The selection of former captain Carlos Dunga as coach of Brazil came as a surprise to many, but a stunning upset of Argentina in the Copa America final has secured his position as he readies the team for the start of World Cup qualifying.
During his career as a player, many observers regarded Carlos Dunga as the antithesis of the glorious skills and electrifying thrills associated with Brazilian soccer.
A talented and rugged holding midfielder, Dunga captained the Brazil team that captured the 1994 World Cup - coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira - playing soccer described by some as obdurate, and far less spectacular than that of the fabulous 1970 team that swept through the World Cup.
The common thread of those World Cups is they were won by Brazil, and for the coach of Brazil, not much else matters. Four years later, Dunga again captained the team, which finished second to France.
Brazil won its fifth crown five years ago, but faltered in 2006 under Parreira and thus Dunga replaced his former coach in a rather surprising move, as former national team coaches Wanderley Luxemburgo and Luiz Felipe Scolari had been contacted by the Brazilian soccer federation (CBF). Dunga took the job with zero coaching experience. Many predicted his reign would be short.
"The competitiveness I had as a player is still the same," said Dunga in September prior to Brazil's 4-2 victory over the USA in Chicago. "As a coach, obviously I don't do it in the same manner, but in Brazil there are a lot of high expectations. If you won, 1-0, you could have won, 2-0. If you won an easy game it could have been more. And there are the expectations of the beautiful game as well on top of it as well."
Those expectations had come crashing down on Dunga and his players after they lost their Copa America opener, 2-0, to Mexico in June. Ronaldinho and Kaka were sitting out the tournament to rest and a dispute with Adriano prompted Dunga to leave him off the squad as well, yet nothing short of winning the title, so ran the popular theory, would save his job.
Fortunately, Dunga did have Robinho, who scored six goals as Brazil finished second in Group B behind Mexico, trampled Chile, 6-1, in the quarterfinals, and edged Uruguay on penalties after a 2-2 tie to reach the final. Dunga declared Argentina the clear favorite to win the title, and then sent out a determined team that stunned Argentina by scoring in the fourth minute. Brazil rolled to a 3-0 win for its eighth Copa America title and Dunga said the victory bolstered the "self-esteem" of the country.
"What we did was to play football, to know how to defend, to attack and to value the talent which our players had, which was more than many thought," he said. Also left behind were Ronaldo and several other veterans, and critics decried a lack of sparkle in Brazil's performances.
Dunga knows Brazil, so loaded with outstanding players, is under no real danger of not qualifying. Still, defeats are disastrous, and feeble victories are only slightly less appalling to the fans and press. In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Dunga used an attacking quartet of Afonso, Kaka, Ronaldinho and Robinho, to satisfy the style critics and also to compensate for sometimes inconsistent defending and lax marking in midfield.
One of Dunga's assistants is Jorginho, a brilliant defender on the 1994 championship team. The pressure on the players and coaches to produce scintillating soccer, he believes, isn't as important as the intense pride the players feel when they wear the national jersey. The coaches thus can focus on preparation and instruction, not motivation, as they prepare for competitive matches such as the World Cup qualifiers that commence in October.
Said Kaka, "Yes, the travel is hard but most of the players, like myself, are used to it. I have done it before and as long as I am selected of course I will play."
The grueling travel for most of the players, who compete for clubs in Europe, increases the risk of injuries and poor results.
"The players are excited even to participate in these games for Brazil," says Jorginho, who played for clubs in Germany and Japan as well as his native country. "Sometimes in Europe, like in Italy, players don't always have that same passion, but the Brazilian guys are very passionate about coming back and playing for the national team."
In qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Brazil lost only twice but drew seven matches and finished second behind Argentina.
The round-robin format, by which all 10 teams play each other twice, home and away, is routinely criticized yet is retained each time a vote comes up. Formerly, the South American nations were split into groups of either three or four, and many times Brazil - as defending World Cup champion - was exempted from qualifying. FIFA has revoked that policy, which ensures each nation of a long, taxing campaign.
"Many of the South American teams are improving," said Jorginho. "As an example, there is Venezuela, which before was not competitive but now we have a hard time beating them."
Venezuela won five games, the same number of victories it had accumulated in the 2002 qualifiers. That total of 10 wins exceeded its victories in all previous qualifying competitions.
Dunga didn't beat Argentina in the Copa America final with style and artistry. His players shut down Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi with the dogged determination their coach once displayed as a player. Argentina's efforts to match Julio Baptista's early goal were blunted by a Roberto Ayala own goal shortly before halftime and midway through the second half Daniel Alves applied the final finish.
Dunga, though, says that the talent comes first and every Brazil coach can count on having superior talent. The rest is up to the players, and the coach. A strong defensive core of Lucio and Juan and Gilberto Silva and Miniero as midfield fulcrums enables the traditional Brazilian magicians to perform their breathtaking exploits.
"The very important thing is you need to have excellence and great quality," he said. "You cannot win if you don't have that. That has to start with the group, the mentality of the team, you must maintain this. But the first priority is true quality."
((This article originally appearedin the October 2007 issue of Soccer Americas magazine.)