Note from Black Matt: I haven’t been able to finish Part II of my “Brazil All-Time XI” series, so February is “Guest Article Month” here on the site. Kicking things off is our own Zetona, who gives us his thoughts on what Brazil need to do to make 2016 successful. Later in the month, we’ll feature a two-part “Seleção Classics” article from Lisgar.
So without further ado, take it away, Zetona!
2016 is shaping up to be a big year for Brazilian football. Of course, we said the same in 2015, and 2014, and 2013, and 2012, and 2011, and 2010, and you know what, maybe I shouldn’t start this article with the tiredest of clichés. But by my count, between eight World Cup qualifiers, the Olympics, and the Copa America Centenário, we could see some players putting on the yellow jersey over 20 times this year, more than any year since the 90s. The current side is a far cry from the glory days of the late 90s, and after the last two years of tournament disappointments and sub-par displays, there’s plenty of pessimism in the air. If the cards fall just right, though, this year could sweep those bad vibes away.
Here’s what needs to happen this year for it to keep us smiling.
A complete shakeup in midfield
One of the most maddening aspects of Dunga’s current spell in charge has been his stubborn adherence to a midfield that simply isn’t good enough. Elias is not a bad player, but he’s shown on 31 occasions—seriously, he has thirty-one caps and has now been in regular contention for a national team place for the better part of five years!—that he is just not good enough to play in midfield for Brazil. Despite his billing as a box-to-box player, in a yellow shirt he rarely appears in attack, contributes little to buildup play, and often looks totally at sea when trying to mark opponents, for which Dunga has made him a regular starter. His partner, the stalwart Luiz Gustavo, has been one of Brazil’s most reliable performers over the past three years, but many on this site have argued that he is too passive, acting almost like a fifth defender, a role that affects the team’s ability to press and build from the midfield instead of simply winning the ball and immediately launching a counter. And yet, the last time he wasn’t available to shield the defense the team looked completely lost—the Fernandinho-Elias double pivot at last summer’s Copa America still gives me nightmares. But Gustavo still doesn’t have anything like a convincing, reliable backup. And he’s had quite a few injuries in the past year or so, which doesn’t bode well for the future.
All this would be fine if these players were the best we had; after all, the narrative is that Brazilian football stopped nurturing dynamic, two-way central midfielders and deep-lying playmakers in favor of physical destroyers that create a defensive platform for the fullbacks to attack without consequence. But we’re still producing those midfielders. Not only that, they’re playing at the very top of the game. Casemiro has been a regular starter for Real Madrid despite Florentino Pérez’s dimwitted insistence on fielding as many big-name attacking midfielders as possible. Napoli are one point off the top of the Italian league thanks to the “magnificent” Allan shielding the defense and Jorginho amassing jaw-dropping passing stats next to him. Guus Hiddink has moved Oscar into a deeper midfield role at Chelsea, and he’s looking like a new player. Thiago Alcântara is a star for Bayern Munich; shame the CBF did nothing to prevent Spain dipping into our talent pool there. Little bro Rafinha is more loyal, and was just beginning to break into the Barcelona lineup this fall when a knee injury sidelined him. This doesn’t even touch the tremendous rising talent in the Brazilian league and the youth squads, full of impressive players like Fred of Shakhtar Donetsk, Rodrigo Caio of Sao Paulo, Rodrigo Dourado of Internacional, and Walace of Gremio. Even if several of these players don’t pan out (see: Lucas Silva’s disappointing season), we’re still stacked.
All this talent means there’s no excuse for the continued, uncontested selections of Elias and Fernandinho, especially considering they’ll both be 33 come the next World Cup. Yet of the players I’ve listed above, the only ones Dunga has tested in central midfield are Rafinha, Casemiro and Fred, all very briefly (Oscar has also played, but always further forward). In 2016, that absolutely must change. By the end of the year, Elias should not be in the squad, Fernandinho (bar a dramatic resurgence) should be on his way out, and we should at least have a clear alternative to Luiz Gustavo. The first step in all this should be securing the services of Allan and Jorginho by calling them up ASAP, since both are at risk of playing for Italy instead if we dally too long in calling them up. I’ll be very annoyed if we let them become the next Diego Costa or Thiago Alcantara. (Jorginho reportedly had his heart set on playing for Italy, so Dunga and the CBF may not be able to change his mind, but they need to try.)
Speaking of trying out new midfielders…
A Year of Experimentation for the Seleção
To Dunga’s credit, even as he’s been stubborn and intractable about keeping certain players in or out of the team no matter what (*cough* Thiago Silva *cough*), he has tinkered constantly with other parts of his tactics and lineup. He’s used several striker-less systems, first by pairing Neymar and Diego Tardelli/Roberto Firmino as false forwards, later putting Firmino and Hulk up front on their own, and against Peru finally doing what we’ve been wanting a Brazil coach to do for years and play Neymar alone as a false nine. He’s tried a range of attacking midfielders: Oscar, Lucas Lima, Philippe Coutinho, and Renato Augusto have had chances as starters. He’s swapped things around in goal, recently giving the 23-year-old Alisson a chance which he seized with both hands, literally. And he’s gotten great things out of Willian in a right-sided, box-to-box-esque midfield role which brings to mind Ramires, but with technique.
But we need some more fresh blood in other sectors, and 2016 provides a great chance to do just that. Leaving aside this winter’s exodus of Brazilians to China, which means Dunga likely won’t be counting on Renato Augusto, Ramires, or Gil again and will have to find replacements, we’ve got both the Olympics and a Copa America. I have an uneasy feeling that Dunga’s going to use a core group of players in both tournaments—he already plans to use Neymar, Alisson, and Miranda as his overage players for the Olympics, and Fabinho, Rafinha and Marquinhos are Olympic-age regulars in the senior squad—and give them no summer break. This is an unnecessary risk. This special-edition Copa America is a throwaway tournament whose main purpose is to line the pockets of several sports marketing firms. Winning it would be a great boost for morale and pride, but it’s not worth burning out players with a full summer of competitive games given that we have six World Cup qualifiers in the fall. And we do need to do more experimenting, and not just in midfield. Last summer showed us we still don’t quite know how to cope when Neymar isn’t available, and he would be better used helping the Olympic squad win gold anyway.
Admittedly, if he isn’t rested for the Copa, I’m an hour from the MetLife Stadium, where Brazil could play their quarterfinal and the final, and it’s my best-ever chance to watch Brazil win a major tournament in person, so if Neymar’s leading that team as well, you will hear no complaints from me. But this is still a huge opportunity and Brazil should not let it go to waste. Miranda and Marquinhos’ absences, and Gil’s permanent departure, could give Thiago Silva one last chance to come in from the cold. Alisson could give way to Diego Alves, possibly our best goalkeeper. Don’t squander this chance, Dunga.
Neymar Wins All the Awards
It’s about time somebody other than Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or, and Neymar has a golden chance to do just that in 2016. Public perception has shifted in his favor now that he has come into his own for Barcelona, and he is already rightly considered the heir apparent for the title of world’s best. No club has won the Champions League back-to-back since before it was renamed the Champions League, but this Barcelona side have as good a chance as any, and if Neymar can combine club success (back-to-back Trebles? It’s possible) with big displays in the Olympics and perhaps the Copa America, he’ll leap ahead of Messi in the running for the big award.
Also, I’d love to see him back in the running for the Puskas award. He received nominations in his first four professional seasons and won it once, but none of those came after he started playing for Barcelona. He’s already got THAT goal against Villarreal in his pocket for the 2016 running, but I expect him to manage something even better this year.
A Clear Way Forward for Brazil’s Young Talent
2015 served up a welcome reminder that Brazil is still producing some of the world’s best young players. Gabigol overcame a spell on the bench to lead Santos to the brink of Copa Libertadores qualification. Gabriel Jesus showed the sort of wing play we haven’t seen from a 17-year-old since Neymar. Danilo ruled the U-20 World Cup. Jemerson and Marlon offer enormous promise in central defense.
But there’s still a lot of question marks hanging in the air. Despite all the hype, Gabigol scored fewer goals this season than last. Gabriel Jesus has struggled with the physicality of first-team football, often appearing visibly frustrated. Danilo is acclimating to life in the Spanish league with Valencia, but slowly. And that’s not to mention the guys who came into the year with a lot of hype and didn’t deliver. With some, like Erik, it was because their team struggled. Others, like Kenedy, because they moved to a club where they don’t get much playing time. And then there’s those who secured a big-money deal in the summer and then put their feet up for the six months before they actually made the move (Hello, Gerson! Bet you’re regretting that now that Roma have loaned you straight back to Fluminense for six months). Most of these will resolve themselves with time, increased maturity, and a stable environment, but we can’t rest assured that Erik will get the playing time he needs now that he’s left for Palmeiras, or that the excellent Santos platform that nurtured Gabigol will stay together now that so many clubs have Lucas Lima on their wish lists, or that Gerson’s attitude will improve now that Roma sent him right back where he started. I want 2016 to be the year of consistent playing time, strong support, and all-round maturation these players need to live up to their billing as Brazil’s future.
The CBF Undergoes Something Approximating Change
The Brazilian football confederation is doing remarkable things right now, it really is. It is blowing away our expectations of how thoroughly Brazilian sport can be dragged through the mud. The past three CBF presidents currently face criminal charges as part of the ongoing FBI investigation of FIFA. Naturally, this has not fazed the CBF; ignoring a protest by major players and coaches, they went ahead last month and swore in Coronel Nunes as a new vice-president, thus opening the doors for outgoing president Marco Polo del Nero (who didn’t even step down permanently after being charged, having recently returned to make a few more maneuvers before proceedings open against him) to pull some strings and set him on track to be the next president. The CBF really does not give a fuck. They’re not even putting up a facade of change. This new guy is every bit as old, crusty, and liver-spotted as his predecessors.
Somebody else—Loretta Lynch, the Brazilian government, Bom Senso FC and its fellow transparency movements, the Primeira Liga association of clubs whose new interstate tournament the CBF agreed to and then tried to disband at the last moment—has got to exert public pressure, exact confessions from former members, demand a restructuring, raid the headquarters, whatever it takes. Brazilian football desperately needs a clearing-out, and given the poor performances of the Seleção, the FIFA scandal, and the public’s frustrations, the old guard hasn’t been this vulnerable in decades.
Transfers That Result In Desirable Outcomes
I’m writing this just after the close of an unusually quiet winter transfer window. We saw a couple interesting moves—Alexandre Pato to Chelsea, Jemerson to Monaco—but big-money Premier League deals for Felipe Anderson and Alex Teixeira were shelved until at least the summer. A bit disappointing to see so little movement, perhaps, but on the bright side the clubs’ abundance of caution means it’ll be hard for 2016 to be a worse year for Brazilians changing clubs than was 2015. To give a brief rundown of last year’s big moves:
- Éverton Ribeiro, Diego Tardelli and Ricardo Goulart, the top players in the Brazilian league the year before, were all sold to clubs in China and the UAE last January, after which their form for Brazil tanked; none has appeared since the Copa America last June (though to be fair, we’re all glad to see the back of Tardelli)
- Roberto Firmino moved to Liverpool over the summer, and while he’s started to shine in Jürgen Klopp’s system, he came dangerously close to being branded a flop
- The young, talented Kenedy moved to Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho decided to reinvent him as a backup fullback and then, despite promising showings off the bench, barely play him even when the starters were playing like garbage
- Danilo moved to Real Madrid, where despite being a regular starter under Rafa Benitez he didn’t impress (and now Zinedine Zidane has benched him), and has lost his starting spot with the national team
- Alex Sandro moved to Juventus, and though he impresses whenever he plays he has started less than half their games
- Neto, one of Brazil’s most promising goalkeeping talents, swapped being first-choice at Fiorentina for being the backup at Juventus, where he has played exactly four times
Yes, a few players have been outstanding for their new clubs (Douglas Costa, Allan, Gabriel Paulista), but they’re the rare exception. I can still hope that 2016 will be different, that it will bear nothing but fruit for the national team: that, despite likely being a backup for Diego Costa and having excelled more as a left-winger than a pure striker in recent times, Alexandre Pato will shine for Chelsea and win himself a permanent move back to Europe; that by the time Manchester United finally decide to take the plunge on Felipe Anderson, he will have received enough playing time at Lazio to justify the move; that Luiz Adriano finally finds a way to leave Shakhtar, preferably by playing so well that a Real Madrid or PSG splash 60 million Euros on him without a second thought; that moves to relatively low-profile French clubs will provide Jemerson and Malcom with the regular time they need to blossom at the highest level; that a Chinese club finally makes Elias an offer he can’t refuse so that he leaves our long-suffering lives forever.
Gold at the Olympics, Despite the Coaching Situation
The Olympic squad is stuffed from back to front with world-beating talents already playing, at age 23 and under, for the likes of PSG, Barcelona, Lazio, and Bayer Leverkusen. They have a risk-taking, idealistic gem of a coach in Rogerio Micale who has them playing stunning football and sweeping full national teams aside by huge scorelines. This summer, they’re playing at home in the Olympic Games, and the stage is set for them to finally deliver Olympic gold in men’s soccer in emphatic fashion.
What’s that? Rogerio Micale is only the caretaker coach? What’s that? The CBF, after slowly undermining and ultimately ousting Micale’s predecessor Alexandre Gallo, decided that Dunga would coach the Olympics as well as the senior side, but left Micale in charge for the moment? What’s that? Dunga’s going to be busy with the 2016 Copa America through June? What’s that? Dunga is going to take over a squad whose particulars he has left to a caretaker, which has a very (refreshingly) different playing style from what he preaches with the senior squad, and will be under massive pressure to finally win the only footballing tournament Brazil has never won, in Brazil and in front of ruthless home crowds, all to earn a morsel of redemption for the World Cup disaster on home soil two years ago, and coach them for the first time only a few weeks before the Games?
God, I hope this works out. The talent in this side is extraordinary, and Dunga will be able to add even more firepower in the form of the three overaged players (hello, Neymar!) I just hope he’s kept in close contact with Micale when it comes to player selection and tactics, and that he doesn’t try and change this squad’s playing style to be more defensively solid, and that Neymar and the other overage additions have enough time to integrate without disrupting the balance of the whole squad. But if allllllll of that works out, I think we’re a lock for the men’s football gold medal at long last.
…and maybe coaching the Olympics will convince Dunga to bring some of this talent into the senior team! Is that too much to ask?
oh no i just jinxed it didn’t i
A Return to the Tradition of Great Brazilian Nicknames
Garrincha. Falcão. Careca. Didi. Pelé. Cafu. Bebeto. Kaká. Sócrates. (Okay, that actually was his name, but still.) Fantastic names like these only add to the romance around the great Brazilian teams of yesteryear. Today, by contrast, the names on the back of Brazil’s jerseys have couple interesting spellings (Willian, Neymar), a couple “-inho” suffixes (Fernandinho, Fabinho), and more stodgy two-name mouthfuls than I can ever remember seeing (Douglas Costa, Filipe Luis, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo Grohe, Ricardo Oliveira, Lucas Lima, Luiz Gustavo, Dani Alves). I want a return to the glory days. The names are out there. I’m just hoping against hope that the players sporting them have the talent and motivation to reach the top level and flood Brazilian football with awesomeness. In five years, I want to see Flamengo fans celebrating their new “Cachoeira de Gatorade” strike partnership. I want to see a Jack Chan / Jhekchan midfield duo kicking ass and letting no one past them. I want to see Capacete and Cabeção line up in central defense and form an instant understanding like they were made for each other. I want to see the Messi vs. Maradona debate settled once and for all as they line up on opposite sides of the Gre-Nal derby. If the gods of football still answer prayers now that they can receive 24/7 satellite feeds of every conceivable league up in that big ol’ training camp in the sky, I hope they’ll take a moment, look up from the thrilling Bruneian second-tier relegation six-pointer they’re currently watching, and answer this one.
If nothing else, I want more reasons to smile about Brazilian football in 2016. It’d be nice, if everything else in a yellow shirt ended in disaster this year, to enjoy a chuckle with some fantastic names.
 8 qualifiers + up to 6 games each in the Olympics and Copa America + probably 1-2 friendlies before both tournaments = 22-24 games. Ronaldo played 20 in 1997.
 Yeah, it’s already February, which makes it a little late for a “New Year wishes”-type article, but in my defense, Brazil’s next game is in late March.
 Napoli’s game away to Verona produced some of the most amazing midfield numbers I’ve ever seen. Jorginho created an extraordinary 9 chances and notched 3 tackles and 4 interceptions, which would be an impressive enough display on its own—but the real clincher is that he completed a jaw-dropping 182 of 195 passes at over 93% accuracy, nearly 50 more than anybody else has managed in Serie A this season.
 Haiti, admittedly, but still, the Haiti senior side.