England were not the only team who, World Cup place safely in the bag, were able to let their guard down this weekend. Brazil sent an understrength side 3,600 metres up the Andes to La Paz where, traditionally uncomfortable at altitude, they went down 2-1 to Bolivia. It brought to an end an unbeaten run which had stretched to 19 matches, the last 11 straight victories. During that time the team booked their World Cup place with three games to spare, won the Confederations Cup and developed a tactical model and an aura of confidence which identify them as the team to beat in South Africa next year.
It is small wonder that national team coach, Dunga ,was hardly distraught about going down to Bolivia. But it is a fair bet he did not enjoy the experience. "Specialists in losing", was how Dunga once referred to Brazil's 1982 side, still remembered so fondly all over the planet for the joyful swagger of their play. Dunga, though, preferred to dwell on the fact that such a gifted generation came back empty handed from two World Cups (1986 as well), the 1983 Copa America and even a mini World Cup staged in Uruguay in 1980. He was a member of the next generation which, starting with the 1989 Copa America, began to accumulate titles with a more pragmatic brand of football.
Carlos Bledorn Verri (his real name) comes from the south of Brazil, an area of large scale Italian and German immigration. In some ways it is Brazil's Yorkshire, a land of straight talking men with a stubborn streak. Dunga certainly fits the bill. The nickname 'Dunga' comes from Dopey of the Seven Dwarves. It could well be a case of right film, wrong character. As a combative central midfielder he stomped his way across the field with an air more appropriate to Angry, or even Downright Truculent. He has taken that same spikiness into his current job.
With no previous coaching experience, he was a surprise choice to take over from Carlos Alberto Parreira after the disappointment of the 2006 World Cup. At the time he was widely seen as a stop-gap, a poor man's version of Luiz Felipe Scolari (the pair come from the same region of Brazil) only keeping the seat warm until the real thing became available.
But he showed right from the start that he meant business. He took over on a team-over-stars ticket – indeed his appointment was clearly a response to a perception that the big names had let themselves down in the last World Cup. Dunga omitted Kaka and Ronaldinho from his first squad, and sent out the message that places would have to be won on merit. He left them on the bench for the next game, a friendly against Argentina at the Emirates in September 2006. Kaka came on to contribute a wonder goal, charging half of the length of the pitch to score and Dunga's Brazil were on their way.
In Germany '06, Brazil had been Ronaldo's team. In order to accommodate him and Adriano, Kaka had been forced to track back and, overworked, soon ran out of gas. The best player in the opening game against Croatia, he was the worst in the fateful quarter final against France. Showing the strains of his sacrifice, he was substituted early in the second half.
All that has now changed. Kaka, now at Real Madrid, quickly established himself as king of Dunga's team. The side has been built around him and the team's collective ability to break at pace. Brazil like to sit deep, with two giant holding midfielders, Gilberto Silva formerly of Arsenal now at Panathinaikos and Juventus' Felipe Melo, operating close to the back four. Then they can spring Kaka or Robinho, or Internazionale's Maicon charging up like an express from right-back, all of them ready to link up with striker Luis Fabiano of Seville. With skill and speed Brazil's counter-attack is one of the most devastating weapons in world football. They can truly claim to see a corner for the opposition as a legitimate goal scoring opportunity for themselves.
Then there a re their own set pieces. These days Brazil are a tall, strong team. The long-term aim of matching the Europeans in physical terms has been achiev ed and then some.
Elano, once of Manchester City, or Real's Daniel Alves curl in the free-kicks and corners with superb precision and a range of options, and a phalanx of giants are ready to attack the ball in the air. Last month World Cup qualification was achieved in the sweetest possible way, with a 3-1 win away to Argentina. Diego Maradona's men were on top for the first 20 minutes, but as soon as gangling centre-back Luisao of Benfica headed home from a free-kick, there was only one winner. In game after game of their winning run it was goals from set pieces that opened the path to victory.
This novice coach, then, has fashioned a team which appears to take the field knowing exactly what it is trying to do. It is also a team in Dunga's own image as a player – spiky, committed, aggressive and in no way bohemian. The tone seems to be set by the senior players, the uncompromising centre-half Lucio of Inter and Kaka (right), whose religious fervour demands a certain rigour and sobriety.
The press have been frequent targets of the combative side of Dunga's nature. Brazil's coach was appalled by the media circus that surrounded Brazil in the last World Cup. Training sessions open to the public, players late for training because they were participating in TV programmes , he would have no truck with this. Media access to the players has been reduced and Dunga has launched into occasional attacks on the press.
It is not behaviour guaranteed to win friends and influence people. There have been times when the press were gunning for his dismissal, and a couple of moments when without a touch of luck he might have fallen. The run of recent results, though, puts Dunga in a strong position, and the press has been full of columns publicly apologising for ever having doubted him.
But there is one writer who has yet to be convinced and he happens to be the country's wisest and most credible. Former great Tostao had some praise for Dunga's leadership and tactical skills in a fascinating column published last week. But he also had this to say: "Dunga should not think that the only way to win is score goals from set-pieces, pick two deep lying midfielders and counter attack. Against more defensive teams there is need to mark higher up the field, pass the ball more and have a midfielder who can mark and also burst forward... The coach of a Brazil side should be committed not only to efficiency, but also to excellence and attractive football."
Dunga is unlikely to be too impressed. He seems to regard the joga bonito stuff as part of a conspiracy to prevent Brazil from winning by overdoing the aesthetics. Nevertheless, he would do well to remember that football is never just about what you do, it's also about how you do it.
As Tostao writes, "Dunga will never understand how Tele Santana [coach in 82 and 86] can lose two world titles and still be remembered as one of the best ever coaches."
There are no prizes for coming first in World Cup qualification, nor is there durable glory in lifting the Confederations Cup. Dunga's work in charge of Brazil will not receive its definitive judgement until South Africa next year. With its ultra-pragmatic approach, his team are a hostage to results. Winning the trophy will be Dunga's ultimate vindication. Fall short, and some of those who have been writing grovelling apologies will have a different story to sell.
Lucky 13: Brazil's goal-getters
*Thirteen players have already scored for Brazil as the goals have come from all sections of the side:
9 Luis Fabiano – striker (matches: 10)
5 Nilmar – striker (matches: 4), Kaka – attacking midfielder (matches: 10)
4 Robinho – striker (matches: 15)
2 Julio Baptista – attacking midfielder (matches: 7)
1 Vagner Love – striker (matches: 4), Adriano – striker (matches: 6), Ronaldinho – attacking midfielder (matches: 8), Elano – central midfielder (matches: 13), Felipe Melo – defensive midfielder (matches: 6), Luisao – central defender (matches: 7), Juan – central defender (matches: 10), Daniel Alves – right back (matches: 9)