The mood at Luiz Felipe Scolari’s first press conference following his return as coach of Brazil was apprehensive. After all, it was the end of November 2012 and he was taking charge of a team about which there were question marks aplenty. There was really only one thing about which Scolari could be certain. “At this point, we’re not among the World Cup favourites,” he said.
An unthinkable statement, perhaps, to those who had not been paying close attention to Brazil’s fortunes at the time. After all, Scolari was talking about the only country to have won the FIFA World Cup™ five times, a side that would be playing the 2014 edition on home soil, and that boasted a promising young team led by a future superstar. But in truth Brazil had been going through a period of transition, one which ultimately led to the dismissal of Mano Menezes, the man who just two years earlier had accepted a mission to which there was only one acceptable outcome: winning the World Cup. His successor knew only too well the scale of the task he was taking on.
“Of course there is an obligation to win the World Cup. We might not be favourites now, but we intend to be by the time the tournament comes around. We will work as hard as we can to make that happen,” Scolari said at the same press conference. Many considered the statement to be either bravado or fantasy from a coach who, according to his critics, was out of touch with the modern game. But his words would prove prophetic on Sunday 30 June this year, when the Maracana erupted in celebration after a stunning 3-0 win over reigning world and European champions Spain. Brazil’s self-belief had been restored.
When Scolari took the job just a little over 18 months before the World Cup, it seemed that more encouragement could be taken from the success of his Korea/Japan 2002 side than from the current Seleção squad. Despite fielding a team of mostly first choice internationals, Brazil had once again failed to win gold at the Olympics. And to make matters worse, the team had lost a series of friendlies against their main rivals.
Despite confidence being low, Scolari was not afraid to take on tough opposition in his early games. After all, it was the only way to really find out what his players were made of. However, this also meant that Brazil’s poor form continued, and by the time the team got together for the FIFA Confederations Cup, recent results against the top sides made troubling reading: two losses to Argentina, a draw and a defeat against England, and setbacks against Germany and France.
Yet on the whole, Brazil benefited tremendously from the experience. After six months, Scolari could see which areas would require most attention if his goal was to be achieved. “Our aim is to win the World Cup. At the end of 2012 we gave the CBF (Brazilian FA) a document describing the work that needed to be done before the competition. During the build-up, we asked for fixtures to be arranged against the top teams, so that our players could prepare themselves against difficult opposition,” Scolari said during a talk that he, technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira and assistant Flavio Murtosa gave at an international football conference in Rio de Janeiro this month.
Once the core of the team was in place, the next step was to give the side an identity. Brazil had talented young attacking players such as Neymar and Oscar, as well as highly rated defenders like Thiago Silva and Dani Alves. The challenge was to blend these parts together into a functioning unit.
Increased preparation time was essential in helping to achieve this sense of unity. Before the Confederations Cup started, it was obvious that the mood in the camp had changed. “Scolari explained the team’s tactical approach in a meeting with the players. He wanted to bring the group together, so he asked the players if they wanted the defensive line to play further up the pitch or in a deeper position,” recalled Parreira. “The response of the players was unanimous. They wanted to defend higher up the field. Making decisions as a group helps bind a squad together and build confidence. We believed that if we could achieve that, the results would follow, and that is exactly what has happened.”
In truth A Canarinho dominated their opponents last June through sheer hard work and discipline, before letting the team’s natural attacking ability take over. The style of play and the results were so convincing that the team won not just the title, but also something of huge importance for any host nation: the backing of the fans.
Room for improvement
Winning the Confederations Cup is no guarantee of success at the World Cup. Parreira can vouch for that, having lifted the trophy himself in 2005, as can Dunga, who won it in 2009. Yet considering the state of the team just a year ago, Brazil’s progress has been impressive, as Scolari himself explained: “Our big achievement has been to create a clearly defined tactical system. We’ve managed to establish a solid unit, a real team, so that it doesn’t matter so much whether player A or player B is on the pitch. Once we were able to organize the team the way we planned it last year, the results started to come.”
It is perhaps logical to expect that many of the players who beat Japan, Mexico, Italy, Uruguay and Spain in successive games at the Confederations Cup will form the base of the final squad to be announced on 7 May. Before then Brazil will have only one more friendly fixture, in March against South Africa.
This does not mean, however, that the list is closed. This month, for example, Scolari travelled to Europe to watch potential call-ups in action. In the games that followed the Confederations Cup triumph, players such as Robinho, Willian and Maxwell were given chances, and did well. The manager clearly still has some difficult decisions ahead of him.
"I’ve had 45 names in mind from the beginning. Today I have a list of 25. I have to make some tough choices," he said. "I’m very satisfied with what we’ve achieved so far, but you can always improve. I plan to watch more games, and perhaps I will add one or two more names. We’re always watching players, and there are still chances available. There might be a few surprises.”
The mood at Scolari’s recent interviews could not be more different from that first press conference. “Some people didn’t believe us when we said we would be champions, but playing in Brazil that’s the only way we can think. We have to believe that we’ll win,” he said at the talk. As 2013 draws to a close, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who did not consider Brazil one of the favourites to triumph at next year’s showpiece event.