Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario, Ronaldo... those are the names most associated with Brazil's five FIFA World Cup™ crowns; inconceivably gifted attacking players with the ability to exhilarate crowds and destroy opponents. To most observers, defensive midfielders were merely anonymous accessories in the conquests of 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002. Not, however, to their coaches.
Vicente Feola, at the Seleção reins when they secured their maiden title, labelled Zito "a rock on which the team revolved", which was a sentiment shared by Aymore Moreira, who guided them to the defence of their prize. Mario Zagallo, the leader of ‘The Beautiful Team' in Mexico, hailed Clodoaldo as a "player of high importance", and Luiz Felipe Scolari described Kleberson as the "driving force" behind his side's completion of the pentacampeão seven years ago.
However, if ever a holding midfielder was indispensable to a Brazilian - or arguably any - FIFA World Cup triumph, it was in 1994. The headlines embraced Romario and his cerebral sidekick Bebeto, but it is difficult to imagine that a team adjudged to lack its customary level of genius would have prevailed without the impelling shield at its core.
"We would never have won that World Cup without Dunga," reflected Bebeto afterwards. "Romario and me got a lot of praise, but he was everything to the team." Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira added: "Dunga was a born winner. He was very competitive and intelligent. He worked very hard, could mark and break up opposition attacks, but his distribution was also very good. His words and actions were infectious."
Dunga entered USA 1994 with a point to prove. He exited it having lifted the trophy and accentuated the importance of the holding midfielder's role.
Fully aware of the function's significance, Dunga has strived to find his own solution to the conundrum since his appointment as Brazil coach following Germany 2006. Anderson, Dudu Cearense, Edmilson, Fernando, Gilberto Silva, Hernanes, Josue, Lucas, Mineiro and Tinga have all been utilised in the position, but the 45-year-old has yet to make any defensive midfielder a permanent fixture on his team-sheet.
Perhaps that is about to change. Dunga evoked surprise by selecting Felipe Melo in his squad and, then, team for the friendly against Italy at the Emirates Stadium, London last month. The Fiorentina player responded with a flawless performance in a 2-0 victory. On a night when the purists enthused over the artistry of Robinho and Co, the pragmatists reveled in the debutant's dominance of Azzurri playmaker Andrea Pirlo.
The 25-year-old merely whispered of his potential during spells with Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Gremio, Real Mallorca and Racing Santander, but he has evidently matured into formidable performer over the past two years; first at Almeria, and now with Fiorentina, whom he joined for eight million euros ahead of the 2008/09 campaign. His form for La Viola, whom Dunga also represented during his playing career, has attracted the interest of Juventus, Arsenal and Manchester City, and, along with his imposing bow at international level, secured his place in the Brazil squad for their forthcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers against Ecuador and Peru.
"Once again, I'm very satisfied with this opportunity," said Felipe Melo. "I dedicated myself greatly to receive this chance. There's a lot of sacrifice and endeavour required to remain in the Seleção, and I'm willing to give everything for the honour of representing my country. Now it's about working hard and keeping my place. Remaining in the squad depends on me delivering other good performances, and I'm focused on doing this."
The elegant midfielder, who combines impressive touch, vision and distribution with defensive aptitude, will likely get the chance to cement his place in the starting XI on Sunday. Victory would push A Seleção, currently second, six points behind Paraguay and four clear of fifth-placed Uruguay, closer to one of South America's four automatic tickets to South Africa 2010. However, it is something they have failed to achieve in three previous qualifiers in Ecuador.