There are countdown clocks all over Brazil, ticking off the days until the whistle blows on the 2014 World Cup, but Luis Felipe Scolari does not need their presence to know time is running out as he seeks the formula to repeat his 2002 triumph.
The 64-year-old Gene Hackman-lookalike has been recalled to coach the Selecao largely because of that success in Japan, but so far Big Phil’s second coming has been underwhelming. When England kick off in the Maracana tomorrow those clocks will show there are 375 days before Brazil open next year’s finals in Sao Paulo and Scolari is badly in need of both a result and a performance.
Scolari’s first game back as Brazil coach since beating Germany in Yokohama 11 years ago was the February defeat to England at Wembley. Under his command, Brazil have since drawn against Italy, in Geneva, and Russia, at Stamford Bridge, been jeered off the pitch after a home draw with Chile, and won 4-0 in Bolivia – a fixture made easier by their hosts agreeing to play in Santa Cruz (altitude 416m) rather than La Paz (altitude 4,000m) where they play their competitive matches.
One of Scolari’s problems is narrowing down the mass of available talent. Brazil may have slipped to an all-time low of 19th in the Fifa rankings but the country continues to produce good players. With the Brazilian economy, despite a recent dip, having boomed this century the domestic league is stronger than for decades, yet there were still 72 Brazilians in the European Champions League group stages, more than twice as many as England had despite the presence of four Premier League teams.
Scolari has already called up 45 players with his choices ranging from uncapped teenagers to one-time golden boys Ronaldinho, now 33, and Kaka. They have both been omitted from the squad to play England tomorrow, France next weekend, and then the Confederations Cup, preferring younger players such as long-time Tottenham target Leandro Damiao and Ronaldinho’s Atletico Mineiro team-mate Bernard.
It is not just about youth, however, Jadson, ignored for much of his time at Shakhtar Donetsk, but now back home at Sao Paulo, is in as is another 29-year-old, Bayern Munich defender Dante who made his international debut at Wembley.
Ronaldinho’s omission was a surprise as he has been playing well in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent to the Champions League. His disinterested performance at Wembley, in which he missed a penalty, cannot have helped his chances though conspiracy theorists suggest Scolari has left him and Kaka out so he can recall them after the team fail in the Confederations Cup.
This seems implausible. Even a manager so untroubled by self-doubt as Scolari needs to build momentum because Brazil cannot afford to go into next summer’s finals short of confidence. Despite winning the World Cup in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, Brazil remains traumatised by ‘The Defeat’, as their loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final in the Maracana is usually titled.
It was supposed to be their coming-of-age in their huge brand new stadium, the world’s biggest. Defeat was unthinkable: early newspaper editions even carried pictures of the team with the headline ‘world champions’. But Uruguay won 2-1. Brazil never wore white again – adopting the now beloved canary-yellow, and even 43 years later goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa was turned away from a national training camp in case he brought bad luck.
No national team will ever go into a tournament under greater pressure to win it than Brazil will be under next summer – there were 300 reporters at Scolari’s squad announcement. Which is why Scolari, being a proven winner, was recalled.
Yet Scolari has not won much since 2002. He led Portugal to the final of Euro 2004 (as hosts), the 2006 World Cup semi-final, and the last eight of Euro 2008. He then had six unhappy months at Chelsea, 11 even more lucrative but largely unsuccesful months at Uzbek club Bunyodkor, and two years at Palmeiras before being fired in November as the team he led to Copa Libertadores success in 1999 headed for relegation.
His availability spelt the end for Mano Menezes, the man who had replaced Dunga after the disappointing 2010 World Cup and tried to wean Brazil off the relatively functional football which they played under Dunga, Scolari and 1994 winner Carlos Alberto Parreira. Menezes sought a return to traditional values with a game based on possession and shifts in tempo. However, his fate was sealed when failure in the Copa America was compounded by the Olympic team, coached by Menezes and stuffed with stars, coming back from London with silver, not gold.
Scolari has since sought to reproduce the 2002 formula with four attackers backed by defensive-minded holding midfielders. But, in the modern game front players have to put in a shift and a quartet including Ronaldinho, Neymar and Kaka leaves Brazil’s midfield overloaded.
So only Neymar remains of that trio and he will be the centre of attention tomorrow after his move to Barcelona. “If a player is not in the squad, it means I have doubts about him,” said Scolari. “If he is in the squad, it means I don’t have any doubts.”
Failure to win against England, however, and the doubts and worries of Brazil’s 200m population, about Scolari and his players, will deepen.
Samba stars: Three to watch
Neymar A nation’s hopes hang on the 21-year-old’s slender shoulders. He signed for Barcelona last week and has plenty of tricks, but can he dominate a tournament?
Lucas Moura Diminutive attacking wide midfielder with good dribbling skills who turned down Manchester United to sign for PSG, joining in January in time for title push.
Leandro Damiao The Internacional striker has been on the brink of signing for Tottenham for several transfer windows. Maybe this time he will.