It was in July 2002 that Lucio and Juan were first aligned together as Bayer Leverkusen’s first-choice centre-back pairing, a partnership which has since become an integral part of a Brazil side now almost as well-known for their defensive nous as attacking prowess.
Indeed, after taking the reins following A Canarinha’s disappointing quarter-final exit at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Brazilian supremo Dunga has forged a tough, well-drilled and lethal counter-attacking side which claimed victory at both the 2007 Copa America and FIFA Confederations Cup 2009.
“The Seleção’s new mentality is largely down to Dunga,” Roma stalwart Juan told FIFA.com. “He's made everyone aware of the importance of defending. Everybody is putting more value on the work that we defenders do. That recognition makes us proud, particularly because of Brazil's culture of attacking football and star names.”
This mentality is, according to Juan, the main difference between the squad preparing to bid for glory at the South Africa 2010 and that which limped out of the finals against a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France four years ago. “The 2006 Seleção was more attacking and had more experienced players with exceptional technical ability,” said Juan, whose professional career started at Rio de Janeiro outfit Flamengo.
“The current squad is more team-oriented. It’s a better-balanced side. There’s not as much experience, but there is a huge desire to have a great World Cup,” continued the centre-back. “Over the past four years Dunga has managed to assemble a solid squad. We built our team in the face of criticism, which has made us even stronger.”
Unity equals strength
That strength and solidity is characterised by the Juan-Lucio partnership, and the pair enjoy a firm friendship after many years of shared experiences both on and off the field. “Ours is a great story, one which has grown into a great friendship. We always stay in touch and we get our families together whenever we can,” said Lucio, currently at Roma’s Serie A title rivals Inter Milan. “We get on really well and are really good team-mates, and that's key to winning games.”
The statistics bear this out. Brazil have won 27 of the 37 games the pair have played together since 2005, drawing seven and losing just three while conceding a paltry 21 goals in the process. However, this year's African showpiece could be the first time coach Dunga has both players at his disposal for the duration of a major tournament. An operation led to Lucio missing the Copa America in 2007, while Juan sat out most of Brazil’s South Africa 2009 triumph after an injury in the second group game.
“I suffered a lot last year, but fortunately it’s been a while since I picked up an injury and I’m back and helping the team again like before,” said 31-year-old Juan, who spent a large chunk of 2009 on the treatment table. “I’ll get a few days off after the Italian season is over and I’ll be intensifying my training to reduce my risk of injury even more.”
Friends or foes?
Lucio, set to turn 32 on Saturday 8 May, has also taken steps to ensure he is in tip-top shape for South Africa 2010: “I try to work on my strength whenever I can to make sure I can get through so many matches. That’s why I’ve set up a home gym, which is a big help.”
One of the mainstays of the Inter side which is currently top of Serie A, in the final of the UEFA Champions League and which won the Italian Cup against Roma on Wednesday, Lucio has particularly caught the eye when denying the likes of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi this season. Juan’s return to the Roma team after a muscular injury was also pivotal, his presence helping the capital club string together a 24-match unbeaten run including a league victory over Inter which has brought them within two points of Jose Mourinho’s side with two matches remaining.
“We’re not making a big deal of it [the rivalry]. Each of us fights for his team’s cause, but afterwards we’re still friends. We usually just chat in the tunnel beforehand because during the match, particularly as it’s Roma versus Inter, you have to be totally focused,” said Juan, who also faced his Brazil team-mate at Bundesliga level, once Lucio had left Leverkusen for Bayern Munich.
“Things aren’t easy. Every game is decisive and hugely competitive,” added Lucio, whose Inter team take on his former club Bayern in 22 May’s Champions League final. “There’s everything still to play for, but we’re having a good season and we’ll keep believing in ourselves right to the end.”
All of which must be music to Dunga’s ears as he prepares to select his final squad for South Africa 2010. Having his first-choice centre-backs in form and battling it out at the Serie A summit is a luxury few national coaches enjoy. However, given their past injury problems, can both stay fit long enough to line up together come Brazil’s Group G opener against Korea DPR on June 15?