As Cup looms, Brazil hopes to extend magic ride that began in '94
Fifteen years ago last month, the U.S. played host to an important moment in soccer history.
Of all five of Brazil's World Cup wins, USA 1994 was probably the least glamorous. The team didn't play with the style and swagger of 1958 or '70, and for all the superb strike combinations of
Nevertheless, USA '94 is a key moment in the recent development of the Brazilian game. A quick before and after makes the case. Going into the tournament, Brazil had gone 24 years without winning the World Cup, or even reaching the final. Subsequently, it reached the final in '98, and won the competition once more in 2002.
But as of '94, Brazil astonishingly had never even won the Copa América on foreign soil. After losing the '95 final on penalties, Brazil since has won in Bolivia in '97, Paraguay in '99, Peru in '04 and Venezuela two years ago -- four wins in the last five tournaments. Add to that the Confederations Cup successes in '97, '05 and, of course, this year.
That makes '94 a big moment. It's the time when the Brazilian national team got its confidence back. The storm clouds had been on the horizon since April 1963, when Belgium beat a strong Brazil lineup 5-1 in a friendly. Northern European soccer was on the rise, and its high-tempo rhythm, physical intensity and growing tactical awareness would present a new challenge. Eleven years later, in the '74 World Cup, the Netherlands made true on the threat, beating Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil with an authority that instantly made old-style South American soccer obsolete.
It took Brazil more than two decades to hit on the response. In '78, it tried to copy the Dutch. In '82 and, to a lesser extent '86, it tried to go with traditional strengths, and in '90 it went with a sweeper system, a la Italy, or Argentina's back three from '86.
In '94, the Brazilians found the formula. Coach
But there were innovations. The Brazilian game long had put great emphasis on physical preparation. But with the country's economy opening up, it was now possible to import more sophisticated machinery. Brazil's excellent conditioning staff thus was able to draw up individual programs for the players to ensure they peaked at the right time.
The fullbacks were given license to roam forward, keep the pitch wide and supply crosses into the penalty box. Attacking fullbacks were already part of the Brazilian tradition, but now, to ensure they could burst forward without leaving the team unprotected, the two central midfielders took on extra defensive responsibilities.
Physically prepared and tactically organized, Brazil was the only team that summer that -- in the hot temperatures of places such as Stanford Stadium, Dallas' Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl -- was able to maintain an efficient balance between attack and defense. The attack was based on the individual talent and collective combination of Romário and Bebeto. At the other end, the Brazilians conceded just four goals in the competition, despite being deprived of the three leading center backs:
When the tournament came to a close with
But there was a difference, one brought on by two factors: First, job security for Brazilian club coaches was (and still is) very precarious. The threat of being fired lead to an excessive fear of defeat, which increased the tendency to clog up the center of midfield with markers. Second, there weren't too many players around with the same quality as Mauro Silva and Dunga. The outcome was that many clubs were essentially fielding defenders in the midfield. In front of their center backs, they had another pair of center backs.
The problem became apparent in the national team in the build-up to the next World Cup, held in France in '98. Who would replace Mauro Silva and Dunga? The passing years meant that perhaps one of the two could play, but not both. In the end, Brazil went for Dunga, who had the added bonus of his inspirational leadership. Mauro Silva was replaced by the plodding and rather ordinary
And the Brazil coaching staff was guilty of glaring self-deception in the case of Dunga. Deep down, they must have been aware he didn't have enough gas in the tank at age 34 to last another World Cup -- but this was conveniently forgotten because they thought he was indispensable. It inevitably ended in tears, with
This issue has yet to be entirely resolved. Recently, '70 great-turned-pundit
I would argue humbly that it's not a case of either-or. One is true because the other is. First comes the idea -- the concept that the central midfielder is there to defend. Players are then selected in accordance with the demands. Some three years ago, I asked
What had happened to the likes of
There is plenty of talent in other positions. The last World Cup side was overloaded with top-class attacking options: Ronaldo and
That coach, of course, was Parreira, the very man who had found the formula in the U.S. 12 years earlier. Parreira always had been a coach whose sides were characterized by their possession game. But the dynamic of the very movement he had unleashed left him with a side ill-suited to exercise controlled possession.
In the wake of Romário and Bebeto, lots of attacking stars had emerged. So too had millions of dollars from Nike, also attracted by that '94 win, which helped raise their global profile. But in central midfield, Parreira was fielding
During that '06 World Cup, Dunga appeared as a pundit on Brazilian TV. One of his main criticisms was that the team was not a typical Parreira side, in that the team was clearly unable to play a game based on retaining possession of the ball.
A month later, to general surprise, Dunga was announced as Parreira's replacement. Since then, Brazil has gone even further away from a possession-based game. As the recent Confederations Cup made abundantly clear, Brazil's present-day weapons are a variety of well-worked set pieces and a devastating counterattack.
"The team is unable to exchange passes in midfield," wrote Tostão after a World Cup qualifier at Uruguay at the start of June. Uruguay kept the pressure on, and had forced 15 corners to Brazil's two. No matter, Brazil won 4-0. The team is on top of South America's 2010 World Cup qualification table, it won the '07 Copa América even without its biggest stars and it just added the Confederations Cup this past June.
Will it be good enough to land the big prize on its return to South Africa for next year's World Cup? Or has time moved on, exposing Brazil as too limited in central midfield to beat the best when it matters? That promises to be one of the many fascinating questions at the first African World Cup, where a new chapter will be written in a story that began 15 years ago when Brazil set off on a run of success by striking gold in America.