Defeat in Uruguay on 1 July will raise the real possibility of Brazil failing to make it to the World Cup for the first time. Montevideo is one of Brazil's most difficult venues, where they have won only three out of 23 matches. The last victory came 25 years and seven games ago. They will face the pressure of a proud nation desperate not to miss out on its third consecutive World Cup. The Brazilian FA president Ricardo Teixeira said his coach would need "a team of bandits".
It was an unfortunate choice of words. Teixeira spoke in Brasilia, a few blocks away from where a Congressional Commission of Inquiry (CPI) was presenting the results of a nine-month probe into his organisation. One of two current investigations into football corruption, this inquiry was set up to look into the relationship between Nike and the Brazil team. They could hardly lay a glove on the sportswear multinational, but there are plenty of punches for Teixeira to roll with. The report calls for his removal, and outlines 13 alleged irregularities. Many are complex offences against the financial system, but there is one which the layman can understand. Although the FA's statutes decree that his post is not remunerated, Teixeira is on the payroll to the tune of over £10,000 a month.
Many think it is not money well spent. As Brazil stumbled away from the Confederations Cup, the former international player Zico commented that "the national team is a reflection of the incompetent directors who run Brazilian football". Coach Emerson Leão paid the price. He was forced by club commitments to take a weakened squad to Asia, and was told that the tournament would not affect his job security. Then, as he arrived at the airport to board the plane home, he was informed of his sacking.
Leão's removal and the appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari were crudely timed to coincide with, and deflect attention from, the presentation of the CPI report. Leão landed at São Paulo muttering darkly to journalists that like a fallen minister he knew "some things that you would love to know", and whether he told them would depend on a chat with Teixeira. So far he has kept his mouth shut.
"The chronic and serious off-field problems hold back the Brazil team and need to be solved," wrote the 1970 star Tostão, now the country's most respected columnist. "But they are not the only reasons for the awful performances. Both Leão and [predecessor Wanderley] Luxemburgo were incompetent." The latter "selected badly and lacked emotional balance". As for Leão, the writing was on the wall after a dismal draw at home to Peru last April.
Following a defeat to Ecuador, Leão had dropped the European-based stars. It was a hugely popular move, tapping into nationalist nonsense about mercenaries who turned their back on Brazilian football. But it made him a hostage to the current mediocrity of the domestic game. The sponsors were unhappy at the lack of big names. Once his home-based players had failed, could Leão swallow his pride and recall Cafu, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos? In the end it was a decision he did not have to take. All three were named this week in Scolari's first squad, along with defensive midfielder Mauro Silva, a veteran of the 1994 World Cup win. It is a clear sign that Brazil's new boss sees experience as fundamental for the Uruguay game.
But Scolari claims to be looking at the long term. "Age is no longer an important factor in football," he said. "The older players are important now, and if they want they can come with me all the way to the World Cup."
"It is possible," wrote Tostão, "for Brazil to form an excellent team, qualify and win the next World Cup. For this to happen, Scolari needs to choose the best players, make few changes, define a new tactical posture and create a strong empathy between the players and the public."
The new man has long been Tostão's choice, and starts with public opinion firmly behind him. He announced that he has a core of some 32 players in mind. Both predecessors made the same declaration, yet Brazil used 52 players in 12 games as, under pressure, Luxemburgo and Leão played to the gallery or found room for the latest press favourite. Scolari would seem made of stronger stuff. Unlike Leão, he has a coaching cv that commands respect. Unlike Luxemburgo there is not a whiff of fake sophistication. The first time I saw him in a suit he was, indeed, the defendant, appealing against a suspension at a sports tribunal.
Scolari is almost a caricature of the rustic Gaucho from southern Brazil. Plain-speaking and authoritarian, he is known, with degrees of affection, as Big Phil. Now Brazilians hope his new responsibilities will not bring him down to size. Coaching the national team will be a test of his diplomatic skills.
His teams mark tight, and sometimes unfairly. "I think well-played, normal football," he told me nearly two years ago, "in certain situations obliges a player to commit a foul. What type? A normal foul, such as a push, shirt-pulling, use of the shoulder fouls which don't give the opponent the chance to organise. I'm not going to say 'don't do it because it's ugly'. I have to work within football. It's a dispute which both sides are trying to win within the law, or rather, within what is allowed. That's what I tell my players."
The use of the "normal" foul is common in Brazil, and it is refreshing to hear a coach speak about it so openly. Nevertheless, it sounds strange coming from the mouth of the man who picks the Brazil team, recognised as the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game. Scolari's pragmatism means that he was only likely to be appointed with Brazil in trouble. He turned the job down eight months ago after the Olympic fiasco put paid to Luxemburgo. His position has mellowed over recent months. He has worked at acquiring more political skills. Inviting Ronaldo to train with the team pleased sponsors and headline writers alike.
Even so, he is treading warily. "Both me and my wife were a bit shy about taking the job," he said, "because it's not easy. My nine- year-old son wants to know what he has to do to get in the team. My 17 year-old is more worried. He pointed out that before I was only insulted by the supporters of the team I was coaching. Now all of Brazil could be calling me stupid."Reuse content