The beaming smiles on the faces of the Brazil players after the final whistle said it all. The Seleção had just recorded a largely comfortable 2-0 win over the old enemy, Argentina, in the Superclássico das Américas, and it was time to celebrate.
“The wounds are healed,” David Luiz had said before the game, referring to the scars left by that traumatic 7-1 humbling by Germany in the World Cup semifinal. “We’ve had three good performances. Now we have to keep our feet on the ground,” added Neymar. Normal service, it seemed, had been resumed.
Back in Brazil, however, the party felt a little flatter. Perhaps it was the 9 a.m. kick-off (Brasilia time) or the somewhat surreal setting of the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, a mere 12,000 miles or so away from home. Maybe it was because of Brazilian soccer’s absurdist nightmare of a fixture calendar, which allows no space for international breaks, meaning many domestic stars who travelled to China (including graybeards Kaká and Robinho, now at São Paulo and Santos, respectively) were missing vital Brasileirão matches. More than likely, however, the feeling was caused by the sense of gloom that has hung over the self-proclaimed país do futebol ever since that catastrophic defeat against Germany in July.
That negativity was hardly lifted by the appointment of Dunga as national team coach. Following weeks of painful self-examination, Brazilian fans had been hoping for a revolution to sweep away the frustrations of that afternoon at the Mineirão, when not just the shortcomings of the national team but also the ruinous state of the jogo bonito — the country’s heritage of attractive soccer practiced by the likes of Garrincha, Tostão and the doomed sorcerers of the 1982 World Cup side — had been painfully exposed. Instead of genuine change, fans were handed the return of an arch-pragmatist, one last seen raging impotently from the sidelines as his painfully dull, technically limited team slid from view at the 2010 World Cup.
“Brazil need a coach with scientific knowledge, coupled with the wisdom to be a good observer and a desire to win while playing attractively,” wrote Tostão, now a columnist for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, after the appointment. “Forget it! It was just a fantasy, and now it’s gone. The reality is quite different, and much sadder. The reality is Dunga.”
The great and good of Brazilian soccer’s decadent governing body, the CBF, had spoken. The future would not be futebol arte, but futebol pragmático.
And so it has transpired during the first three games under Dunga Redux. On a positive note, Brazil has been defensively sturdier, more mobile and harder working in racking up three successive wins (and three clean sheets) over Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, while the players who have come into the squad since the World Cup have generally done well. Atlético Madrid’s Miranda has brought stability at center back, while young Porto right back Danilo has grown in stature with every game. On the other side of defense, Filipe Luis has been solid. Neither fullback has ventured forward much, providing a sharp contrast with the errant vagaries of their predecessors Daniel Alves and Marcelo. After Argentina dominated the early stages on Saturday, the pressing and marking of Brazil’s defense, along with volantes Elias and the admirable Luis Gustavo, shut Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero, and Lionel Messi down almost completely. “We were compact and fast on the counter attack,” Dunga said afterwards.
Up front, the big story has been the success of 29-year-old striker Diego Tardelli, scorer of both goals against Argentina. The Atlético Mineiro man has had an oddly inconsistent career, with stretches of dazzling form interspersed with periods of seeming disinterest and rumors of ill-discipline. He has also failed to shine on the few occasions he has played for clubs outside Brazil. Previously called up by Dunga in 2009, his goals on Saturday were his first for the national team, yet despite this unglamorous pedigree, Tardelli has done a sterling job for Brazil over the last few weeks. His movement and work rate (at times against Colombia he seemed to be playing everywhere from wing-back to center forward) make him a most modern player – the falsest of false nines.
“Tardelli is not a center forward, an attacking midfielder or a winger. He’s a mixture of all these things,” wrote Tostão last year. While he lacks the individual attacking threat of a Cristiano Ronaldo, a Neymar or even a Diego Costa, Tardelli has brought another dimension to Brazil’s play, particularly when compared to the painfully static performances of Brazil’s World Cup striking options, Fred and Jô.
In this way, too, he is the poster boy for the Dunga era. Neither prepossessing nor showy, Tardelli, along with another player in a vibrant run of form, Chelsea’s Willian, combine ability with good old-fashioned hard work, leaving Neymar, Brazil’s sole world-class attacking threat, to provide the attacking spark. Much like Dunga himself, and most definitely unlike the preening hubris on show under Luiz Felipe Scolari’s chaotic stewardship this summer, this Brazil side knows its limitations and sweats buckets to overcome them. In Beijing, the manager’s pragmatic principles were more than enough to defeat a more talented but ultimately feebler Argentina.
Those dreaming of the aesthetes of old, however, have been forced to look away, for Dunga’s Brazil is a largely prosaic bunch. Passing and possession are not priorities, and the team lacks a midfield playmaker. Oscar, who was ineffective again against Argentina, remains an enigma – talented, but seemingly unable to recreate his Chelsea form for the national team. For a while now, o jogo bonito has been fading from memory, becoming a sepia-toned legend for those of a certain age to recount to the younger generation. Under Dunga, its fate has been sealed. Futebol arte has been confirmed as a relic from the past, as distant and nostalgic as Gatsby’s parties, or a Cheever character mixing an old-fashioned.
At the same time, however, it is easy to be too hard on Brazil. No other international team in the world is castigated quite so much for failing to recreate the glories of its past. Fairly or not, of Brazil we demand soccer cathedrals, not humble church halls. Whatever the reasons (a crisis-ridden domestic game and a refusal to react to the on-and-off field changes in the global game have contributed), the inclusion of Kaká and Robinho shows that the Brazilian talent cupboard is particularly bare.
In such straitened circumstances, Dunga may even be the right man for the job. Once the great and good of Brazilian soccer had decided that the mauling at the Mineirão was a blip rather than a sign of deeper decay, the root and branch reform the game here needs was always going to be set aside. Now, instead of a Romario, or a Ronaldo, or a Ronaldinho coming to save the day, Brazil is left with Dunga, who spent most of Saturday’s game snarling and cursing at both the referee and the Argentina coaching staff, and whose abrasiveness has clearly been passed on a team who threatened to cross the line between competitiveness and ill-discipline.
In a sense, as well as further evidence of the head in the sand outlook of Brazil’s soccer administrators (seemingly blithely unaware that modern soccer can be simultaneously effective and aesthetically pleasing) the appointment of Dunga feels like a tacit admission of Brazil’s limitations. Before it was win and win with style. Now it is win at all costs, no matter how unpretty the performances.
The jogo bonito is dead, and has been for a while. Long live o jogo pragmático.