No matter the situation or the subject up for discussion, talking football with Carlos Alberto Parreira is always an in-depth affair. Piercing analysis from a man who knows the game inside out mingle freely with the first-hand experiences of someone who, among so many other things, tasted life as a coach at no fewer than six FIFA World Cups™, as FIFA.com discovered recently on British soil.
On the agenda in our interview with Parreira, a member of FIFA’s Technical Study Group for the Olympic Football Tournaments at London 2012, were his world title success with A Seleção in 1994 and a particular ideal that has often set him apart: his determination to always do things his own way.
FIFA.com: What’s your verdict on a generation of Brazilian players that should be hitting their peak come Brazil 2014? How does it compare with previous generations?
Carlos Alberto Parreira: At the end of the day, you can only rate a team at the competition itself. In Brazil there are always emerging talents and promising players. In my 40 years of football I must have heard someone say “he’ll be the new Pele” dozens of times and then they fall short. That’s valid for whole generations: you have to prove yourself on the pitch, when it counts. This generation is promising and talented but we’ll only see what they’re really made of come 2014. Neymar’s involvement makes this, perhaps, one of the most gifted crops we’ve had in recent years. He’s a class apart.
You’re a clear example of just how much FIFA World Cup success can shape a career, aren’t you? How big an impact has that 1994 win had on your profile?
The World Cup is the pinnacle, the highest point of any player or coach’s career. You could have achieved millions of positive things, made mistakes, had successes and failures, but when you win a World Cup that’s what will be remembered. And I’ve had more of a sense of that in recent years: it’s very striking how people treat you, the way they respect you and see you differently. When I’m introduced it’s as “Carlos Parreira, world champion”. It’s now 18 years since we won the World Cup, yet just the other day I was stopped twice on the street by English people, who greeted me and said “you’re a legend”. It’s a stamp, a label you wear with pride for the rest of your life.
A lot of people were quite disparaging about that Seleção, even though it won the world title. Do you still get a sense of that sometimes?
Time goes by and nobody remembers things like that. What goes down forever is winning the title, full stop. It was a title win that ended a 24-year drought, during which period we’d never even reached the Final. If you look back, it was a very good team. Taffarel is among the best keepers Brazil have ever had. Jorginho and Aldair [were among the best ever in their positions] too, as was Branco. I don’t want to compare him with Nilton Santos [a world champion in 1958 and 1962], who was a class apart, but Branco was one of the finest left-backs Brazil ever produced.
Dunga was a great midfielder in that organisational and defensive role of his, while on top of all these players we had Romario and Bebeto. We had a team that was technically very good, which was why we won. It had quality as well as the other vital ingredients you need: togetherness, the right players, good planning and hard work from the coaching staff.
That 24-year title drought put huge pressure on the squad’s shoulders, right?
The pressure was enormous; in fact that was our toughest opponent. We couldn’t get our heads round it. You’d pick up the paper, look at what was written and think “My God, we’ve not been world champions for 24 years and these people, instead of supporting us, are making things harder: they want to bring us all down.” Fortunately we had a very experienced coaching staff – me, [Mario] Zagallo, Moracy Sant’Anna, Admildo Chirol, Americo Faria – so we didn’t let the criticism get to us. We had our own path to follow, our way of doing things. If there’s one thing we’re particularly proud of from that win is the fact we did everything our own way.
On that note, back in 1997 or ’98 I gave a talk to European coaches on behalf of UEFA. I was treated as a special guest, as the coach of the reigning world champions. In my presentation I included the ten main ideals [behind our success]: commitment, pride in pulling on the yellow jersey, etc. And the main one was instilling in the players that the World Cup is a short competition with no margin for error. So, we had a motto in the camp: maximum efficiency and zero errors. We only had one goal and that was to reclaim the title – the whole squad’s minds were focused on that. That’s why we didn’t let the criticism get to us. At that conference, after I’d given my talk, they prepared a video and sent a copy to everybody. It had my photo on it and the title they gave it was My Way, like the Frank Sinatra song. (laughs)
If there hadn’t been all that pressure after so long without FIFA World Cup victory, would you have approached USA 1994 any differently? Would the team’s style of play have changed? No, no. The team was criticised so heavily that, after we won, we didn’t need to say anything. People said “They won, but without jogo bonito”. But what is beautiful football? It’s playing effectively, knowing how to defend, how to attack and getting results. And we did all that: we became champions without losing a game. And it wasn’t a ‘European-style’ team, far from it. That was never the case, it was just a stupid label someone came up with. There were no European principles behind the building of that team. We put the emphasis on Brazilian football values: we played a back four – which has forever been a characteristic of Brazilian teams; we used zonal marking; we controlled possession and played one-touch football. Those were the characteristics of that side.
When it came to defending, we’d bring eight players behind the ball, just like Brazil did in 1970 under Zagallo: when possession was lost, everybody got back. It was eight in our case because Romario and Bebeto were special players, who’d never been taught how to help out in defence. The European sides were surprised by how organised and physically fit we were. We went through that World Cup without being in real danger. Do you know how hard that is? To play a full World Cup without being forced onto the back foot? There wasn’t a single game when Taffarel had to be our best player, that’s because we were solid defensively.
When you mention the small margin for error at a FIFA World Cup, it makes us realise just how hard it must have been to make decisions such as taking Rai out of the starting XI. Is that really the case?
Of course, but you have to be firm and prepared for the consequences. Rai was our biggest name, our captain. He was struggling following his switch to European football, to Paris Saint-Germain, in 1993. He spent a period out of their side and leading up the World Cup he’d not had a holiday for two years. It all hit him too hard. When he came back into the Brazil squad, I gave him a starting place even though he wasn’t at his best. He began [USA 1994] as a starter until, after the group phase, I decided to give his place to Mazinho, who was more versatile. Against USA in the Round of 16, he played in three positions: when Leonardo got sent off he filled in at left-back, then he switched to the right and he ended the game back in the centre of midfield – alongside Mauro Silva and Dunga – where he kept his place for the rest of the Copa.
Technically he was very good, but he wasn’t a midfielder with attacking flair. The only reason I only didn’t replace Rai with a more attacking player was because there wasn’t one around at the time. Rai was the most attacking, followed by Zinho, who was another starter. Indeed, if you look at the papers from the time, there was no clamour, no outrage that a certain player or other should have been selected. Neto was a good attacking midfielder, but he couldn’t establish himself at national-team level. We experimented with Rivaldo too, in fact he made his Seleção debut under us against Mexico. He did well but didn’t really click; we couldn’t be sure enough about him to select him. Later on, of course, he grew a lot as a player and was incredibly important in that 2002 [World Cup] win.
When you talk about a player being unable to “establish himself at national-team level”, what do you mean exactly? Do you need different criteria to assess a player in the Seleção as opposed to at his club?
That’s vital, things change so much. The pattern of play, the demands on them, the level of responsibility and the technical quality required are all different, as is the level of criticism you receive – because the eyes of the whole world are on you [with A Seleção). Some don’t let it get to them and even thrive on it, while others are weighed down by the yellow jersey.
For example Branco, in 1994, came into the squad off a run of injuries and, after recently going back to Brazil, he wasn’t getting a game at Corinthians. But, not only had he been a Brazilian champion under me at Fluminense in 1984 he also played spectacularly at the World Cups in 1986 and 1990. He treated those World Cups like a kickaround in his back garden, with no pressure. That makes a difference, which is why I didn’t think twice about selecting him. And he came through for us when we needed him: as well as scoring that winning goal against the Netherlands, in that game he also nullified the threat of [Marc] Overmars, who was their most dangerous player.
However, sometimes these situations don’t go your way, isn’t that right? Was that what happened at Germany 2006?
What happens, sometimes, is that situations force themselves upon you, in a certain way. What I mean to say is, when things are going right it’s hard to make many changes because, at the end of the day, you’re getting the right results. I think that’s part of what happened with the team at the 2006 World Cup. We tried to make a tactical plan work including four players who’d virtually never had any defensive responsibility: Kaka, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Adriano and Ronaldo.
It was such a talented attack and it went so well for a long time, like at the Confederations Cup  with Robinho in place of Ronaldo, that it didn’t raise many concerns. But, for the reasons that everybody has spoken about many times – some players not being in the best shape, a slight shortage of the commitment you need for a tournament like that – we weren’t able to carry our form into the World Cup itself. Sometimes that’s the way it is: when an idea starts going right you get carried along with it, for better or for worse.