New leaf turned in Mano's Brazilian team
Mano's guys: Mano Menezes' (L) tenure as Brazil's manager will rely heavily on Neymar's (C) and Alexandre Pato's (R) abilities at the forward line. (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)
It was the perfect start. On one New Jersey evening back in August last year, all was forgotten.
Gone were the memories of a Wesley Sneijder double in Port Elizabeth that sent Brazil crashing out of the World Cup.
Gone were the memories of a Brazil side desperately devoid of invention and creativity as it fruitlessly tried to break down Bert van Marwijk’s Dutch destroyers.
Gone were the memories of a Brazil coach whose approach was described by former international Socrates as “an affront to our culture.”
Gone, too, were the villains of the piece. Defensive midfielders Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, the poster boys of the Dunga regime, instantly cast aside. And so were the rest of the culprits: Of the 23 that went to South Africa, only five made the trip to New Jersey - a trip that would signal in the end of the old.
They’d had it with Dunga. Everyone had. Overtly pragmatic approaches to soccer are tolerated only for as long as the victories last. Futebol do resultados is as good as any if it produces results - if Dunga followed up Copa America and Confederations Cup titles with a flawless World Cup qualification campaign.
Defeat, though, inherently results in change. So out went the old and in came the new. The new enjoyed a dream debut, and Mano Menezes' new-look Brazil put the USA to the sword with a new generation of entertainers. A new coach, a new team, and new stars. One with new symbols: Santos pair Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar were the polar-opposites of Dunga’s aforementioned dastardly duo, both enjoyed stunning debuts and quickly became representative of a new era.
At half-time, the Selecao could have been up five. We were witnessing what Menezes had described upon his appointment as the “beginning a complete refurbishment". Shockwaves reverberated around the world. Spanish newspaper Marca gushed “With Menezes, Brazil is about the beautiful game.” “The Pato and Neymar show: young Brazil impress,” declared Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport. In Argentina, Olé asked “Who’s the Mano?” To compound the new feel-good factor enveloping Brazil, that 2-0 victory over USA was quickly followed up by a 3-0 win over Iran and a 2-0 win over Ukraine. Menezes could do no wrong.
It was perfect. Too perfect, perhaps. Fast forward 15 months and it feels as if the former Gremio and Corinthians coach has spent every day since reaching for what is increasingly looking unreachable. There have been glimpses, casual fleeting allusions to that night at New Meadowlands, but for most, not nearly enough. Back-to-back defeats to Argentina and France before a dismal Copa America campaign saw Brazil win just one of four matches prior to falling to Paraguay on penalties.
Menezes, though, remained resolute: “It's important to keep calm after a defeat and avoid thinking that it was all negative,” he said. “We have improved since the start [of Copa America] and will continue working hard so we can reach the positive results in the future.”
CBF President Ricardo Teixeira followed suit, quickly pledging his support for the coach with a statement insisting “the renovation project for the Brazilian team continues focused on their primary objective: the World Cup in 2014.” After all, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
It is. But Menezes seems increasingly caught up in something of a moral obligation to play the ‘Brazilian way’; or, at least he’s adopted a rhetoric suggesting as much. On the two occasions I’ve shared a press room with him, he’s insisted that Brazil are playing differently now.
“We want the Brazilian team to represent the idea that Brazilians have of the national team,” he said in March. It was emphatic, regardless of the validity of the “idea” he is alluding to.
The performances, however, have largely suggested the coach who arrived in the job with a reputation every bit as defensive as his predecessor is leaning the other way. His list of critics is growing by the match, with ‘guess who’ the latest to offer his opinion.
“It is impossible to watch a Brazil game right now,” Socrates told ESPN Brasil last week, “our football is hideous.”
But Mano was quick to remind everyone that his Brazil are still in transition. “We are in a process of evolution and trying to find a way to play,” he told Lance! on Monday night as his search for the right blend continued. This past week saw him lead a squad of foreign-based players to victories over Gabon and Egypt; two fixtures which have perhaps offered some more potential answers to one or two of his problems.
Ganso’s year has mirrored that of the national team as a whole. He was poor at the Copa America and has struggled to reach level he achieved against USA. A suitable alternative needs to be identified. Left back appears to have become a problem position once again with Andre Santos’ recent drop in form. A genuine center forward still needs to be found, and so does a central defensive partner for Thiago Silva, as David Luiz is looking as if he’s not up to the task.
But options are there. Vasco’s Dede is an extremely promising central defender, while Hernanes impressed this past week following his return to the side and could yet provide the missing link between the lines. Porto left back Alex Sandro emerged as a contender for a starting role, and Valencia striker Jonas scored twice against Egypt to stake his claim for the No. 9 shirt.
And so Brazil remains in transition, and having won 12 of his 20 matches in charge, it seems Menezes’ biggest crime may well have been setting the bar too high, too early. His next major test will be the 2012 Olympic Games, where Brazil will rightly be favorites to lift the title for the first time in its history – 26 players eligible for the tournament have made the Brazil squad in the post-Dunga era.
“I believe that next year we will get better,” he said this week. They will have to, because the novelty, it seems, has worn off.
Where Dunga valued substance over style, Menezes may have to find both if he wants to be the man leading Brazil out on in Sao Paulo June 12, 2014, when Brazil kick off a must-win World Cup on home soil.