Serious soccer back in South Africa

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With less than eight months until the 2010 World Cup, the South African national team has made a change. Joel Santana was removed as coach and replaced by fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had resigned some 18 months earlier.

It could be a forward step. It might be a backward one. It's certainly proving controversial. Many in South Africa are happy to see Santana go, but unhappy at the return of Parreira. They have not been impressed by the results under the Brazilian pair, and think that the time has come to put a local man in the top job.

Just a few months ago, Santana seemed poised to become a South African hero as his side held Brazil at bay for 88 minutes in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. But he has been brought down by the subsequent run of poor results in friendly matches, which seems a little harsh on this highly likable man. So Santana is deprived of the World Cup, and we are all deprived of his spirited, but not very competent, attempts to speak English in the postmatch press conferences.

Perhaps Santana was always on a fast track to nowhere. Along with his limited language skills, his lack of international experience counted against him. He suffered from a credibility problem. I frequently received calls from South African radio stations whose reporters were unimpressed with his résumé. I had to explain that in Brazilian domestic soccer, it's entirely normal for coaches to switch clubs frequently. These days, staying in charge of a big Brazilian club for an entire year is a considerable achievement.

But Santana is gone and Parreira is back. South Africa should know what it's getting. The veteran coach began the build-up toward 2010, only to resign when his wife fell ill. His assistants remained in place, and it was Parreira who recommended Santana, so underneath the chopping and changing, there has been considerable continuity.

There is no doubt, though, that switching the man at the top does make a difference -- and one that should be to South Africa's benefit. Parreira is a much more polished, cosmopolitan figure than Santana. He speaks excellent English, is a shrewd political operator and has no credibility problem whatsoever.

Although he was never a player, there are very few coaches with a résumé as deep as Parreira's. He coached in Ghana in the late 1960s, was on the physical-preparation staff of Brazil's great 1970 team, took Brazil to victory in the '94 World Cup (and to defeat in '06) and has also been to the competition in charge of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

He would seem the ideal choice to mend fences with Benni McCarthy, the star striker whom Santana left out of the squad as a result of disciplinary problems. Parreira has been there before. In the run-up to the '94 World Cup, it was Romário who was creating problems. The temperamental little striker reacted angrily to coming back from Europe for a friendly and spending the game on the bench. So he was dropped -- but was brought back when needed.

Come the World Cup, Parreira arranged for Romário to share hotel rooms with ultra-combative midfielder Dunga (now Brazil's coach), who helped keep him get on the right track. Romário went on to score five goals at USA '94 and was voted outstanding player of the tournament, which Brazil won for the first time in 24 years.

But even if Parreira can work a similar act of man-management with McCarthy, it's unlikely he'll be able to meet all the expectations in Africa's inaugural World Cup. To an extent, it would appear that both Parreira and especially Santana are victims of the myth of Brazil. There's something about soccer in the land of samba that sends people weak at the knees, and can turn even the intelligent into drooling buffoons.

Franklin Foer gave us a splendid example in his generally excellent How Soccer Explains the World. "Brazil became an international power," he wrote, "because it played without the rigid strategic strictures of continental soccer. Positions, formations and defense weren't valued nearly so much as spontaneity, cleverness and scoring goals."

A more erroneous pair of sentences would be hard to find. Brazil did indeed have plenty of spontaneity, cleverness and goal-scoring. But one of the reasons this flowered so much was exactly because so much thought had gone into positions, formation and defense.

Brazil's first World Cup win, in '58. featured the back four, a defensive formation pioneered in the country. It involved an extra player dropping to the heart of the defense to provide cover, and also pushed the fullbacks wider and enabled them to push forward. With a defensive midfielder in front of the center backs to provide protection, Brazil didn't concede a goal until the semifinals.

But the 4-2-4 system put a great strain on the midfield two. So left winger Mário Zagallo, in '58 and especially in '62, funneled back to make an extra man in that part of the field and create a 4-3-3. In '70, when Zagallo was coach, his big idea was that when Brazil lost possession, the entire lineup, with the exception of the center forward, should drop behind the line of the ball. Today, Zagallo is happy to see his formation labeled 4-5-1.

The hopelessly naïve Foer's view of Brazil (and I reiterate that his book is excellent) shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the game. In order for spontaneity and cleverness to shine, there must be order -- made very clear recently by the differences between Lionel Messi's performances for Barcelona and Argentina.

Brazil's wonderful attacking players have provided the spontaneity and cleverness, while the coaches have supplied the order and the balance. They have done this as part of a collective structure that showed a pioneering approach to sports science. England went to the '62 World Cup in Chile without so much as a doctor. Zagallo nearly fell off his chair when I told him that one, as well he might. In '58, Brazil had a battery of doctors, a dentist and even experimented (prematurely as it proved) with a sports psychologist. And this is the culture in which Parreira is steeped.

The South Africans, then, might have expected some carnival exuberance, but got a technocrat instead. This doesn't mean they've been shortchanged. Barring a miracle, South Africa is not going to win next year's World Cup, and is unlikely to set the tournament ablaze with a display of attacking brilliance. But the Bafana Bafana should make a solid showing and cement a long-term legacy.

When he first took the South Africa job, Parreira was horrified by the lack of youth-development work in the country. If this has subsequently been put right, and if Brazil's advanced methods of physical preparation catch on, then in the near future, a South African coach will be able to take over with the nation's game at a higher level -- which will mean that the investment in Parreira, Santana and their backup staff was money well spent.