Dr Emmett DungaAs most readers know, I’ve been watching Brazil for a little over 25 years now.  In all that time, this edition of the Seleção might be the least inspiring, least star-studded, least talented side I’ve ever seen taken to a major tournament.[1]  Some of you can probably name worse ones.  The 2001 Copa America squad had previously held the dubious title of “worst tournament Seleção” of my lifetime, but that team had everything stacked against it.  Brazil’s best players, without exception, were all either injured or being rested, and Scolari had just barely taken charge.

The original team Dunga selected is probably better than that one, but it’s close.  For this and many other reasons, I’ve had a hard time working up much interest in the Centenario.

Until this week. 

***

Time for a quick tangent.

In 1984, a man named Steven Spielberg was busy making a movie you may have heard of: Back to the Future.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, it tells the story of a teenager named Marty McFly who accidentally travels back in time to when his parents were in high school, unwittingly setting off a chain of events that could lead to him never being born.

When filming started, a fine method-actor named Eric Stoltz was cast to play Marty.  Based off comments by Spielberg and bits of film floating around the internet, it’s clear that Stoltz played Marty with a kind of brooding intensity.  It wasn’t bad, necessarily…but it wasn’t great, either.  Within weeks, Spielberg and the powers-that-be concluded Stoltz simply wasn’t right for the part.  So out went Stoltz, and in came a young Michael J. Fox.  Fox played the character with greater energy, enthusiasm, and comedic sensibility, and the result was one of the most charming movies of all time.

Ultimately, the difference between Stoltz and Fox was that “[Stoltz] saw the drama in things” and that Fox saw the comedy in the things.  The latter was what the film truly needed.

Why am I mentioning this?  Because something similar has happened with the Seleção.

Over the last several days, the following players have left the team either due to injury or personal reasons:

  • Kaka
  • Luis Gustavo
  • Rafinha
  • Douglas Costa

None of these players did anything wrong, and I’m sad for them all that they can’t be there.  Gustavo, despite his limitations, still deserves to be on the squad.  Rafinha is an up-and-coming player who we all want to see more of.  Costa, of course, is perhaps second only to Neymar in terms of skill and dynamism.  And even Kaka is still an enjoyable player to watch who makes his teammates better.  (Even now, I would still take Kaka over Renato Augusto.)

Like Stoltz, these players are all good at what they do.  But their replacements are more like Fox – they’re what the team truly needs.

Now, on the eve of the Copa America, we suddenly have a squad containing Ganso and Lucas Moura (replacing Kaka and Rafinha) with the already-selected Casemiro and Coutinho likely to feature in expanded roles (due to the removal of Gustavo and Costa.)    And that’s not even to mention the other youngsters on the bench: Gabigol, Marquinhos, Rodrigo Caio, etc.

Now, on the eve of the Copa America, I find the tournament much more interesting.

Gotta be a dream

***

Before I go on, let’s take a moment to pump the breaks.  Coutinho, Casemiro, Ganso, and Lucas are all very interesting players, but they’re all extremely unproven players.  They could very well flop.

Similarly, Dunga is still Dunga.  Unlike Spielberg, he didn’t make these changes by choice.  He didn’t recast these parts because something was wrong.  The only reason he made these moves is because, as our own Eric suggested, “God wants Brazil to win the Copa.”

In other words, it’s still entirely possible we could see a starting XI that looks like this:

Brazil Centenario XI

So this sudden spate of changes is no guarantee that Brazil will win the tournament.  In fact, I would be shocked if they do.  (I do think making the finals is a reasonable goal.  Should Brazil win their group, they will likely face a Suarez-less Uruguay in the semifinals.  Brazil won’t go into that game as firm favorites, but it’s certainly a winnable match-up.)

But that’s not why I now find the Copa America worth watching.  “Winning” is not what’s important here.  In fact, as much as it pains me to admit it, even “team success” isn’t what’s important.

For me, this tournament is all about individuals.

***

Since 2005, most people would agree that Brazil has fallen on hard times.  Call it the death of o jogo bonito, call it a lack of ginga, call it whatever you want, but most people, fans and neutrals alike, agree that Brazil has lost pretty much everything that makes Brazil, well…Brazil.

But it isn’t because the Seleção stopped winning.  Since 2005, Brazil has made two World Cup quarterfinals and one semifinal.  They’ve won a Copa America and two Confederations Cups.  They topped the table in World Cup qualifying.  They won a silver medal at the Olympics.  Is that the kind of run Brazil fans want, or expect?  No.  But for a team that’s supposed to be on life support, Brazil’s “down period” would still be the envy of every other country in the world except Germany and maybe one or two others.

Even when Brazil is bad, they’re still better than almost everyone else.

But this relative level of success has come with a price: complacency.  A willingness to prioritize short-term results over long-term glory.  A preference for older veterans who can scratch out Pyrrhic victories over more talented youngsters who could help Brazil build a sustainable future.

In short, the post-Ronaldo era has put more emphasis on clinging to what they already have than on building something even greater.

We’ve talked about this at length, so there’s no point going on.  Suffice it to say that

I’d rather see Brazil lose IF our most talented players are allowed to play…and play well. 

Or to put it another way, check out these two hypothetical scenarios:

Scenario A:

BRAZIL WIN COPA AMERICA AFTER DOUR, DEFENSIVE FINAL

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (AP) – With a record 90,000 spectators looking on, the Brazilian Men’s National Team won their ninth Copa America after a bruising and frequently contentious battle against rivals Argentina.  The game’s lone goal came courtesy of a header scored in the 89th minute by Corinthians star Elias off a corner kick delivered by Chelsea’s Willian. 

While Brazil celebrated the victory, many in the crowd focused on a different record that had been broken: the record for most fouls committed in a Copa America final.  “Fuck off,” Dunga told reporters in his post-match press conference after being asked about this dubious distinction. 

Anticipation was high going into the match given the storied rival between the two nations.  But the contest failed to live up to its billing as both teams seemed more intent on kicking each other than the ball.  Despite creating three times as many scoring opportunities, with twice as many shots on target, Argentina failed to score, losing their third successive final.  On the other end, Brazil seemed perfectly willing to concede the ball and seemed most comfortable on set pieces.  Still, the CBF released a statement contending that the result was a validation of Dunga’s management philosophy and that…..        

Scenario B:

REJUVENATED BRAZIL COME UP SHORT AGAINST URUGUAY

CHICAGO, Ill. (AP) – Despite both teams missing their star players, Brazil and Uruguay produced a thrilling semi-final that ended with Uruguay going through after a last-minute goal scored in extra time. 

Brazil took the lead early on after breakout star Lucas Lima released Willian with a stunning through-ball.  Uruguay equalized twenty minutes later, only for Brazil to once again take the lead after Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho unleashed a screamer from the edge of the box.  But Uruguay won and converted a penalty late in the second half before Edison Cavani defied both the odds and his own fans’ expectations to poke home the winner in extra time. 

With their historic 7-1 loss to Germany still fresh on people’s minds, the loss meant for more heartache for Brazil.  Still, many fans admitted to being heartened by their recent play, which saw a revitalized midfield consisting of Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Lima, Casemiro, and Ganso engage in lightning fast interplay that wowed spectators.  For most of the match, Brazil looked the superior team, only to be let down by their defense after veteran Miranda repeatedly gave the ball away in dangerous situations. 

“It hurts to lose,” said Coutinho, who is rumored to be targeted by Barcelona, PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus, and the People’s Republic of China.  “But the important thing is how we played.  We tried to have fun and move the ball.  Now we have to get ready for qualifiers later this year and try to pick up where we left off.”

Uruguay’s manager, Oscar Tabarez, said that…..     

***

Of course, both these scenarios are extremely unlikely.  Even if Dunga were to trot out the most talented XI imaginable, it would take time for them to develop cohesion.  But to me, Scenario B is endlessly preferable right now…and with the sudden influx of young, talented, technically gifted midfielders, a future that borrows more from Scenario B suddenly seems at least possible.

But for that to happen, all those young, technically gifted midfielders have to play well.  They have to stand out.  Neither Dunga nor the other powers that be have the patience to groom, to cultivate, to develop.  Thus, the Copa America has suddenly become an event where the success of certain individuals takes priority over the success of the entire team…and that is what I’ll be watching for.

Specifically, I’ll be keeping a close eye on these five players:

Lucas Lima

I’ve expressed my reservations about Lucas Lima here and here.  I’ve also made it known how much I love the way he plays.  I was very impressed with his cameo against Panama.  The moment he came into the game, it was clear he was the most proactive, confident passer on the team.  His ratio of forward passes to lateral or back-passes is probably light years ahead of everybody else.  He is always looking to get the ball forward, always looking for teammates in pockets of space, and the result is that Brazil’s tempo immediately increases whenever he’s on the pitch.

So what am I looking for?  Whether he can reproduce the type of game he has showed for Santos – and here and there for Brazil – on a consistent basis, against top opposition, in a high-pressure, physical setting.  I wasn’t wowed by his first few appearances for the Seleção (even though he scored against Argentina, I didn’t think he played all that well), but his second half against Paraguay was extremely encouraging.  More than anyone, more even than Coutinho, Lucas Lima is the one player I most hope establishes himself in this tournament.  Brazil simply hasn’t had a player like him for a very long time.

Dream

Philippe Coutinho

Liverpool fans want only one thing out of Coutinho: consistency.  What I want is something different: assertiveness.  With Neymar, Kaka, and Douglas Costa out, there’s simply no one else on the team with Coutinho’s talent or pedigree except perhaps Willian.  But Coutinho has to show it.  He has to step up, take charge,  be willing to take risks.  He can’t simply “fit in”, can’t hold the door open for others to go through.  Players like Willian and Dani Alves will try to assert themselves as the leaders of the team, but when it’s the 55th minute and Brazil needs a goal and the opposition is pressing hard, Coutinho has to be one to drop back and demand the ball.

In previous appearances for Brazil, Coutinho never really played badly.  I would argue, actually, that he played fairly well in the Copa America after Neymar was suspended.  But more often than not, he just hasn’t made a mark.  More frustrating is the fact that he’s barely looked to make a mark.

There were signs of progress against Panama.  In the first half especially, Coutinho ranged all over the pitch: left, right, high up, deep down.  It wasn’t a dominant performance, but it was a highly effective one.  I saw him attempt more through-balls in that game, saw him consistently look to play the one-two with Jonas, saw him drop deeper than he has in the past.  What I liked most was the speed at which he played.  There was no dithering or dallying, no hemming or hawing.  Dani Alves was the game’s best player, but for about 60 minutes, Coutinho was its brightest spark.

But in the end, it was only Panama.  Can Coutinho do the same thing against Ecuador?  Will he at least try?  Brazil’s fate hangs in the balance.

Accomplish anythingCasemiro

That he is a stalwart defender has already been proven (especially after outstanding performances against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, for my money the two best teams in the world.)[2]  But as I wrote here, Brazil has been cursed by too many specialists.  If Casemiro is nothing but a destroyer, well…that might make him the hero Brazil deserves, but not the one it needs right now.  I don’t expect him to start spraying passes around the pitch; don’t expect him to be Gerson or Pirlo or even Dunga.  But he has to offer something more than what Gustavo does, or Gilberto Silva before.  I want to see him look comfortable on the ball, want to see him distribute quickly and effectively.  I want to know he’s not just a robber of possession, but a keeper of it.

The fact is that in modern football, the deepest-lying midfielder must act as more than a wall.  He has to be a hub connecting the front line to the back line.  It may be too much to expect Casemiro to be a conductor…but I at least want to know that he’s not the brakes.

Gabigol

Within ten minutes of coming on against Panama, Gabigol scored a fine, composed goal.  It was a brilliant start to his international career.  Other than that, he didn’t really do much.  But that’s okay, because Gabigol should have the absolute least amount of pressure of anyone on the team.  He’s nineteen.  He doesn’t need to be Brazil’s savior yet; he doesn’t even need to be a starter.

So why do I include him on this list?  Because he is likely to see playing time now, which means we’ll have an opportunity to see what he’s made of.  Does he have the technique to play at this level?  Does he have the pace?  Does he have the stamina? 

Gabigol might end up having a completely nondescript tournament.  If so, that’s fine.  He’s got plenty of time to become more than what he is.  On the other hand, Pele was a teenager during his first international tournament.  Ronaldo was a teenager when he sat on the ’94 team’s bench.  Neymar was a teenager when he was first called up.

Gabigol is probably not made of the same stuff.  If so, that’s fine.  He’ll still have an important part to play in the future.  But if there’s any chance he is made of the same stuff, this will be his opportunity to show it.

More practically, a decent showing here might mean Dunga can stop farting around with the Tardellis and Oliveiras of the world.

Willian

Willian is neither young, nor has his role been impacted by the recent spate of withdrawals.  So why do I include him?

Because he’s been Brazil’s best player for the last year – but that says more about Brazil than it says about him.  He’s had a number of excellent games, but he’s also had some real stinkers.  He was excellent against Venezuela but mediocre against Argentina.  Had a mind-blowing friendly against the U.S. but failed to pick up Neymar’s slack in last year’s Copa America.

Willian is a very good player.  He’s a good dribbler, a good passer, a hard-worker.  But can he be more than that?  For Chelsea, it seemed for a few months like he could.  But he tailed off significantly towards the end of the season, and his ludicrous streak of set-piece goals was probably something of a fluke.[3]

With Neymar out and Douglas Costa hurt, Willian has another chance to prove he’s something more than just a good player.  He has another opportunity to become a talisman.  So I include him on the list because he stands on the precipice of stardom…with the yawning chasm of “good, but not great” waiting to swallow him up if he takes a wrong step.

***

So there you have it.  What seemed more like an obligation just a few weeks ago has suddenly become a golden opportunity.  Of course, Dunga is Dunga.  Maybe nothing I just wrote about happens.  Maybe Dunga never gives it the change to happen.

But at least now I have something to hope for.  Now I have a reason to watch beyond “simply being a fan.”

In the movie, Marty McFly had to set his parents’ past right in order to preserve his own future.  For Brazil, the only future I care about is one that resembles its own past.

So bring on the Copa America…and here’s to going Back to the Future.

Roads

(Why yes, I did just re-watch the movie a few nights ago.  How did you know?)


 

[1] Whether the Centenario is truly a “major” tournament is open for debate; I decided to be generous on this occasion.

[2] And yes, that includes Real Madrid.  The best team doesn’t always win.

[3] Willian is good at set pieces.  But is he that good?  I doubt it.