Brazil’s right-back riches
Finding a replacement for a player who held down a position in his national side for more than ten years and appeared in no fewer than three consecutive FIFA World Cup™ finals is no easy task. At least that is what everyone thought when Cafu announced his international retirement following Brazil's quarter-final elimination at Germany 2006.
That decision left Carlos Dunga, who took over the Seleçao immediately after their disappointing campaign in Germany, with one of the most difficult tasks he would face over the next three years: finding someone to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Cafu. But as events at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 have shown, the Brazil coach has come across not one successor but two, for in Maicon and Daniel Alves he now enjoys the luxury of having two of the world's finest right-backs at his disposal.
"It's incredible. Three years ago everyone was talking about how weak we were in the right-back position and now they're all saying that maybe Daniel Alves and I are the best two players in the position in the world," comments Maicon in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com on the eve of the final with USA. "It's fantastic to be challenging for the position with a great player like Dani because you've got no option but to work harder and harder all the time. We're taking it all in our stride though, and there's no problem at all. I'm really happy when he plays well and vice versa."
Regardless of who finally takes to the field in Sunday's showdown, the two candidates both take great satisfaction from the fact that the right-back slot is an area in which Brazil now shines. Heading into the tournament all the indications were that Maicon would be the first-choice in South Africa. The Inter Milan player had only just returned from injury, however, and when the Brazilians travelled to Uruguay for a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier on 6 June, it was Dani Alves who got the nod.
The Barcelona man was one of the Seleçao's most impressive players in their 4-0 victory and also got on the scoresheet, all of which meant that he kept his place for the qualifying match at home to Paraguay just a few days later as well as Brazil's Confederations Cup opener against Egypt.
Dunga then brought in Maicon for Alves for the second group match against USA, one of four changes he made for that game. The Inter man did not disappoint, setting up one goal and scoring another in a superlative display that earned him the Budweiser Man of the Match award. Since then, he seems to have made the position his own, although making a choice between the two is no easy task for their coach.
A solution on the left
Such is Brazil's abundance of talent on the right flank that Dunga has been trying to deploy his resources there in other ways. When his charges were struggling to break down a stubborn South Africa side in the semi-final, the former midfield general brought on Alves with eight minutes remaining. The outgoing player was not Maicon, however, but left-back Andre Santos. Within five minutes the Barcelona full-back showed the wisdom of Dunga's switch, curling in a sensational free-kick from the edge of the area to win the game for the South Americans.
"Bringing Dani on at that point was the obvious choice," Dunga explains to FIFA.com. "It was a tight game and almost all the chances we were having were from dead-ball situations. It would have been illogical not to use him. What's more we also needed to keep Maicon on because of his ability to get forward down the right. It was a specific change I made in response to a specific situation. It was a way of changing tactics without changing the system. We do have other players who were specifically brought into the squad as left-backs and they're in our plans. We need to be adaptable, though, so that we can find a response to the problems we might face at any one time."
The versatile Alves is accustomed to doing unfamiliar jobs for his country in decisive matches. In the final of the Copa America in 2007 he came on after 33 minutes for injured midfielder Elano and slotted into the right side of midfield, playing just ahead of Maicon. "I'm always ready to help out and it doesn't matter which position," explains Alves. "I just want to be useful and though I'm not used to playing on the right, I'm willing to do whatever Dunga believes is best for the team."
Should the right-footed Alves end up in the left-back position he would be continuing something of a Selecão tradition. Two of the national side's most famous left-backs also favoured their right feet: Nilton Santos, a FIFA World Cup winner at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962, and Junior, Brazil's first choice in the position at Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986.
So what is the secret? A gift for adapting to circumstances? "It could be," replies Maicon. "But I'll tell you one thing; my left foot's only good for helping me get on the bus."
Andre Santos, the man Alves replaced at left-back in Thursday's semi-final, also answers in light-hearted vein when the possibility of having a challenger for his position is put to him. "Luckily for me Dani is a right-back. Let's just leave him where he is," jokes the Corinthians player, who made his international debut in the match against USA. "I don't think it's easy playing with your wrong foot but I'm sure that whatever Dunga does it will be to Brazil's benefit."
Not much has changed then in Carlos Dunga's three years in charge. The right-back conundrum is just as big a headache now as it was when he took over. The only difference is that where Dunga was once faced with a dearth of options, he now has an embarrassment of riches.