Flashback to July 8, 2014, at the Mineirao in the sweltering heat of Belo Horizonte: the Germans were showcasing the best of the modern game — pace, precision and penetration. They were ruthless. Their game had something demonstrative. The Brazilians’ humiliation was so visual, so graphic. They were no longer the spiritual masters of the game.
The following day, at a press conference back at Granja Comary, Brazil’s base camp 50 miles north of Rio de Janiero, Luiz Felipe Scolari offered a graphic response to the humiliation. The defiant head coach of the Selecao waved around a simplified data sheet: Brazil had a win rate of 68 per cent in the 2013-14 season, and 73 per cent in official games. Scolari’s rationale was intransigent: the defeat was an isolated accident, a sequestered six minutes of footballing incompetence. Brazil’s preparations had been nigh perfect: a Confederations Cup win, the performances in friendlies, the professional demeanour of the players and the work of the technical staff.
“The 7-1 that Brazil suffered at the hands of Germany is very much part of the statistics,” says Claudio Taffarel, Brazil’s goalkeeping coach. “It was sour and it was really a strong blow that Brazil and Brazilian football in general suffered, but one that has been accepted and that unfortunately can’t be erased.” Brazil’s process of recovery and renovation was truncated. The Brazilian FA, the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (CBF), resorted to a familiar name — Dunga. The 1994 Cup-winning captain had managed the national side during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. His team was well organised and clinical, but emotionally unhinged. Trailing the Netherlands 2-1 in the quarterfinal, he nearly smashed the dugout. Dunga collapsed emotionally, and his team disintegrated. Felipe Melo, the left-back, was sent off and Brazil crashed out of the tournament.
A need for change
The reappointment of Dunga — Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri — was startling. Not only was he the high priest of counter-attacking — an insult to Brazil’s football culture — he also advocated a win-at-all-costs mentality. His team always prioritised the result. In the 2015 Copa America, Dunga played six central defenders to protect the result against Venezuela, a minnow in South America.
But his second reign was the sign of a deeper crisis in Brazilian football. The environment demanded a fresh approach, new ideas and innovation, but, by reverting to Dunga, the CBF seemed to consider the 7-1 humiliation an anomaly in Brazil’s storied history.
“It was a surprise when he was reappointed,” explains Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil’s 1994 World Cup-winning coach. “When Felipão [Scolari] left — and he needed to after that disappointment — the press began talking about new names and who was going to be the new coach of Brazil — Dunga was never in the picture. It was a surprise when they appointed him. People were supporting Tite at the time. He came back and in the beginning it was good, but during the qualifiers, it wasn’t so. The team wasn’t playing with much self-confidence. The performances weren’t good and you know the Brazilian press: they had a lot of criticism, and so Tite came.”
Born Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, Tite, appointed in the summer of 2016, was the coach that the local game and the national team had long craved for. In 2012, he guided Brazilian giants Corinthians to victory in the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League, and the Club World Cup. His team trumped Chelsea 1-0 in Yokohama. Corinthians’ strengths were discipline, organisation and tactical awareness. At times, Tite was accused of being a ‘retranqueiro’, a pejorative term for a defensive-minded coach who shows little interest in developing a more expansive game style.
The public’s assessment was ill-judged. Corinthians played compact football, but the balance was simply tilted towards defence.
In 2001, Tite had made his names, playing a 3-5-2 with Gremio, but he didn’t stick with the formation. At Internacional, Porto Alegre’s other big club, he studied a classic European 4-4-2 with Argentine Andres D’Alessandro in the No.10 role. Corinthians’ success was built on 4-1-4-1.
Tite’s biggest virtue is his capacity to learn, his curiosity to develop. That isn’t straightforward in Brazilian football culture, where winning is everything. The Brazilian game is deeply conservative. At the club level, pragmatism has long prevailed — the next game always needs to be won. The culture doesn’t stimulate learning or coach education. At the international level, Brazil last played with a romantic ideal at the 1982 World Cup, when Tele Santana’s mythical team that included Zico and Socrates was cruelly defeated by Italy and Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick.
Brazil’s coach took a sabbatical after his success at Corinthians. The incessant demands from fans and the press had taken their toll, Brazilian football was stagnant and his teams needed more attacking prowess. Tite visited Europe and gleaned ideas from elite coaches Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti. Transformed, he returned to Corinthians in 2015, winning the Brazilian league in record-breaking style. Tite’s Corinthians 2.0 had the best defence and the best attack. They were beautiful to watch.
The formation remained 4-1-4-1, but the complexion was different. Out on the wing, Jadson had the key role, akin to the role Mathieu Valbuena had with the French national team, drifting inside and in-between the lines. Jadson created numerical superiority in the midfield and allowed Corinthians to play in the opponents’ half. They pressed, passed, combined and triangulated, but always maintained good balance. They embodied Tite’s philosophy ‘Merece vencer’ [Deserve to win]. The performance must prevail over the result.
A progressive coach
Today, all those hallmarks are visible in Tite’s Brazil. He turned the World Cup qualifiers into a victory parade. He pushed the entire team 15 metres up-field, introduced Real Madrid’s Casemiro in the midfield and exploited Gabriel Jesus’ pace up front. They breezed past their continental rivals to top the South American World Cup qualifiers. Tite is Brazil’s first progressive coach since Mano Menezes.
The World Cup, however, will be the ultimate benchmark for Tite and his Brazil. Anything but victory will be deemed a failure. Neymar — his fitness is in doubt — is Brazil’s marquee player, the one who at club level must break the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly and restore Brazil’s image on the global scene. Repeatedly, Neymar had made the headlines for his petulance in the Brazil shirt rather than his unquestionable talent. It’s a delicate exercise for Tite to not indulge him too much.
In March, Brazil recorded a symbolic 1-0 victory against Germany — without Neymar. It had matched the defending world champion, playing modern football, not overly elaborate, but with balanced pressing, passing and positioning. Tite beamed, but he knows that a World Cup is unforgiving — one bad game and you’re out.
“For Tite, it meant that Brazil is 100 per cent prepared for the World Cup,” said Edu Gaspar, Brazil’s technical coordinator. “To play [friendlies] against England, Germany, Russia is part of our preparation. When you play against them, at that level of game and we do well, as we did, you feel comfortable towards the future, and comfortable and strong as a team as well. So, that is the most important thing, that’s what we expect to do for the World Cup.”
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