Skip to main content

Dunga's Brazil concerned only with winning, not earning style points


Monday is the 40th anniversary of one of the most precious moments in the history of Brazilian soccer. It was on June 21, 1970, that the national team beat Italy 4-1 in the final of the Mexico World Cup to claim the title for the third time.

Man for man, there is little doubt that Brazil's 1958 team was better. And the achievement of winning the tournament in Sweden, still the only time the South Americans have triumphed in Europe, was the more impressive. But the 1970 boys have a powerful ally on their side -- television. Theirs was the first World Cup to be broadcast live all around the planet. In the bright Mexican sunshine, Brazil's yellow shirts dazzled the world. Ever since, that 1970 team has set the standard by which subsequent Brazil sides are measured -- and usually found wanting.

Brazil has since found itself with an obligation not only to win but also to do so in style. In an increasingly pragmatic age, this is a difficult horse to ride. Come out to play open, expansive football and the opponent will sit back, negate and frustrate, and find plenty of space available to launch the occasional deadly counterattack.

It is not always possible to fulfill the twin obligations. And of the two, there is no doubt which is the more important.

Put 10 Brazilians in a room and ask them if they would prefer to win ugly or lose beautiful, and the probability is that all of them will go for option No. 1.

Noted Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Da Matta helps explain why this is so. He argues that the most important aspect of the game in Brazilian culture is "the dramatization of victory, in a society in which the majority never win. Most of the population is formed by people who earn very little." The contrast is heightened in the Portuguese language, where the verb for "to earn" is the same as the one for "to win."

Anyone who believes that in Brazilian soccer having fun is more important than winning has little experience of the real thing.

The 1982 team, for example, is still revered all over the world for the beauty of its play. Back home, it was vilified after the tournament, with coach Tele Santana jeered in the street. It is often commented that the side that won the 1994 World Cup did not enthuse many Brazilians. But the victory certainly did. The party was immense -- as it is after every game won in the World Cup, be it a labored triumph over North Korea or something more convincing against Ivory Coast.

Winning, then, is more important than style. They might be obligations of unequal weight. But the tension between them still exists. And stuck right in the middle of it is the national team coach.

Being in charge of Brazil is a lot like sitting in a coconut shy. Things are going to be thrown in your direction, some of them heavy and unpleasant.

The artillery is particularly fierce at the moment, despite a run that has seen Brazil accumulate two years of excellent results and then take that form into the World Cup. The Brazil camp in South Africa is not for the faint-hearted.

First, this is because of the style of the team. Coach Dunga makes no concessions on the style debate -- he is on record as arguing that this obligation that Brazil has to play pretty soccer is nothing more than a European plot to ensure it never wins. His team can count on some dazzling individual talent, highlighted by the shooting of Maicon and Luis Fabiano in the opening two games. There is also no lack of goals. But Brazil does not waste energy looking good. For long periods it can come across as labored and ordinary, with interplay and passing in midfield that is a pale shadow of the much-loved teams of the past. But it is big and strong, physically and mentally tough. The 2010 model might be difficult to love, but it is even harder to beat.

Dunga took over after the failure of the big names in Germany 2006. At first, his "team-over-stars" philosophy was applauded. Before long, though, Dunga, like his predecessors, was being impaled on the twin obligations of winning with style.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Dunga makes no attempt to schmooze the press. Quite the contrary. He seems to treat them as an enemy, to be ridiculed or attacked.

This is in part the consequence of his own history. After the 1990 World Cup, he bore the brunt of the team's failure. The holding midfielder in the side, he became the symbol of the lack of flair in a team that managed only four goals in four games. He was given an especially hard time by the press, and has never forgotten.

Also, it is the consequence of his own nature. He became a very good midfielder, a World Cup-winning captain in 1994. Much more than natural talent, this was the product of sheer hard work, fueled by the desire to prove people wrong. It would seem that this, more than anything else, is what makes Dunga tick. In 1994, he held the trophy aloft with a volley of abuse aimed at those who had doubted him or the team -- and 16 years on he coaches Brazil in the same spirit. He needs an enemy, and the press fulfill this role.

Under Carlos Alberto Parreira in 2006, it is true that the press enjoyed too much access to the players. The explosion of cable TV, with its endless roundtable discussions, proved a problem -- it would ask for players to participate at moments that occasionally interfered with training sessions.

Dunga was justified in cutting back on press access. But he has done it with glee. Whether it is constructive criticism or ill-informed character assassination that he receives, he appears to put it all in the same basket. In his press conference after the Ivory Coast match, he was seen swearing at journalists. On Sunday night, Brazil's powerful TV Globo registered its disapproval of his behavior.

The Brazilian media were gunning for Dunga three years ago during the Copa America in Venezuela -- until his team beat Argentina 3-0 in the final and they applauded him afterward.

Now the stakes are higher. If his team hold aloft the trophy on July 11, then Dunga will gain a far bigger round of applause. Any other result and he will be vilified as the coach who came up with the worst possible combination -- no win and no style, the opposite of what the Brazilians served up 40 years ago.