Football at its best

This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.

In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.

The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.

For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.

The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.

The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.

It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.

Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.

With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.

While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.

In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.

To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.

Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.

Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.

To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.

Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.

The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.

Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.

The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.

Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.

 

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Adiós, Osorio

After over a month of humming and hawing, back and forth and ‘will he, won’t he?’, Juan Carlos Osorio has resigned from his post as São Paulo head coach. The Colombian will take over the Mexican national team, whose World Cup qualification campaign begins next month.

The feeling is one of a missed opportunity for Brazilian football. Having arrived in São Paulo at the end of May, Osorio has not had nearly enough time to make a lasting impression on the league. Continue reading Adiós, Osorio

Sending off and on again

Chapecoense have taken an early lead against Palmeiras. The visitors look rattled and the hosts push for a second goal. Palmeiras left-back Egídio is caught out of position and winger Willian Bárbio is put through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Bárbio hesitates, Egídio recovers, goes to ground and steals the ball. Bárbio is left writhing in pain on the edge of the box. Referee Jaílson Freitas blows his whistle. Free-kick. Red card.

Palmeiras players are furious, while television pictures show viewers at home that Egídio did in fact win the ball cleanly and there was no foul. Another replay shows the assistant referee, the closest official to the incident, opting not to raise his flag. It would appear that the decision to send off Egídio came from Freitas himself, who was lagging behind the play, still inside the centre circle.

Four minutes of debate ensue on the pitch. Palmeiras players appeal to the referee while Chapecoense prepare to take their free-kick. Suddenly, Freitas gets a word in his earpiece and goes to speak to his assistant. The fourth official joins them. “He got the ball? Only the ball?” the referee is seen asking the fourth official. After receiving confirmation, Freitas overturns his decision. Goal-kick to Palmeiras. Continue reading Sending off and on again

A year to remember?

Rigorous restructuring and zealous transfer policy put Palmeiras in good shape for 2015 after centenary disaster


This is the second piece in a series of previews of the forthcoming Brazilian football season. The first in the sequence, focusing on chronic calendar problems and the fortunes of the two big Minas Gerais clubs, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here.

Last season, I dedicated an above-average amount of space on this blog to discussing Palmeiras. Justifiably so, as their political meltdown and anencephalic management has been one of modern Brazilian football’s major tragedies. Once regarded among the biggest and toughest clubs in the country, two relegations in the space of a decade and perennial battles against the drop have, for the time being, wounded Palmeiras’ reputation. Were they to be involved in another survival scrap in 2015, the club’s stature could suffer irreparable damage.

Early signs for this year, however, are promising. Firstly (and crucially), after the annus horribilis of 2014 where Palmeiras ricocheted head-first from one disaster to another and very nearly found themselves relegated amid muted centennial celebrations, club president Paulo Nobre has recognised that major changes must be made. This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation, but is a welcoming change from previous regimes who have played down such disasters, such as that of Mustafá Contursi who, after Palmeiras were relegated in 2002, stated that football would become “third priority” at the club, promising to instead focus on improving facilities at their exclusive social club in the leafy, upmarket neighbourhood of Perdizes in São Paulo’s expanded centre. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, which Nobre, with his zealous attitude towards restructuring Palmeiras’ department of football, appears to have done.

Before dealing with the playing squad, the first changes made at Palmeiras for 2015 came off the pitch. Head coach Dorival Junior, director of football José Carlos Brunoro and his right-hand man Omar Feitosa were all dismissed, with Oswaldo de Oliveira, Alexandre Mattos and Cícero Souza brought in as their respective replacements. Oddly enough, it was Mattos, Palmeiras’ new director of football, whose appointment grabbed the most headlines.

The excitement around Alexandre Mattos – not a 20 goal-a-season centre-forward capped by the Brazilian national team but an executive with an MBA in Sports Management – stems from the fact he was Cruzeiro’s director of football during their two consecutive national championship-winning seasons. The off-the-pitch administration of the Belo Horizonte club, as I discussed earlier this week, is widely regarded to have been a crucial part in their success, and Mattos was responsible for the majority of Cruzeiro’s intelligent transfer dealings over the last three years.

Upon arrival, Mattos received the full VIP treatment. He was unveiled at the club’s training ground, handed a replica shirt and gave a press conference which was packed to the rafters with journalists. The entire affair is worrying for the future of the Brazilian game, where a director of football is treated as a marquee transfer. Mattos will undoubtedly help things run smoother at Palmeiras, while his intelligence, work ethic and connections should allow them to build a stronger playing squad. The supporters should not get carried away, however. Directors don’t win football matches.

The new coach, Oswaldo de Oliveira, appears to be a smart appointment but, like his director of football, he cannot be expected to transform the club’s fortunes on his own. Oswaldo has been around the block in Brazilian football, with his move to Palmeiras making him the first coach in history to coach all eight major clubs from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. More importantly, he has evolved over the course of his coaching career, particularly in his four years spent in Japanese football with Kashima Antlers, where he won every trophy available to him. His strategic nous and man management abilities will be important if Palmeiras are to have a good year in 2015.

After cleaning up behind-the-scenes, Nobre, Mattos & co. could turn their attentions to the playing squad. The clear-out of deadwood, promised for years at the club, appears to have finally happened. Twenty-one players have been let go or told under no uncertain terms that they should look for another club, while several others should also leave Palmeiras before the start of the national championship in May.

Oswaldo de Oliveira has made it clear to the Palmeiras directors that he would like to work with a squad of 34: four goalkeepers and three players for each position in his preferred 4-2-3-1 tactical system, preferably with the third-string option being from the youth system. Consequently, the club have wasted no time in signing several players for the new season. At the time of writing, 15 incoming transfers have been announced in the last eight days.

New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira's primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação
New head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira’s primary objective will be to restore self-confidence at Palmeiras. Photograph: Fabio Menotti/Ag Palmeiras/Divulgação

After Palmeiras confirmed the arrival of four new recruits this Monday alone, leading sports news portal Globoesporte.com ran a sarcastic headline the following day, registering their shock that the club had “not announced any new signings in over 12 hours”, before reporting that Alan Patrick of Shakhtar Donetsk had joined on a one-year deal.

However, while old regimes at Palmeiras have adopted a cheap and cheerful approach to the transfer market, recruitment for 2015 has been primarily concerned with quality and necessity.

Among the new faces are Zé Roberto (of Bayern Munich fame), Coritiba playmaker Robinho, explosive Porto forward Kelvin, Internacional centre-back Jackson and Goiás captain Amaral. Oswaldo de Oliveira has also brought in some of his favourites from his strong Botafogo team of 2013, with right-back Lucas, centre-forward Rafael Marques and promising young defensive midfielder Gabriel all wearing the famous green jersey in 2015.

The club are still hoping to finalise the transfer of Santos’ defensive midfielder Arouca, who has taken his current club to court over months of unpaid wages. Were he to succeed in his legal case, he will be free to sign for Palmeiras, where the number 5 shirt has already been reserved for him.

Perhaps the transfer that created most commotion, however, was that of speedy Dynamo Kiev winger Dudu. The 22-year-old, who spent the 2014 season on loan at Grêmio, became the subject of interest for a number of Brazilian clubs in this preseason. His Ukrainian owners were unwilling to allow Dudu to go out on loan again, instead wanting to cash in on the player. Flamengo and Internacional had offers rejected, before Corinthians appeared to reach an agreement to bring the winger to Itaquera.

Dudu seemed set for Corinthians, in an interview with news portal Terra he spoke as if the deal had already been completed. However, rivals São Paulo hijacked the deal, prompting a drawn-out transfer novela which took up many column inches in Brazil’s sports dailies. It was your classic tug-of-war: one day Dudu was a Corinthians player, the next he was ready to be announced by São Paulo, then Corinthians, São Paulo, Corinthians, São Paulo…

Corinthians, struggling financially, appeared to drop out of the race, leaving Dudu free to sign for their rivals. Final contract discussions were scheduled and the club appeared to finally have their man. Then, out of the blue, on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning, Dudu was announced as having signed not for São Paulo, not for Corinthians, but for Palmeiras.

As it turned out, Alexandre Mattos had been holding surreptitious contact with Dudu’s agents and was able to agree terms to bring the player to Allianz Parque. Reportedly, the winger went into the final contract talks with São Paulo already aware of the agreement made with Palmeiras.

For a club surrounded by rivals and with dangerously low self-esteem, gazumping both Corinthians and São Paulo to sign a player is huge for the ego of many long-suffering Palmeiras supporters. “If anyone didn’t respect Palmeiras before (…), from now on, they will have to,” boasted Mattos.

This transfer saga was the latest in a long line of disputes between Palmeiras and São Paulo, whose deep-seated rivalry dates back to the 1940s, when the latter club attempted to seize Palmeiras’ stadium, claiming they (who had just been forced to change their name from Palestra Italia) were connected to the Axis powers of the Second World War. This perceived betrayal was made all the worse by the fact that a decade earlier, Palmeiras had organised a charity tournament to save a nascent São Paulo from bankruptcy.

The current presidents of both clubs, Paulo Nobre and São Paulo’s Carlos Miguel Aidar, are not on speaking terms and have used their platforms of influence to enact their petty squabbles. This behaviour can only hurt all elements involved: in the case of Dudu, the commotion created by his transfer will increase expectations upon him to insane levels, so much so that it will be almost impossible for the player to adequately live up to the hype surrounding him. In financial terms, Palmeiras are probably overpaying for Dudu (only time will tell) and São Paulo were very nearly drawn into paying the player R$400,000 (around £100,000) per month in wages, at the same time the board are about to announce a deficit of R$71 million for 2014.

The disagreement has no end in sight, as only yesterday São Paulo managed to hijack Palmeiras’ impending transfer for Ponte Preta attacker Jonathan Cafu. Although Nobre’s club are in a healthier financial position, neither can afford to enter into a pissing contest.

Though almost every piece of news coming out of Palmeiras this preseason has been positive, all involved with the club must keep their feet planted firmly on the ground. Palmeiras fans have become conditioned to hoping for the best and expecting the worst, and though they may yet have plenty to celebrate come December with their remarkably competitive squad, it is important to be realistic and recognise the club’s sole objective in 2015 is not to win trophies or qualify for the Copa Libertadores, but to win back their self-respect and avoid being involved in another relegation fight.

Next time, Santos in trouble: coastal club set to take Palmeiras’ place in the danger zone amid financial chaos.

Cover image: Fernando Dantas / Gazeta Press

The football season that never ends

Brazilian football is hamstrung by its calendar, while Minas Gerais duo remain favourites for silverware in 2015


Exactly one month after the 2014 season came to a close, the majority of Brazil’s big football clubs got together last week to begin their pre-season training. In under 20 days, these teams will play their first competitive match of the Brazilian season, one of the longest and most demanding campaigns in the sport, comprising several competitions and precious little rest.

São Paulo FC, as an example, will play a bare minimum of 62 competitive matches in 2015. If they advance beyond the first round of the bloated São Paulo state championships, the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores (all of which are extremely likely), that figure would surpass 70 matches. Were they to reach the finals in all competitions (unlikely, but not impossible), they would have contested 81 games over the space of 44 weeks.

This obvious overkill of football has a predictably high number of negative consequences for the game in Brazil. The most important of these is the detrimental effect this calendar has on the quality of football being played. The hectic schedule allows a minimal amount of time for squads to train together, with players spending the days between matches catching their collective breaths rather than developing tactical strategy or working on their skills. As a result, Brazilian league matches are often turgid events, littered with fouls and misplaced passes, with results usually decided by goals from set-piece situations.

The spectacle is disappearing, fans are put off by the lack of quality and scandalous ticket prices, pitches are ravaged due to not having sufficient time to recover and even with the golden opportunity of having the World Cup in their back yard last year, the popularity of the Brazilian domestic game has not increased overseas. For those of us left behind, the devoted fans, regardless of how tedious the league may be, all that remains is the hope of a brighter future.

Things move quickly in Brazilian football. One week away from the game and you are likely to miss a manager losing his job, a high-profile falling out, a headline transfer move and the birth of a new craque. During the off-season, this is intensified, with clubs trying to pack months’ worth of rebuilding into the space of a few weeks.

Brazil’s anticlimactic state championships all but destroy the magical pre-season anticipation found in other leagues around the world, but with so many changes and question marks, there is still plenty to fill the pages of Brazilian sport pull-outs in the month of January.

Over the next few weeks, I shall be posting a series of blogs looking forward to the Brazilian football in 2015, focusing on several big clubs and the questions surrounding them going into this new season, beginning with a trip to the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais.

For the last two years, Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, Minas’ big two from the state capital of Belo Horizonte, have ruled the roost in domestic Brazilian football. The former, with their iconic ocean blue shirts, have won the national championship two years in a row and should be the favourites to clinch a third successive title in 2015, a feat only achieved once previously, by Muricy Ramalho’s São Paulo side of 2006-2008.

Cruzeiro’s secret has been in their stability, which has in turn bred consistency. For the last decade, while under the presidency of the “Perrela brothers”, the club had a reputation for being mismanaged, with woeful transfer policy and rumours of shady behind-the-scenes activities. When Zezé Perrela (now a Senator for the State of Minas Gerais) left the club in 2011, he did so on the back of a disastrous season in which Cruzeiro avoided relegation by only two points.

His successor, Gilvan Tavares, has managed to successfully transform Cruzeiro into one of the best run clubs in the country. As opposed to the “savage capitalism” approach adopted by the Perrelas, the transfer policy of Tavares’ Cruzeiro is far more intelligent. There is no annual rush to cash in on every remotely talented footballer in the squad as would happen under the previous regime, instead the club look to maintain the spine of their team year on year, only selling when the time (and price) is judged to be right.

Another key factor to their recent success has been coach Marcelo Oliveira. In his time at Cruzeiro he has been able to form an effective tactical system, but far more important has been his ability to manage his squad.

In recent years, Cruzeiro have had one of the deepest rosters in Brazilian football, with several talented options available in key positions, as well as promising youngsters pushing the senior players for places. Generally, the more the merrier when it comes to personnel in Brazil, especially considering the gruelling calendar, but this pressure cooker of egos so often ends up exploding all over the manager’s face. Where Oliveira has succeeded is in keeping his entire squad happy, rotating and substituting at the right time, making sure everyone feels valued.

marcelo-oliveira
Cruzeiro head coach Marcelo Oliveira is hoping to lead his side to a third consecutive national championship in 2015. Photograph: Washington Alves/Vipcomm

In these last few victorious seasons, Cruzeiro have always had some form of rebuilding to do, but thanks to being able to hold on to most of their first team year on year, it has been minimal. This off-season, however, could be the exception. Marcelo Moreno, their long-haired Bolivian goal-getter, has left Cruzeiro after a season-long loan, returning to parent club Grêmio. In an attempt to replace him, the club has moved for Santos’ Leandro Damião, generally regarded as one of the biggest flops in Brazilian football in 2015.

There is no doubt that Cruzeiro is a better fit for Damião than Santos – the champions focus a lot of their attacks on high balls into the penalty area, where the 17-times capped striker excels – but Cruzeiro’s system requires their No 9 to be a lot more than just an aerial threat. The reason Marcelo Moreno was so successful at Cruzeiro was his off-the-ball movement, creating space for the attacking midfield trio to infiltrate the area and score goals. Leandro Damião is far more cumbersome than the Bolivian, and may struggle to fulfil the role asked of him.

Elsewhere, last year’s star player Ricardo Goulart seems set to sign for Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande, reliable left-back Egídio is on his way to Ukraine to play for Dnipro, while talented midfielder Lucas Silva is likely to join Real Madrid at some point during Europe’s winter transfer window. Cruzeiro have recruited Chilean midfielder Felipe Seymour to fill Silva’s shoes, and although it will be interesting to see how he gets on in Brazil, it certainly feels like the Foxes will go into 2015 with a considerably weaker side than in previous years.

While Cruzeiro have been the gold standard in consistency, the best side over the course of a 38-game season, their city rivals Atlético Mineiro have proved themselves to be the knockout specialists. When the stakes are high and the chips are down, there are few teams capable of getting past Atlético, including Cruzeiro.

After going through a transformation not too dissimilar to Cruzeiro’s in 2011 (albeit with the same president, the outspoken Alexandre Kalil), Atlético managed to build a team that dazzled spectators, led by attacking coach Cuca and his number 10: Ronaldinho Gaúcho. In a campaign that had several last-minute winners, incredulous comebacks and saved penalties, Atlético were crowned the best in South America after winning the 2013 Copa Libertadores, the first time the club had lifted the continent’s grand prize. Even with the odds stacked against them, Atlético always pulled through, playing an extremely fast tempo brand of football which constantly forced their opponents into making mistakes and became known as estilo galo doido, or “crazy rooster style”, a play on the club’s nickname, Galo.

Earlier last year, however, many thought the Galo bubble had burst. They had embarrassed themselves at the 2013 Club World Cup, not reaching the anticipated final against Bayern Munich and losing to Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals; coach Cuca had gone to China; nippy winger Bernard was sold to Shakhtar Donetsk; Ronaldinho was playing poorly and on his way out and new coach Levir Culpi seemed unable to control his squad.

The 2014 Copa do Brasil dispelled those doubts and marked the return of the galo doido. Curly-haired Luan took Bernard’s old role on the flank, Argentine midfielder Jesús Dátolo, who had gotten off to a slow start to his Atlético career the previous year, became a critical part of the team, scoring seven goals and laying on 20 assists in all competitions, while Diego Tardelli seemed to be playing in five positions at once in attack, capping a superb return to form with a call-up to the Brazilian national team. The dramatic turnarounds returned, and Atlético marched on to the Copa do Brasil title, playing their rivals Cruzeiro off the park in the two-legged final.

This January the doubts have returned, all revolving around one issue: Diego Tardelli, will he stay, or will he go? The forward seems set on securing a transfer to Chinese football, the announcement of which could happen any day now. If he is to leave, Atlético will soon reach the harsh conclusion that he is irreplaceable. That is not to say that Galo are destined to fall short of expectations without Tardelli, however his departure would force a style change at the club, as there is no-one available on the market that would be capable of performing his function.

Striker Lucas Pratto has arrived from Argentinian club Vélez Sarsfield, where he has been elected player of the year for the past two seasons, but he offers the team a different threat, more physical and able to lead the line, with a touch of flair and creativity thrown in. If Tardelli stays, they could form a very formidable partnership; if he leaves, Culpi’s reshuffle will no doubt be designed around his new Argentinian striker.

Next time, Palmeiras and São Paulo: a dispute that goes back more than 70 years resurfaces – football loses.

Cover image: Bruno Cantini / Atlético-MG

In the name of objectivity

After a little post-World Cup break and time dedicated to other projects, this blogger-turned-author is returning to the comforting and cathartic confines of this humble blog. I am also working a lot more in Portuguese these days, so if you stumble across some indecipherable text with strange accents and excessive punctuation on this blog, please, forgive me. 

I have yet to put pen to paper regarding my opinion on the Brazilian FA (CBF)’s appointment of Dunga as the new (old) national team coach. There are two reasons for this: one, is that I simply did not find the time, and two, is that even though Dunga may have flattered to deceive in his first spell in the job, even though he failed miserably as the coach of Internacional and has not managed a team since and even though he embodies the process of uglification the once-revered Brazilian national team has underwent from 1982 until today, we must restrain ourselves and remember he has just been appointed. In the name of objectivity, Dunga’s second attempt at the Brazil job must be evaluated in isolation and on its own merit. The coach had yet to actually do anything as the manager of the Brazilian national team (except failing to remember the names of Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez [“that Colombian kid, Jimenez”] and Milan’s iconic coach Arrigo Sacchi [“I have spoken with Enrico Sacchi”]) – so, naturally, I remained quiet.

This week, Dunga announced his first Brazil squad (see below) to dispute two friendlies at the beginning of September, against James “Jimenez” Rodríguez’s Colombia and Ecuador. Again, it is still too early to praise or criticise his work, as the squad selection is impossible to judge when separated from the context of the matches that will follow. The list does, however, give some clues as to how the Brazil side of the Second Age of Dunga will behave on the pitch. And starved of interesting topics to write about, that’s more than enough of an invitation for this journalist to speak his mind.

team

First impressions were largely encouraging, which was always going to be the case considering those who were skeptic about Dunga’s appointment had been creating wild nightmares for the past month, imagining Felipe Melo being handed the captain’s armband and Neymar being dropped in favour of someone more “disciplined”. The reality, as is so often the case, turned out not to be so dramatic after all.

Although Dunga has been cautious to put too much emphasis on the 7-1 defeat to Germany, towing the CBF party line, he did make a conscious effort to omit a significant group of the World Cup squad. From his 22-man group, only 10 are survivors from Felipão’s squad, with the obvious caveat that Thiago Silva is injured and unavailable.

However irrelevant those at the CBF seem to feel was the Germany loss, this process of renovation and blooding new players is important. Furthermore, Dunga did not take things too far, players such as Luiz Gustavo, Hulk, Oscar and Willian all remain in the squad despite coming in for criticism last month, and all four can play important roles in this new team.

Another positive aspect was the players called up for the centre of midfield. One of the biggest criticisms of Dunga’s first attempt at the national team job was his side’s complete lack of midfield articulation and creativity. While every other team in world football made sure to play midfielders who were able to defend and attack (and most importantly, complete a five-yard pass), Dunga’s Brazil put their faith in hard men, essentially converted centre-backs who knew how to tackle. In the World Cup in South Africa, while Spain had Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, Brazil had Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva.

As well as maintaining Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Ramires, all well-rounded midfielders, Dunga called up Elias of Corinthians (formerly of Sporting and Atlético Madrid) who is energetic, technical and a proficient marker. He also has the option of playing Oscar or Philippe Coutinho in that deeper role, all of these are positive signs.

That leads on to another interesting feature of this squad: the lack of a fixed centre-forward and an abundance of unpredictable attacking midfield threat. The selection indicates that Dunga may well revisit the work of ex-Brazil coach Mano Menezes, who experimented with a strikerless formation, playing Neymar as a mobile centre-forward. There is a worry that Dunga could try to shoehorn one of his players into a traditional centre-forward role, which would be an error. Neymar always needs the freedom to move into channels and drop deep when he wants to; Hulk’s effectiveness comes as a direct option down either flank; Diego Tardelli started his career as an out-and-out centre-forward but now plays much deeper, usually on the right; young Ricardo Goulart is an extremely interesting talent, but already at Cruzeiro he has shown he is not a pure centre-forward, instead he is more of an attacking midfielder, arriving late into the box to score.

test
With some new faces and Neymar at centre-forward, a potential XI to start the game against Colombia.

Last month I mentioned that only once has a country won the World Cup with a squad made up of a majority of foreign-based players (France in 1998) and it seems to have really resonated with Dunga, who is, of course, a long-time reader of this blog. The coach has made a conscious effort to select more domestic-based outfield players and has called up some interesting names and perhaps missed a few.

All of the domestic-based players in the squad have done enough individually to deserve the callup, although in some cases I’m unsure about the long-term benefit of some of the players being involved in the setup. It is hard to see Diego Tardelli, Atlético Mineiro’s striker-turned-playmaker, still being involved in the team come next year’s Copa América. Even Elias and Éverton Ribeiro, excellent as they are in Brazil, give the impression that they could suffer with the competition for places in those midfield spots.

Corinthians’ centre-back Gil, especially with the absence of Thiago Silva, strikes me as a wise selection. He has some modest experience in Europe with French side Valenciennes, but has improved greatly since his return to Brazil, with great positioning, technique and a threat at set-pieces.

I was delighted to see Cruzeiro’s Ricardo Goulart get the call, as he is certainly a player who could go on to do great things for Brazil. As alluded to earlier, he is an attacking midfielder who likes to play just off a principal striker. He is clever, strong, good in the air, has a natural eye for goal and he keeps getting better and better. Brazil do not have any other player in that same mould, so seeing him in the national team setup is exciting.

Back to reality

I regret to inform you that the World Cup has ended.

I know, I know, it’s not fair. Yes, we should have it every year (preferably in Brazil), and no, things will not be the same now that it has gone. Unfortunately, we have to wipe away the tears and get on with our lives.

The 2014 World Cup was a spectacular month of football, friendship and education. A celebration of the best things this wonderful sport has to offer, as well as pages and pages of narratives and subplots. As usual, it was great to see teams from all around the world, principally those outside of my region. Costa Rica were a surprise and a joy, with their superb spine of Keylor Navas, Giancarlo González, Celso Borges and Joel Campbell. Algeria’s first half performance against South Korea was one of the best moments of the tournament, only Germany in their first half against Brazil were more deadly.

Speaking of the German side, everyone was left in no doubt that the best team came out on top. This current Germany setup has given an example of planning and organisation which every footballing country around the world can learn from – their fourth World Cup trophy was more than deserved.

Anyway, it is time to return to reality. The wallchart has been folded away and kept in a safe place, the flags have been taken down from the windows and the television is showing soap operas and awful films in the slots the football has vacated.

Many football fans have expressed their desire to take a rest from the game, a couple of weeks of recovery and relaxation, allowing for a smooth comedown and a fresh appetite for the start of the European season. Fans in Brazil, however, have no such luxury.

Due to the Brazilian FA’s complete ignorance of how to create a spectacle, the Brazilian championship gets back underway this evening, only two days after the World Cup final was played at the Maracanã.

Six of the 12 World Cup stadiums will be in use in this midweek round of games, although only three of those are for top-flight matches. In the second division, Recife’s Arena Pernambuco will host Náutico v Sampaio Corrêa, Arena das Dunas in Natal will see América-RN v Bragantino, while the Arena Pantanal in the centre-west city of Cuiabá is strangely hosting Vasco da Gama (from Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east) against Santa Cruz (from Recife, in the north-east).

Why would Vasco choose to play a home match around 1,000 miles away from Rio de Janeiro? They are serving the final match of a punishment handed to them by the CBF for fan violence, forbidding them from playing at their home stadium. Instead of staging the game just outside of Rio, they are trying to ride Cuiabá’s World Cup wave and squeeze as much money as they can out of the situation.

In the first division, Corinthians will take on Internacional in their first match at the brand-new Arena Corinthians since Fifa handed over the keys last week. Bahia will host São Paulo at the gorgeous Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Cruzeiro return to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte (the site of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany) to play Vitória.

In the weekend rounds of the first and second divisions, only four of the stadiums will be in use.

More frustrating than this are the ticket prices stipulated for these matches. In tonight’s second division matches, the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pernambuco is R$ 50 (around £13), while any Vasco or Santa Cruz fans willing to make the trek to Cuiabá will have to fork out R$ 60 for the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pantanal.

The first division matches are not much better, Corinthians and Cruzeiro have set their cheapest tickets at R$ 50, bearing in mind that this only accounts for a small section of the stadium. Seats with reasonable views are going for anything between R$ 80 and R$ 180.

This might not sound like much compared to British prices, but when put up against the average monthly salary in Brazil, these are the most expensive tickets in world football. In 2012, a study was conducted to this end and showed the Brazilian league to have the highest ticket prices compared to average earnings, using a mean price of only R$ 38. If this post-World Cup trend continues, the average will increase further and more and more will be excluded from the sport.

Turning attentions to on-pitch matters, the expectation for this post-World Cup stage of the Brazilian championship is that we will see a group of title challengers begin to pull away from the rest over the next few weeks. Leaders and reigning champions Cruzeiro will be looking to open up some space between themselves and second-placed Fluminense, while Corinthians, São Paulo, Internacional and Grêmio will battle for one of the four Copa Libertadores places up for grabs.

The transfer window has been positive for most of these top-half teams, especially Corinthians and Grêmio. The former have made some impressive signings, bringing in experienced defender Ânderson Martins, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro and hard-working midfielder Elias. All three will go straight into the starting lineup.

Grêmio have also strengthened their team considerably, repatriating midfielder Giuliano, who was extremely promising when taking Grêmio’s rivals Internacional to the Copa Libertadores title of 2010 and has been playing in Ukraine since. Winger Fernandinho has joined from Atlético Mineiro and flying right-back Matías Fernández signed from Sampdoria. The southern side already had a decent squad before the World Cup break, with some exciting young talent breaking through. They will be worth keeping an eye on between now and December.