Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira have already spoken about the importance of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 in building the squad that will represent the host nation a year later at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, stating that at least 80 per cent of the 23-man list should feature players called up for this June’s 'Festival of Champions'.
With just a few weeks to go before the dress rehearsal for the world finals begins, the vast majority of players forming part of Scolari’s plans are excited and optimistic about their immediate international futures. There is always an exception to the rule, however, and in this particular case that exception is Gremio’s Andre Santos.
Currently on loan at the Porto Alegre club from English Premier League side Arsenal, the left-back is pleased to be back in the Seleção fold but unusually cautious as to what the next few weeks will hold, and not, as it turns out, without good reason. After all, he came close to making the Brazil squad at the last FIFA World Cup – much closer than he is at the moment, in fact – only for him to lose his place through no-one else’s fault but his own, as he explained.
“I made mistakes, which were more to do with me getting distracted than anything else,” he told FIFA.com. “When you’re in the Brazil side you have to maintain maximum focus all the time, because there are thousands of players who want your place.
“I didn’t realise that and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, both in a tactical sense and off the pitch too. I was letting people down and messing about when I shouldn’t have been. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I really feel I’m stronger now and can make it to the Confederations Cup.”
Missing the bus... and the plane
The story starts in 2009. After a flawless first half of season, in which he helped Corinthians land the Campeonato Paulista title and the Copa do Brasil, Santos was called up by then coach Dunga to A Seleção for the first time. It was no ordinary call-up either, with the player forming part of the squad for two FIFA World Cup qualifying matches and that year’s Confederations Cup. After coming on in the second half for Kleber in Brazil’s opening game at South Africa 2009, against Egypt, Santos stayed in the side for the rest of the tournament, which the Brazilians went on to win.
He seemed set to be returning to South Africa the following year, only for his carelessness off the pitch to let him down. One incident in particular would cost him dearly. When Brazil travelled to La Paz for their penultimate South Africa 2010 qualifier in October 2009, Santos failed to show at the meeting point at the team’s hotel and missed the bus that took them to the stadium.
With other players queuing behind him for an opportunity, he promptly lost his place in the team to Michel Bastos, who eventually made it into the squad for South Africa 2010. It proved a painful experience for Santos, though it is one he has now learned from.
I learned I was a fullback and now I’m totally used to playing like that, as one man in a four-man defence, whose first priority is to defend properly and to get forward only when it’s necessary.
Having brushed up his act off the pitch, the 30-year-old is also an improved performer on it. In the four years he spent in Europe, he added some new attributes to his long-recognised ball skills and ability to get forward, acquiring a sharper positional sense and a stronger defensive presence, qualities that are very much required at a club like Arsenal, whom he joined from Fenerbahce in 2011.
“As well being one of the best in the world, the English league is also one of the most tactical and it took me a little while to get used to it,” he acknowledged. “I think it helped me improve my positional awareness though.
“It was there that I learned I was a fullback and now I’m totally used to playing like that, as one man in a four-man defence, whose first priority is to defend properly and to get forward only when it’s necessary. That’s the way I’ve been playing for [Vanderlei] Luxemburgo at Gremio, and it’s even more that way with the Brazil team, which has always had a lot of talent in midfield and attack.”
In agreeing to return to Brazil on loan at the start of this year, Santos set his sights on regaining his place in A Seleção by first of all breaking into the Gremio side and then putting in some good performances. What he did not expect, however, was for that very plan to come to fruition so quickly. Little more than a month after making his debut for Os Gaúchos, Scolari had already called him up twice for two friendlies featuring home-based players only. Santos started the first of those, a 4-0 defeat of Bolivia earlier this month, with the second game to come against Chile this Wednesday.
His return to the famous yellow shirt marks quite a turnaround for a player who was being criticised for his performances in England not so long ago.
“It just goes to show how important confidence is when it comes to performing well,” he said. “Obviously I’ve never forgotten how to play football, the kind of football I’ve always played.”
As for his future in the Brazil team, Santos needs no reminding of the competition for places, especially with the likes of Spain-based trio Marcelo, Adriano and Filipe Luis all vying for the same spot. Yet, having gained in experience and learned some harsh lesson along the way, he is keeping admirably calm about the upturn in his fortunes.
“It’s not easy to get a place in the Brazil squad for a major finals," Santos said. "All I know is how hard I’ve been working and that I’m happy and motivated with Gremio. If I can keep it up, I’ll get my chance with A Seleção. And when it comes, I’ll approach it in a different way - you can be sure of that.”