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Nearly year after Germany 7, Brazil 1, Dunga has Selecão turning corner

SANTIAGO, Chile – All Brazilians will remember where they were that Tuesday–perhaps in a bar, the jokes and the beer flowing ever faster as people tried to make light, if not sense, of what was happening on the TV screen above their heads. Or maybe in the stands at the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, the pre-match adrenalin and cheers replaced by disbelief and bitter tears. Germany 7-1 Brazil; July 8, 2014–the day the lights went out on Brazilian soccer.

It is almost a year on from that harrowing afternoon now, and as Brazil prepares to face Colombia in a key Copa America group stage clash Wednesday night, thoughts are naturally drawn back not only to that defeat, but also the game that preceded it, when a 2-1 win over James Rodriguez and Co. cast a rosy, optimistic glow over the country’s World Cup chances. Considering what was to come next, it seems hard to believe now that David Luiz was the toast of the nation that evening, after scoring a thrumming free-kick to cap a stirring triumph over Jose Pekerman’s team.

It was to prove a pyrrhic victory though, with Thiago Silva and Neymar ruled out of the Germany game–the former through suspension and the latter through injury, after Colombia’s Juan Zuniga’s brutish challenge shattered a vertebra. Even today it is not hard to find a few hardy, not to say delusional, patriots who like to argue that Brazil would not have lost the semifinal had Silva and its young Hector been available.

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But less muddled heads knew that Brazil’s woes ran deeper. There's the deep financial crisis wracking the country’s underperforming clubs; the withering influence of the game’s governing body, the CBF, a number of whose senior figures are now deeply embroiled in the FIFA corruption scandal.

The federation seemed content to fiddle while Brazilian soccer burned, resting on the glories of the past and refusing to even contemplate the kind of reinvention that had led Spain and Germany to global dominance over the previous decade.

Nor should a painful lack of tactical innovation in recent years, which had seen those two countries leave the país do futebol trailing in their wake, be overlooked.

“Belo Horizonte witnessed a clash between two eras of soccer. The past and the future on the same pitch. A state of the art smart phone against pigeon mail, old, tired and sick,” wrote the journalist Andre Kfouri in Lance! Magazine, Brazil’s leading soccer daily, after the Germany defeat. Almost a year on from such dark days, it now seems as fitting a time as any to look at how Brazil has rebuilt from its footballing ground zero.

The World Cup had thrown Brazil’s recent failings into stark relief, and the cries for major reform were loud and insistent. Against such a backdrop, the CBF’s announcement that Scolari’s replacement as national team coach was to be none other than old anti-favorite Dunga, last seen beating seven bells out of the dugout in Port Elizabeth as Brazil slid out of the 2010 World Cup against the Netherlands, understandably left many of the country’s fans and sportswriters stupefied.

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“Brazil needs a coach with scientific knowledge and the wisdom of a good observer, a pleasant manner, someone who is independent and creative…You can forget that! It was just a fantasy and now it’s gone. The reality is different. The reality is tragic. The reality is Dunga,” wrote Tostão, one of the stars of the 1970 World Cup winning team, in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper after the appointment.

And yet. It is almost 11 months now since Dunga took over–a period in which Brazil has rattled off 11 wins in a row, including friendly victories over Colombia, Argentina, France and Chile, and now Sunday’s Copa America debut triumph over Peru. Neymar, the country’s one remaining world-class talent, has arguably never played better, and a few wobbles against Peru apart, Brazil has looked defensively solid.

While no one will confuse the Dunga Generation with the great (or even the not so great) Brazilian sides of the past, equally it is hard to imagine this organized, combative side experiencing the kind of tactical and emotional collapse that Scolari’s motley crew suffered against Germany. 

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In terms of personnel, the changes have been subtle but significant, with the solid and unshowy (Miranda and Filipe Luis) coming in for the buccaneering if sometimes wayward (Marcelo and Thiago Silva–the wayward in the latter’s case being emotional, rather than technical, after his weepy World Cup wobbles). Willian has established himself as first choice on the right of midfield, and had a strong game against Peru, while lively youngster Fred is currently battling it out with Philippe Coutinho for a starting spot on the other flank.

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But it is up front where the Dunga Redux era has so far been defined. While reported Manchester United target Roberto Firmino has done well when called upon, the coach’s first choice to play alongside the peerless Neymar is, for many people, a curious, not to say a frustrating one.

Diego Tardelli, a 30-year-old striker who plays for Shandong Luneng, has had an odd, inconsistent career, wearing the colors of 10 clubs over the last decade, and arguably only truly starring at Belo Horizonte side Atletico Mineiro.

Such an underwhelming track record and some discrete performances for the national side have made Tardelli the target of fierce criticism from Brazilian fans, many of whom see him as another striking stooge in the manner of World Cup flop Fred, a man considered unfit to follow in the footsteps of the greats of the past.

“Even though he hasn’t played for three years, Adriano is still a better striker than Tardelli!” tweeted one angry local during the Peru game, when Tardelli admittedly looked out of sorts.

Such criticism, however, overlooks the pragmatic nature of the man in charge of Brazil these days. Whatever his failings in terms of pedigree or talent, Tardelli is a highly modern footballer, covering tremendous amounts of ground and as likely to be found starting off a move from close to his own team’s defensive left flank as finishing it off in the penalty area.

For Drill Sergeant Dunga, Tardelli’s work rate, tactical versatility and movement are clearly qualities to be cherished, and even with the player’s starting place seemingly in jeopardy, the coach defended his man after Sunday’s game with Peru. “The important thing is to be collectively strong, and make sure the team is on the right track,” Dunga growled, a variant on one of his most oft repeated sayings – “there is no room for individuals on my team.”

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The situation also, perhaps sadly, reflects the modern reality of the Seleção. Tardelli is no Neymar, Messi or Alexis Sanchez, and fans can howl and rage at his presence in the team all they want, for it is unlikely to make much difference.

Dunga’s other options, the youthful Firmino or perhaps Sunday’s goal scoring substitute Douglas Costa, do not seem to offer significant short-term upgrades. 

Despite his limitations, Tardelli may be the best Brazil has to offer alongside Neymar, by default.

The arch anti-jogo bonito fantasist, Dunga knows perhaps better than anyone that now more than ever is the time for the country to cut its coat according to its rather more spartan cloth. “We can’t think we’re the best…we have to have the humility to accept that others (such as Germany) have worked for years to be among the best,” he said after taking the job.

He used the same word – humility – before the Peru game, in which his team, Neymar and Willian aside, was uncharacteristically messy. The coach has promised a better performance against Colombia Wednesday. While those seeking the expansive glories of the past may sniff, in these times of skinny cows, to borrow a local expression, Dunga’s unglamorous, limited but hard-working side, which unlike Scolari’s team is at least aware of its own weaknesses, may represent Brazil’s best chance of success.

It is not the revolution that anyone dreamt of after 7-1, but it is a revolution of sorts.