Tim Vickery
Wednesday March 9th, 2011

RIO DE JANEIRO -- I took a wander from my apartment here on Monday and one of the first people I saw was Ronaldinho, sitting enjoying a leisurely beer in a temporary break from the revelries of Carnaval. Seated to his right was another Ronaldinho, doing the same thing. On his left, yet another ...

In truth, they were all just people wearing Ronaldinho masks, one of the big hits of this year's festivities. But the real thing has been just as omnipresent, making up in 2011 for all those carnivals he missed while he was freezing on the other side of the Atlantic. Ronaldinho has been seen at carnival balls and taken part in the giant samba parade and in street processions. Rio de Janeiro has quickly taken him to its heart -- or certainly the fans of Flamengo have.

This column noted in January that starring for Brazil's most popular club would give him a powerful platform in his search for an international recall, and that's been the case. It is still very early in his time back in Brazil. He has faced only tiny teams so far in the Rio State Championship, with the exception of the 1-1 draw and subsequent victory on penalties over Botafogo. He still looks like a shadow of the player who delighted fans all over the world with his displays for Barcelona around the middle of the last decade. But his technical quality is beyond doubt, he has scored some goals and he has yet to be on the losing side. And so last week, when national team coach Mano Menezes called up the Brazil squad for a friendly against Scotland, there was already a lobby pulling in Ronaldinho's favor.

Menezes ignored the pressure, though, and was surely right to do so. He had selected Ronaldinho against Argentina last November. On that occasion, he said, he had made it quite clear what the player had to do to stay in contention. This can have only one meaning -- that Brazil's coach is demanding a higher level of fitness. Ronaldinho, Menezes acknowledged, was moving in the right direction, and provided he kept doing so, he would naturally return to the squad.

The challenge has been thrown down. Can Ronaldinho stay fit and motivated, or will he be seduced by temptations? It promises to be a fascinating story to follow over the next few months.

In the immediate future, though, the omission of Robinho from the Brazil squad is far more interesting. The Milan striker has always been included under Menezes. He was the team captain. Now, from leading the team out, Robinho has been left out altogether -- an astonishing demotion. What might be the explanation?

Menezes offered no convincing argument in last week's news conference. He talked of giving the player a rest -- it is unlikely that Robinho sees his omission in such bland terms. The coach made a point of saying that he is counting on Robinho for the Copa America, held in Argentina in July. On this basis, it is possible to see Robinho's omission as a one-off punishment, a consequence of what happened last month when Brazil lost to France 1-0.

It was a game that turned on the first-half red card awarded to Lazio midfielder Hernanes -- another significant omission from the squad to face Scotland. More than the sending off, what may have concerned Menezes was the reaction of his men. Brazil seemed more interested in yelling at the referee than in searching for an equalizing goal. As captain, Robinho had a responsibility to set the tone for the side, but instead of helping the team focus, he was leading the protests, even pulling the referee by the shirt at one stage.

It was eerily reminiscent of Brazil's antics in the second half of last year's World Cup quarterfinal against Holland, when Brazil players lost their heads and lost a game that had seemed theirs for the taking. A repeat performance in a friendly is a worrying sign. On home ground in 2014, the stakes will be sky high and the Brazil team will be under unprecedented pressure. Losing focus for 20 minutes could end the World Cup dream. If Menezes has cut Robinho from the squad to reinforce this message, then he has made a smart move.

And as Robinho checks out -- temporarily at least -- three of his World Cup colleagues are back in the squad for the first time since that loss to Holland in South Africa. Right back Maicon, center back Lucio and midfielder Elano have all been recalled.

Menezes announced that this was likely to happen when he was first appointed last July. The advanced age of the 2010 World Cup squad meant that there was an urgent need for experimentation, with fresh young faces being given a chance. That was phase one. Now Mano Menezes' Brazil is in phase two, the build-up to the Copa America -- the biggest competitive test that Brazil will have at the senior level before the next World Cup.

In phase one, results were not so important. Now that changes. A good Copa America will give everyone a boost on the road to 2014 -- and will also do wonders for the job security of the coach. Despite losing to France and Argentina in the last two games, Menezes is not yet under pressure. But that could change if a bad run of results were to continue into the Copa America. This, then, is a moment when the team could do with a little more experience.

Maicon's recall might be something of a surprise -- Daniel Alves at right back has been one of the great successes of the Menezes era. It might allow an experiment with Daniel Alves pushed forward to the right of midfield in the coach's favorite 4-2-3-1 formation. Muddying the waters here is the fact that Menezes believes that the versatile Elano is best used as a wide right midfielder.

The most significant recall would seem to be that of Lucio, for a decade such an inspirational force at center back. It is unlikely that he has been brought back to sit on the bench, so his inclusion is likely to split up the Thiago Silva-David Luiz combination that has formed the heart of Brazil's defense in all its post-World Cup games.

Some might see playing all three as an option. It looks unlikely. Menezes is not known as a fan of the three center-back system. Most probable is that David Luiz will drop to the bench. Chelsea's recent acquisition is good on the ball, but as a defender he is still a work in progress -- as France's Karim Benzema showed in last month's friendly.

Lucio, meanwhile, brings defensive solidity and leadership. He will be 36 at the next World Cup, and age may rule him out of contention. But he could have a part to play in the Copa America -- where Ronaldinho, if he stays fit and focused, might hope to supply some Carnaval magic.

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