Why the Brazilian national team are criminally underrated

Better days for Kaka, but a number Brazil want to forget. Image by Roberto Vicario via Wikipedia.

With Brazil languishing in an unprecedented 22nd place in the FIFA rankings a year before they host the 2014 World Cup, the biggest headlines about Felipe Scolari’s Confederations Cup call-up were indeed the omissions of Kaká and Ronaldinho. There was no Brazilian in the top 10 scorers of any major European League last season. The country’s recent performances in friendlies, the Copa America, the Olympics, and a recent managerial change have left many scratching their heads. What has happened to Brazil?

Firstly, there is no denying Brazil are where they are because of their results, or lack thereof. And nowhere are they more criticized than in Brazil itself, but Brazilians know they should be doing much better than they are. To the average Euro-centric football fan however, the conspicuous lack of talent in the top European leagues can be just as easily explained.

The repatriation and retention of stars

The rise of Brazil as an economic power in the last decade has positively impacted their national tournament. We may react with alarm when we see a callup with only three players from the Premier League and La Liga respectively, and only 12 total from clubs outside of Brazil (compared to 20 in 2010). And while it is true that they have failed to follow up their golden generation with international superstars, it must be noted that much of their major talent now plays in Brazil.

Brazilian clubs have been able to use their monetary power to buy back players like Alexandre Pato and to set high recision clauses into contracts of young stars like Neymar, who would likely have gone to Europe much sooner and for much cheaper only a few years ago. Fred and, until recently, Neymar are perfect examples of two almost certain starters on Saturday, with the former having made a respectable European showing before returning to Brazil, and the latter having fended off European football for years due to his clubs ability to pay him well enough to at least stall a move.

The general feeling in Brazil is that talent is somewhat stunted in European football, particularly when teenage players make big money moves only to sit on the bench during their formative seasons. Many of the young prospects on this team lack European experience, but not professional experience. With so much talent in Brazil, there is reason to expect the raw flashy football many love to translate to the national team next year.

Scolari wants to maintain low profile

When Luis Felipe ‘Felipao’ Scolari took on the challenge of coaching Brazil in 2001, the side were on the verge of missing the World Cup. But what most people choose not to remember is that there were no FIFA international dates back then. Just a decade ago most elite European club sides did not allow stars like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Roberto Carlos to make the trip during competitive league and Champions League campaigns.

The tables have now turned, with international breaks allowing for the strongest callups and many star players back in Brazil. But the curse of every host is that they do not need to qualify. With the absence of fierce competition in the CONMEBOL qualification group, Brazil have had little opportunity to build a strong, consistent, and well-worked side for the World Cup. While the Confederations Cup presents them a golden opportunity, Felipao has stated that he wishes to use this alternative squad to test players.

It’s a shrewd move by a World Cup winner to not show his final hand, because if they bow out early as most expect them to, an underdog side with considerable talent and the home advantage may stun the world next year. If they win the Confederations Cup, they may find new talent worthy of the final squad. But more importantly it will be a lesson to the world that the home advantage is all they need, and that Brazil remain the only country able to win the tournament with an otherwise below average side. Scolari put in one of the great tournament-manager performances in World Cup history in 2002, and he’s been hired with the singular purpose of doing it again.

We are looking for stars in the wrong positions

Finally, when we think of Brazil we naturally think offense. We think of Zico, Socrates, Pelé, Rivelino, Ronaldinho, and Garrincha etc. But what if we’re looking for stars in the wrong places?

We have seen a shift in the Brazilian national team’s mentality and identity from the star-studded Jogo Bonito side that fell short of expectations in 2006, to the brutally defensive and pragmatic Jogo Efectivo side that probably exceeded expectations in 2010. Dunga failed in creating a defensive Brazil because he simply did not have good defensive players and because his personality and management style pushed away key big-name players.

Ironically, Scolari has the ability to create a solid defensive Brazilian national team with all the big-name players in tow. Thiago Silva and David Luiz rose to prominence in the years leading up to next year’s tournament, and the team is now clearly based on them. Scolari, while remembered for Brazil’s defensive performances in 2002, is an excellent man manager and is less likely than Dunga to eschew offensive talent and present the world with an imbalanced side. If they can reach a harmony between world class defenders and talented attacking players, the world will see why Brazil are a criminally underrated side in 2014.

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