How Dunga Reflects Brazil

Why a previous coaching failure is back to lead his country out of its current crisis

His hair is the color of tarnished steel, brushed into an aggressive flattop. There’s that chilling, perpetually angry gaze, the tightly clenched jaw. A single tense vein throbs furiously in his temple. I’ll be back, he might have growled in that dull metallic voice, all those years ago, and now here he is. But whereas the original Terminator had the relatively simple task of destroying humankind, Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verribut, better known as Dunga, faces a considerably more daunting challenge – how to restore dignity to the most storied soccer nation in the world after an especially harrowing public humiliation.

And what a challenge it is. Back in 2010, after Dunga had endured his own Deutschland über alles moment (though in those days it was Wesley Sneijder and Holland, rather than Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, and co. who put Brazil to the sword), the manager’s end of term report would perhaps have been along the following lines: tactical nous (B-); organizational ability (B); jogo bonito (D); emotional stability (D); relationship with media (F).

Brazil were unloved but solid at the South Africa World Cup, and had even looked in control at half-time against the Dutch in the quarterfinal after Robinho had opened the scoring. But then Julio Cesar suddenly turned into lettuce hands (a local term for a wobbly goalkeeper), Sneijder scored twice, and Brazil and its coach, who had controversially left a young Neymar at home, patently had no Plan B to turn the game around. If it was not as pornographic an exposure as Scolari’s unclothing against the Germans, it was equally indicative of a manager who was out of his depth.

Dunga had spent most of his World Cup engaged in a not-so-private war with the Brazilian media (including one bizarre incident where he unleashed an expletive filled sotto voce rant at an entirely innocent SporTV journalist who had been talking quietly on his cell phone during a press conference). And during the second-half collapse against the Dutch, his plan for inspiring his wilting team seemed to involve kicking and punching the stadium dugout.

None of which seems to unduly trouble CBF (Brazilian soccer association) president Jose Maria Marin and the rest of the Borgias that run the game in Brazil. Yet even if the country’s soccer administrators have short memories (Dunga is the sixth coach to return to the Seleção job, and none of the others did particularly well in their second spells) it appears Brazilian fans and the media do not. Most opinion polls have found that around 75 percent (or higher) of respondents oppose Dunga’s return, and the press reaction has been negative to say the least. “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 newspaper Folha de São Paulo the other day.

The big question then is: Why Dunga? It seems that everyone—from legendary Argentinian coach Cesar Menotti to Johan Cruyff to most of the Brazilian media—is pointing out that Brazilians have forgotten how to play the game the way that they created it, the jogo bonito or futebol arte. The path Brazil has adopted (fast-paced, rough-housing, with attacks based on moments of individual inspiration) is not working, as evidenced all too clearly on that fateful afternoon in Belo Horizonte a few weeks ago. All that combined with the shambolic state of the country’s club game and youth development systems. Why then would you reappoint a gritty, pragmatic, relatively inexperienced coach who didn’t do a particularly good job the first time around, and who has done nothing of note since, to guide you towards a brighter future?

The answer is not complicated, though it is sad. It begins with arrogance and complacency: if you have won five World Cups, why should you listen to anyone else? “Soccer has a hierarchy,” as Julio Cesar said, preposterously, after Brazil beat Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup final, “and we’re five time world champions.” Such thinking explains why Scolari and his players mentioned the Confederations Cup so many times before and during this World Cup; the competition hardly ranks among soccer’s great prizes, but winning it meant things were back to normal. “We have one hand on the cup,” Brazil’s technical director, and former coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira said before a ball had been kicked at this summer’s tournament.

Such arrogance is dangerous enough among players and managers, but transplant it to the shadowy corridors of power of Brazilian soccer and things become considerably more sinister. These are corridors that reek with entitlement and cronyism and vested influence, populated by octogenarian political movers and shakers who are unlikely to have heard the word “no” very often in their lives (particularly given the often elusive nature of Brazilian Portuguese, where, as an article in The Economist last year pointed out, it’s much easier to say “maybe” than “no” since the former extends a sliver of hope and avoids confrontation and disappointment).

In such a world it is not hard to see why it was easy for Marin and his pals to sweep the Germany defeat under the carpet. After all, the president’s deputy and his eventual successor, Marco Polo Del Nero, is on record as saying he would have liked Luiz Felipe Scolari to continue in the job after the World Cup. The message was clear: the Massacre at the Mineirão was nothing more than a blip. “Instead of treating the 7–1 defeat against Germany as a turning point, we are acting as though it was a normal result that can be fixed with a simple change of coach,” wrote journalist Alvaro Oliveira Filho in Lance! magazine.

Once this mind-set is understood—that of the ghoulishly corrupt political class, hangovers from colonial days, when vast parcels of land were handed out to those most adept at currying favour—the reasoning behind Dunga’s appointment becomes clearer. This is the country, after all, where a president removed from office in 1992 is now a senator, representing his home state of Alagoas in the northeast of Brazil. It’s a place where the desperately poor state of Maranhão, also in the northeast, has been controlled by the same political family for over 50 years. A place where last year, as one enormous political corruption scandal was going to trial (the mensalão or “big monthly payment” cash-for-votes scheme), another was being uncovered (the peddling-of-influence scam run by slot machine mafioso Carlinhos Cachoeira, “Charlie Waterfall,” in the midwestern state of Goiás). And a place where at the same time as the CBF was unveiling Gilmar Rinaldi, a former player agent with no relevant experience at this level, as its new technical director (“he’s incompetent and has no personality…he’ll turn the Brazil team into a business meeting” said former Seleção great Romário), a presidential candidate was laughing off questions about why millions of dollars of public money had been used to build an airstrip conveniently located beside his great uncle’s farm.

It is not just great responsibility that comes with great power. In a country where graft is effectively institutionalized, as in Brazil, it is also arrogance and impunity and nepotism.

Within the CBF, such power has always flowed easily, imperceptibly, from hand to hand. In 1958, the organization’s president was the legendary João Havelange, “a Rio businessman…masterly politician, and legendary networker,” as the historian David Goldblatt described him in his book on Brazilian soccer and society, Futebol Nation. Havelange would later become president of FIFA, but before that, in 1966, his daughter Lucia met a young banker from Minas Gerais named Ricardo Teixeira. They were soon married, which for Teixeira, writes Goldblatt, meant striking “the mother lode…under Havelange’s tutelage Teixeira was groomed for a life in football, and in 1989 he was manoeuvred into the presidency of the CBF. In his long years in the post, he came to think of the institution, indeed the Seleção itself, as both his personal property and a public carnation of his own unquenchable ego.”

Months before he left office in 2012 (the official reason was given as ill-health, but in truth his position had become untenable after an almost constant string of corruption rumours), Teixeira was asked by Piaui magazine about the accusations of financial irregularities made against him. At least his answer was succinct. “I don’t care. Or rather, I shit myself. I shit a heap,” he chortled. He now lives a life of gilded exile in Miami.

Those hoping for a change of luck with Marin have been disappointed. The initial signs weren’t good. Soon after his appointment, made via the curiously underused electoral system of “oldest vice-president gets the job,” footage emerged of him pocketing the winner’s medal of a young Corinthians player at the Copa São Paulo juniors competition. It was to prove prophetic.

There was worse to come, this time from Marin’s dubious past during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Ivo Herzog—son of the journalist Vladimir Herzog, who was arrested and killed during the ditadura—has long accused Marin of being responsible for his father’s death. In 1975, Marin, then a São Paulo state assemblyman, demanded that action be taken against the opposition TV Cultura station, where Herzog was the editor. A year after the journalist’s death, Marin fulsomely praised the work of notorious police chief and dictatorship henchman, Sérgio Fleury, accused of operating a death squad during the regime.

Last year, Herzog and Romário, now a somewhat self-promoting congressman, delivered a petition with 55,000 signatures to the CBF, demanding the removal of Marin. “It’s unthinkable that one of these people (those accused of human rights abuses during the dictatorship) should get credit for bringing the world to Brazil. It’s intolerable. The World Cup is ours (the Brazilian people). Not Marin’s.” Marin called the campaign against him “sordid.” “It’s slander and libel to suggest I was responsible for the torture and death of Vladimir Herzog,” he said.

Marin and Del Nero are representative of the cronyism that pervades the CBF, where each of Brazil’s 27 state federations has the same number of votes (one) as the country’s biggest clubs. One of these federations is in the state of Roraima in the north of Brazil, where the local championship boasted only six teams in 2013, and where president Zeca Xaud has been in charge for 39 years.

None of which is Dunga’s fault, of course. And it may be that the gritty former midfield brings some positives to his new job: greater honesty, for example, and more discipline, qualities that were desperately lacking during the out-of-control kindergarten atmosphere in the Brazil camp during the World Cup, encouraged by former boss Scolari’s faux-chummy uncle routine. The new man suggested that would be one of his goals. “Brazil will always have good players. Now we have to combine that talent with commitment, hard work, humility, emotional balance, and the ability to show our emotions at the right time,” he said.

But in truth, as long as Marin and people like him remain in charge, the Brazil manager could be Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, or a menacing cyborg from the future (or in this case past) for all the difference it will make. While outside the country, the appointment of Dunga may have evoked gasps of surprise, for those familiar with the dark heart of Brazilian soccer, the only possible reaction was hollow, knowing laughter.