,000 words) I’m going to not only name my all-time starting XI, but describe the rationale behind my own choices. In doing so, I hope not only to answer the Dunga question, but provoke some discussion on what your all-time starting XI would be. Because discussion is what this site is supposed to be about.
But before we start naming names, let’s define what we’re actually talking about here.
When I say “All-Time Starting XI,” here’s what I’m not saying:
- I’m not saying who I think the 11 best Brazilians are
- Not the 11 most talented
- Not the 11 most skilled
- I’m not saying who my 11 favorite players are
My All-Time Starting XI is an attempt to form an actual (if hypothetical) team. Not just an all-star roster, but a functioning, realistic team that could succeed in an actual competitive tournament. For that reason, it’s emphatically not a list of simply the most talented players. Because as we know, simply throwing together 11 great players is no guarantee of success. Ask Florentino Perez about that.
As a result, I’ve selected my Starting XI with things like tactics and formation in mind. I’m also hypothetically assuming that my Starting XI is going to be playing a game of modern football – that is, a game in which the pace of play, opposing formation and tactics, and style all conform somewhat to how football is played today.
In my opinion, you rarely see this sort of thing done. Most people – most players, even – give little thought to choosing a realistic formation or tactical setup when asked to name their personal XI.
To help create an actual team, I first asked myself the following questions:
- Which Brazilian players, from any era, are most likely to excel in modern football?
- Which realistic formation should I use that will both allow me to select as many of the most talented players as possible, while still taking into account things like defensive shape, footedness, etc.?
- Which players are likely to play well together in terms of chemistry?
- Which players are most suited for a team where everyone is a star, and everyone wants the ball?
- Which players are the most well-rounded?
- Which players can contribute both in defense and attack? (Or vice versa)
- Which players are the most two-footed?
- Which players are the most athletic?
- Which players can contribute to both set pieces and open play?
No one said this was going to be easy. It’s a helluva lot harder than just throwing out a list of the most talented players. But this is what team selection is all about – something many of the Seleção’s most recent managers have failed at.
Of course, the hardest aspect of naming an All-Time Starting XI is that there’s simply so many great players too choose from…at every position! So regardless of what criteria I apply, or how scientific I make the process, someone great – nay, someone amazing! – is bound to be left out.
For that reason, there’s no possible way people will agree with my list. I accept that. I only ask that you supply your own in response, while providing your reasoning…and please, no one get offended if your personal favorite is left out. Believe me, I’ve already prayed for forgiveness in front of an altar consisting of a football, a yellow jersey, and a picture of Arthur Friedenreich.
One last thing. Because there are so many great players to choose from, I’ve applied the following tie-breakers to make my final decision, in cases where a tiebreaker is needed:
- Players from before 1958 are automatically excluded. Sorry Leonidas, Zizinho, Adelmir and others, but I’ve just seen too little video. I can’t simply go by what I’ve read.
- All other things being equal, players who are more well-rounded and versatile get chosen over more one-dimensional players…except in one instance which I’ll explain later.
- All other things being equal, I prefer duration over peak. That means a player who excelled for Brazil for a long time has a better chance than someone whose star burned hot, but only for a short while. This is just a personal preference.
- All other things being equal, players who tasted team success will be preferred over someone equally good who didn’t win anything. You can guess who this is going to hurt. Sorry, but as much as I love beauty, I’m not going to penalize success. Beauty and results gives you the best chance of making it in.
Now that I’ve covered my ass, let’s get down to business.
My Starting XI
For my team, I’m going with a 4-3-3 formation.
I also gave thought to the following formations:
3-4-3: This would allow me to drop a defender and squeeze in an extra midfielder. It’s very tempting, but I rejected this for two reasons:
- Brazil pioneered the “four at the back” concept, and promptly won two World Cups after switching to it. Seems bizarre, and faintly heretical, to move away from it.
- While it’s easy on paper to trot out a 3-man backline, in practice it’s fraught with difficulty. You need defenders with very specific characteristics to make it work…and this process was difficult enough as it was.
4-2-4: Alluring because of the success Brazil had with it. But I just don’t see it working in the modern game. Besides, even in 1958, Mario Zagallo routinely dropped back to defend, making the team more a 4-3-3 without the ball.
4-2-3-1: I came very, very close to choosing this formation, but ultimately it either meant dropping a preferred forward, or moving that forward to a deeper position, which usually doesn’t work. So this one’s out. Also, I find this formation can sometimes get rather static…and I’m tired of the double-pivot.
With a 4-3-3, I get the advantages of:
- A four-man backline, giving defensive stability
- Width from having a stretched-out front three
- Not having to sacrifice more than one of the Holy Five whose shirts grace the top of this website (spoiler alert!)
Tactically, I want this team to have the lion’s share of possession, but possession for possession’s sake won’t be emphasized. And while I have a great respect for the ideals of Total Football, this isn’t that kind of team. I want to stress attacking football. Quick transitions from back to front are encouraged, but I want the ball kept on the ground as much as possible. The midfield should be constantly interchanging positions, forming passing triangles; the front three should be very mobile, with one dropping deep, (which can drag a defender out of position and enable a midfielder to overlap) another pulling out wide, and a third making a run into space at every possible opportunity. The fullbacks should get forward, but only judiciously, and never both at the same time. Their defensive duties come first.
Alright, enough talk. The lead official is calling the players to take the field. The crowd is in their seats. The ball is in the center circle.
It’s time to trot out my starting XI. I’ll list each position, then the candidates, the World Cups they played (and they had to actually play; I don’t give Ronaldo credit for sitting on the bench in ‘94), and then my final choice and the reasoning behind it.
Candidates: Gilmar (1958, ’62, ’66); Taffarel (’94, ’98)
These are the only two realistic candidates for Brazil’s thinnest position, and there’s not much margin between them. Both were around the same height (Wikipedia lists Taffarel as half an inch taller). They both had extremely long careers with the Seleção, with 94 and 104 caps respectively. Both were winners. Gilmar won two World Cups; Taffarel won in ’94, finished second in ’98, and also claimed two Copa Americas.
I thought about giving Gilmar extra weight for what he achieved at Santos, but only international stuff counts here.
It’s really close. But I’m going with…
Ultimately, his penalty shoot-out heroics in two straight World Cups
give him the edge. If my team has to go to penalties, I know whom I want between the sticks.
Candidates: Djalma Santos (’54, ’58, ’62, ’66); Di Sordi (’58); Carlos Alberto (’70); Nelinho (’74, ’78); Leandro (’82); Josimar (’86); Jorginho (’90, ’94); Cafu (’94, ’98, ’02, 06)
Jeez, what a list.
Right away, I’m knocking out Di Sordi, who was solid in ’58 but doesn’t have the same pedigree as the others. And because I’m emphasizing two-way players, and because I want my full-backs to be solid defensively, Leandro’s out. Josimar’s gone because of the “duration over peak” rule. (Although his ’86 tournament was a helluva peak.) Nelinho’s gone because he never tasted the kind of team success the others did, and didn’t have a particularly notable ’74 tournament anyway.)
That leaves four: Djalma Santos, Carlos Alberto, Jorginho, and Cafu.
Let’s knock out one name right away: Carlos Alberto. This hurts, because I think his performance in 1970 is simply the best two-way showing by any Brazilian fullback in World Cup history. He’s the definition of a great two-way player, and he scored perhaps the greatest World Cup goal of all-time (if you’re the kind of guy who prefers team goals over solo efforts.)
But it was his only tournament. Under my duration rule, he’s gone.
Jorginho gets the axe next. A good crosser, but he’s most tempting because of his outstanding defense. Ultimately, though, I think Cafu and Djalma Santos were simply better footballers.
And then there were two. Djalma Santos, the original attacking right-back, and Cafu, Brazil’s all-time most capped player.
I’m going with…
Ultimately, I think he’s more defensively sound than Santos. After all, Djalma was dropped for most of the ’58 tournament because manager Vicente Feola wanted the more dependable Di Sordi. Plus, Cafu’s incredible stamina, work-rate, pedigree, and skill level set him apart. Cafu it is.
Candidates: Bellini (’58,’66); Orlando (’58, ’66); Mauro (’62); Aldair (’94, ’98); Marcio Santos (’94, ’98); Lucio (’02, ’06, ’10)
Perhaps the trickiest position of the lot. Brazil has produced a lot of very good center-backs over the years, but very few who could be considered genuinely world class. Whereas other nations like Italy or even England can boast at least one defender whose name will last throughout the ages, Brazil, in my opinion, can only claim defenders who were considered good for their time.
Choosing two center-backs is also difficult because of the lack of meaningful statistics specific to their position. Furthermore, when trying to decide who Brazil’s best center-backs are, the question must be asked: how much of their team’s defensive performance is due to their individual efforts compared to that of the collective? In other words, is it fair to say Marcio Santos was a better defender than, say, Oscar, because he played in a far more defensive-minded team? I don’t know the answer to that question.
The only way to truly know who the two best center-backs are would be to conduct an extremely thorough video analysis. Clearly, such analysis is beyond the scope of this article. In the end, I can only rely on my own memories from previous viewings.
But first, a quick note: I don’t consider any of the center-backs from the 1970, ’74, ’78, or ’82 teams to be genuine candidates. The 1970 team, for example, had a very shaky back-line save for Carlos Alberto, and indeed one center-back, Piazza, was really a midfielder. The ’74 and ’78 teams were fairly solid defensively, but this was mostly due to the overly physical nature of the entire unit.
The 1982 pairing of Oscar and Luizinho aren’t realistic candidates in my mind either. Forget Paolo Rossi’s personal demolition derby – Brazil’s defense was unconvincing in the group stage, especially in the air. For the most part this didn’t really matter, as Tele Santana’s side usually had most of the possession and momentum.
Let’s proceed by process of elimination. We start with six: Bellini, Orlando, Mauro Ramos, Aldair, Marcio Santos, and Lucio.
First off, Orlando’s out, being overshadowed by his cohort Bellini in ’58, then dropped altogether in ’62.
I gave very close consideration to Bellini. A physical, uncompromising defender, he was also an excellent reader of the game, studying where the opponent’s attack was most likely to come from, always scanning for areas of weakness.
Even more impressive was his personality. This was a man who always put his team above his own personal glory. For example, take the Mauro Ramos controversy of 1962.
Mauro Ramos was, by all accounts, an incredibly gifted player. But he was also an unlucky one. Having been called up to both the 1954 and ’58 teams only to sit on the bench, the long-time Sao Paulo man was incensed to learn that he had failed to make the starting XI once again. He promptly pitched a fit, threatening to return home if he wasn’t guaranteed a spot in the first team.
As the story goes, this is exactly what manager Aymoré Moreira wanted to hear, who promptly gave him not only a starting role, but the captaincy. There was just one problem. The veteran Bellini, who had played so ably in 1958, already occupied both.
Bellini would have been perfectly justified had he threw a tantrum of his own. But that just wasn’t part of his character.
“Being an easygoing sort of chap,” he once said, “I was perhaps not as ambitious as some.” But this humility is probably what kept the team from disintegrating. When Moreira broke the news, he accepted it philosophically. Whereas once it had been his turn to shine, he said, “Now it’s Mauro’s turn.”
I love that story. And so it kills me to reject Bellini’s bid for Brazil’s All-Time Starting XI. But I have to do so, because in the end, I don’t know if he was technically gifted enough. He certainly wasn’t as skilled as Mauro, as he himself admitted. In fact, the reason he played center-back in the first place had to do with former manager Flavio Costa, who told him: “You can’t play very well, so just concentrate on getting the ball and giving it to someone who can.”
Writing that sentence almost convinced me to change my mind. After all, in Brazil’s Starting XI, there would be plenty of people for Bellini to give the ball to. Perhaps it would make sense to have at least one player willing to do nothing but dirty work so that his teammates could shine.
Ah, hell. I was going to give this spot to Mauro, who was certainly skilled enough for it…but I have no use for a player who would abandon his team in their time of need. Bellini exemplifies all that is good about team sports…and he was a helluva defender.
Sorry, Mauro. Like Moreira, I too reserve the right to change my mind. Your threats may have won you a place in 1962…but they exclude you from my All-Time Starting XI. Just as you took Bellini’s spot, now Bellini will take yours.
That still leaves one spot open. To fill it, let’s skip ahead to more recent times.
I want very, very badly to select Lucio, for the following reasons:
- You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who took more pride in wearing the yellow shirt
- He was the kind of defender who was more than happy to sacrifice his body for the team
- In his heyday, he was both quick and strong, and capable both on the ground and in the air
- If I wanted a defender whose one role was to mark an opposing center-forward, Lucio would be my choice. He had a tendency to come out the better in individual battles, as everyone from Didier Drogba to Zlatan Ibrahimovic can attest
- He was a technically able player, and remains the game’s greatest practitioner of the FtS run
So why can’t I select him? Because a part of me just doesn’t fully trust him. There were just too many instances where a loss of focus or a rash decision ended up harming his team. And to be honest, I don’t quite trust myself when it comes to selecting him. It feels more like an emotional decision than an intellectual one.
We finish with two stalwarts from the ’94 team: Aldair and Marcio Santos.
Both were fortunate to feature in the tournament at all. While Marcio Santos had been a mainstay in the qualifying campaign, he had been recently dropped in favor of Ricardo Gomes. Aldair, meanwhile, was understudy to Ricardo Rocha. But when both Ricardos fell injured, their replacements helped form the strongest back-line in Brazil’s history.
In terms of pure defense, I would give the edge to Marcio Santos. A little taller, a little stronger, a little quicker, he was physically imposing, well-rounded, and implacable as a defender. Not for nothing did FIFA name him to their “Team of the Tournament.”
But Aldair is my choice.
Aldair was a wonderful defender himself, though in his case he always struck me as relying more on his brains than on his body. With him, everything was timing. A perfectly timed lunge to intercept a pass; a perfectly timed jump to head a cross away. Unfortunately, this also made him more liable to make mistakes. If he misread a situation, he would have a harder time recovering than Marcio Santos.
There are three reasons I’ve chosen Aldair over his former teammate.
- Aldair’s international career spanned eleven years and eighty caps. Marcio Santos, meanwhile, played for seven years, with 43 caps.
- Both won a World Cup. But Aldair won the Copa America twice, including the 1989 edition, Brazil’s first in forty years. And of course, Aldair helped Brazil reach the final of the ’98 World Cup, on a squad Marcio Santos failed to make.
- This is by far the most important reason. Aldair was a gifted passer – one of the best long-range passer Brazil has ever had from that position. Because the ’94 and ’98 teams depended so much on the counter-attack, Aldair’s quick, accurate, and consistent distribution was absolutely key. His pass to Bebeto (who subsequently set up Romario) against Holland in ’94 was typical.
In addition, he boasted an assured first touch and good dribbling skills. This technical ability is why I’ve selected him for the team. With Bellini there to do much of the dirty work, Aldair’s elegance and class on the ball make him the perfect counterpart.
So my two center-backs are:
Candidates: Nilton Santos (’54, ’58, ’62); Junior (’82, ’86); Branco (’90, ’94); Roberto Carlos (’98, ’02, ’06)
There have been a lot of talented left-backs in Brazil’s history, but the four mentioned above are, in my opinion, the only ones who can seriously be considered for the all-time Starting XI.
Every one of these men will have their backers, but there can only be one. With that in mind, I’ll go ahead and axe Junior and Branco first. The former was quick, marvelously skilled, and two-footed …but was frankly a midfielder at heart. When push comes to shove, I want my full-backs to see to their defensive duties first, then attack on the overlap. But Junior was far more comfortable playing higher up the pitch. I just can’t trust that his fabulous technical ability would be enough to overcome his positional instincts.
Branco had his own brand of dynamism, based as much on grit as skill, though like many members of the ’94 team, he was far more skillful than is often remembered. His superb showing in ’94, replacing the suspended Leonardo, was instrumental in securing Brazil’s fourth star, and his free-kick against Holland is one of the most important goals in Brazil’s history.
But I don’t think for a second that he was better than Roberto Carlos.
Of all the players I’ve had the pleasure to watch in my lifetime, Roberto Carlos is one of my five favorites. Forget the improvisational skill. Forget the mind-bending (and ball-bending) screamers he scored. Forget the incredible stamina, energy, and work-rate that enabled him to shuttle up and down the left flank like a human Pong.
Focus instead on how absurdly critical Roberto Carlos was to Brazil’s success during the late 90s/early 00s. Even more than Cafu, he was the team’s primary method for advancing the ball down the pitch. Whether he was carrying it on his own, or moving forward to receive a diagonal pass from Dunga, he was the driving force behind attack after attack, match after match, year after year.
But it would be hypocritical of me to choose him for the Starting XI.
A lot of Roberto Carlos’ defensive deficiencies were covered up by his work-rate (always hustling to recover whenever his team lost the ball) and uncompromising tackles. But there’s no question he could get burned – a lot. He just played so far forward, so, so often. And as much as it hurts to admit this, it has to be said: Roberto Carlos put it in a lot of shaky performances in key matches for Brazil. He was poor against Nigeria in the 1996 Olympics. Nutmegged at the near post by a Zidane header in ’98. And don’t get me started on the infamous shoe-tying incident that preceded Thierry Henry’s goal in the ’06 quarterfinals.
None of that changes the fact that Robert Carlos was simply an outstanding, outstanding player – one of the finest in all footballing history. But it does mean he loses out to the original attacking fullback, Nilton Santos.
Of course, Nilton Santos is no compromise winner. No, he wins the position on his own merits, not due to the flaws of others. Just look at this resume:
- 75 caps over fourteen years representing Brazil at senior level
- Called up to four straight World Cups (though he didn’t play in 1950)
- 2 World Cups wins
- 1 South American championship
- 2 Taça do Atlântico cups
Nilton Santos gets in because he’s the prototype on which all future Brazilian left-backs were based…and because there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. A good dribbler and an intelligent passer, he created the template of the attacking fullback – but he didn’t neglect his defensive responsibilities, being a key part of one of the most stubborn defenses in World Cup history. In fact, it was as a defender that he truly shined, utilizing his powerful build to win challenge after challenge. It’s interesting and noteworthy that when Vicente Feola decided to shore up his defense, he dropped one Santos in Djalma, but kept Nilton on.
His style of play is exactly what I envision for his position: secure your flank, then attack on the overlap when space opens up in front of you. Nilton did the former thanks to aggressive tackling and a strong aerial presence. He did the latter by being able to carry the ball out of defense when necessary, although he was more likely to venture up near the half-way line, receive the ball from Didi or Zito, then slide a pass up to Zagallo or aerially to Vava or Pele.
All in all, with Nilton Santos you have the best of both worlds: a committed defender and a capable attacker. It’s why he’s my first-choice left-back for the Brazil All-Time Starting XI.
So here’s what the team looks like so far (the numbers correspond to their most important year for the national team):
To break it down, we have 2 players from the 50s/early 60s in Bellini and Nilton Santos; and 3 players from the 90s in Taffarel, Cafu, and Aldair. (Cafu can also be claimed by the 00s.) Considering those periods represent Brazil two most successful eras, I’m pretty happy with the balance we’ve struck so far.
So how about it? What would your starting back line look like? And do you agree or disagree with my rationale so far?
In the next part, we’ll look at my All-Time starting midfield.
 Who didn’t make the list.
 I know, I know…given the choice, I, too, would take a starting role in 1962 over a hypothetical role on a hypothetical team.
 FtS, of course, stands for “Fuck this shit.” For anyone unfamiliar with this term, an FtS run is when a player, usually a central defender, grows tired of his team’s inability to advance the ball and says, “Fuck this shit, I’ll do it myself.” Said player then proceeds to blitz through the heart of the opposing team. It’s perhaps the most magnificent (and terrifying) sight for a fan to witness.