Nobody doubts that Julio Baptista is an excellent player. After all he has lined up for such giants of the club scene as Sao Paulo, Sevilla, Real Madrid, Arsenal and AS Roma, and been a regular with the Seleção for almost a decade.
However, with the possible exception of his time with Sevilla, he has almost always divided opinion. Since those heady days in Andalucia, there have been ups and downs at every port of call, the player lacing periods of splendid form with others when his first-team berth has been in question – a trend that continues even now at Roma.
Though some observers feel Baptista’s place in Brazil’s FIFA World Cup™ squad is not a foregone conclusion, the only opinion that really matters is that of Dunga. The Auriverde coach appears to have a great deal of faith in the striker’s abilities despite the current difficulties he is facing at club level. Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, Baptista offered his own explanation for this, saying: “Opportunities were given to a lot of players in the national side and I believe that I was able to take advantage of mine."
The opportunities he refers to arose at the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela. As well as being Dunga’s first tournament as Brazil coach, it was also the first time Baptista established himself in the starting eleven on a consistent basis. He managed to score three goals in the last four games of the competition, including a strike in the 3-0 win over Argentina in the final. “It was my first tournament as a starter, and I was able to show what I could do and repay the faith that Dunga showed in me,” recalls the 28-year-old from Sao Paulo.
With just five months to go until the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the race for berths in his country’s 23-man squad is coming to a head. Since taking over in 2006, Dunga has selected more than 80 players, with few enjoying call-ups as regularly as Baptista. Yet despite that, there is still a degree of uncertainly as to whether he’ll be on the plane to South Africa in June. According to the man himself, though, the situation is not a cause for concern. “With all due respect to the other players who are pushing for a place, I honestly feel I have a good chance of making the squad,” he says. ”Of course I need to be doing well at my club, but I’ve been a part of practically all of Dunga’s squads. I was called up for the Copa America, which was my first big test, and since then I have been almost always present.”
In fact, after a period in which he was out of favour between October 2006 and June 2007, he has subsequently been out of the squad just once (injury-enforced absences aside), and that was for a friendly against Portugal in November 2008. He has now played 26 games under Dunga’s command. However, as history has proved, places in Brazil’s national side are far from guaranteed, certainly not where forward players are concerned, and even less so when the list of rivals for a place includes the likes of Alexandre Pato, Diego or a certain Ronaldinho Gaucho, who is once again displaying the kind of form worthy of a place in the final squad for South Africa.
“It would be naive to say that squad has been decided. That’s impossible. Anyone that has already made an appearance for the Seleção has a chance to make it, even more so if we’re talking about someone like Ronaldinho, with the quality that he has,” Baptista says. “At this stage, the players just have to make sure they stay fit. The decision is down to the coach, who will know at the right time who to take.”
Julio Baptista’s situation seems clear. Although he may not be getting as much playing time as some of his rivals for a squad place in South Africa, not only does he have in his favour a history of good performances with his national team but he possesses something more valuable, the trust of his coach.