So now that Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri has announced his 23-man list of players for the World Cup (definitive pending last-minute injuries, with seven named outsiders remaining on standby), the popular reactions in Brazil are not so different from those expressed by people all the world over in recent days; give or take the tenuating influence of a plainly sincere patriotism and huge (some would say unhealthily) emotional investment of Brazilians in the implications of this simple sporting decision.
Patently aware that such debates are liable to fall into Manichaean simplicity, I eagerly consumed Dunga's press conference itself and the reaction, at state, nationwide and international level in the hope to capture a balanced appraisal of views.
The press conference itself was a far from the sipid, sanitised affair I had come to expect through the weariness of having listened to Sven Goran Erikson soundbites down throught the years. Instead, as a local gaucho journalist pointed out, it was a lesson in PR delivery under pressure; the glare of a nation's scrutiny which Dunga had to bare for just over an hour, alongside assistant coach Jorginho. The duo delivered their message resolutely, at times with a soft hand, firm convictions couched in diplomatic language but occassionally the tension threatened to boil over, and almost got the better of a simmering Jorginho.
Let's go through the team, position by position and see how the inclusions
and ommissions have been received in the court of public opinion.
In goal. Unanimous approval of Julio Cesar, widely considered the world's best keeper. Gomes of Tottenham was a late runner but it had largely been forgotten that he had played under Parreira in 2005, and Dunga's call-up represents a reward for recent performances at a high level. Much more contentious has been the sustained inclusion of Doni of AS Roma ahead of Gremio's Victor as a reserve, despite recently being injured and despite never having even played minutes under Dunga. For the coach, the issue was one of reciprocal loyalty and compromise; Doni had triggered a row with his Italian employers and been reprimanded for insisting on staying with the national team and undergoing restorative treatment under the 'canarinha' physio Fábio Masseredjan. And the opportunity was not wasted by Dunga, who was at pains to use this an instructive gesture towards his other squad members. It also conveniently provided him with ammunition to highlight the wayward attitude of players, such as Ronaldinho Gaucho, who had requested holidays during the 2007 Copa America.
The squad list as a whole is basically the 2009 Confederations Cup team in its entirety, which itself was the culmination of three years' solid work. It also serves as a boiler plate statement for Dunga's raison d'etre; with us or against us, we're all in this together, love us or hate us, we don't care. Now, even the most disheartened critics have had to concede to Dunga the valid point that to turn around at the last moment, to abandon his convictions and cede to popular and media-led demand by including such and such a player would have been a betrayal of his project, and perhaps have risked his hard-won authority in the eyes of his existing recruits. This last word here is apt in its military connotations because Dunga used the podium to evoke, not so convincingly, turbulent periods of Brazilian history, going so far as to appeal to the Brazilian's capacity to withstand suffering given that "we Brazilians are all, to some degree, descended from slaves", patent nonsense that overlooks how large swathes of the crypto-feudal governing elite, especially in the northernmost regions, and who blight the country with their dubious practices are commonly descended from white slave owners! Such allegories were immediately called out and refuted by esteemed journalists such as Juca Kfouri, who went on to denounce the thub-thumping patriotism as "the refuge of scoundrels" in allusion to George Bernard Shaw's famous quote.
The most vexing issue for the Brazilian public has been the ommission of creative starlets Paulo Henqrique 'Ganso' (20) and Neymar (18), both of Santos C.F., given the absence of ingenuity that would likely befall team in the event of Kaka's protagonism being deleted or hampered by his recurring pubis injury. Julio Baptista, for all his endeavours and goal-scoring ability is not considered to be a player gifted enough to fill the potential void in the absence of the Real Madrid man. Moreover, Ganso offers something different to even those undeniably supreme qualities offered by Kaka; in place of the power, verticality and shooting of the latter (a very direct and 'objective' trequartista by most standards), young Ganso ('Goose')exudes a more svelt and and pensive style, a classical 'enganche' it would be fair to say with hints of the grace of a young Riquelme (and so far without the cocooned fecklessness of the Slow-Motion Wizard). That, of course, is a strictly technical appraisal of what Ganso (or a similar player) could offer to Brazil, even as an option on the bench, to unlock well-organised defenses in a way that contrasts to Dunga's set-piece bombardment strategy.
The more emotive element to this is of course, that curious and untangible sensation generated amongst all and sundry through the introduction of young prodigies as a potential wild card, and unknown element to throw on and upset veteran opponents who have never faced them before, and secondarily to hone talent for the future tournaments such as 2014, towards which the selection of these tyros might provide a grounding experience. If these arguments even vaguely smack of wishful thinking, then Dunga is only too happy to adopt the according posture; "I'm not preparing young players for 2014- I've been hired to win the 2010 World Cup!" he affirms. Not my job guv', appears to be the stock reply.
Another sentimental aspect, and one which is perfectly understandable, is the Brazilian public's desire to see some home-based players represented in the squad.
Consider the following: in 1958 all of Brazil's World Cup winners were domestically based. In 1970 the same could be said. 1982 witnessed Brazil take all but two domestic-based players to the finals; creative midfielder Dirceu and also a 28-year Falcão at the time playing for Roma. This should be instructive; both players had moved to Europe just when they were entering their prime and not as adolescent hopefuls as is so often the case today. That a Flamengo side that featured Zico and Junior at their zenith beat Liverpool convincingly in the 1981 Intercontinental Cup was as much indicative of the strength of the Brazilian Championship back then as it was of the lack of interest and respect paid by some of the Liverpool players such as Graeme Souness, who admitted that he among others had approached the outing as welcome respite and an opportunity to play some golf.
If you will kindly indulge a further aside, a word about Falcão: his ommission from the 1978 tournament has to be classified as ludicrous when taking into consideration that he was captain of an Internacional side who had won consecutive league titles in 1975 and '76, and would add a third in 1979. Unlike Falcão, there is no single player in today's Brazilian league whose case on cold hard merit and achievement screams for admission.
In 1986, a similar story in terms of squad composition; 31-year old centre-back Edinho of Udinese along with Junior (ex-Flamengo and flying full-back from '82) who was now at Torino. Italia '90 saw a substantial exterior make-up to the squad with up to ten players (primarily Italy-based; the imposing clout of Serie A in Europe) making the squad, but by 1994 a watershed had been reached; twelve overseas-based Brazilian players, for the first time constituting a majority, in a squad of twenty-two. This proportion remained basically the same in 1994 with eleven out of twenty-two, but by 1998 this home representation had dropped dramatically to just six players in a Eurocentric footballing world.
Luiz Felipe Scolari's formula of Faith and Fatherland was a major factor in upsetting the trend in 2002 when in a moment of lucidity or tokenism he included thirteen footballers who had yet resisted the allure of Euro, sterling, yen and petrodinars. But that Kleberson would go on to be one of the stars of that team is telling: whilst winning the Brazilian title with unfancied outfit Atletico Paranaense in December 2001 surely stands as a worthy achievement, it is difficult to dispute that at this rate, the general quality of Brazil's championship was far behind those of the European leagues where its exports were shining; and this was true even in the years before the recent strenghtening of the Brazilian currency, the Real, and the subsequent repatriation of high-profile players who are not completely finished.
In 2006, only three players were selected for Carlos Alberto Parreira's deflating adventure in Germany; Kleberson, by then finding his feet back in Brazil following a frustrating spell with Manchester United, was not deemed sufficiently good to warrant a call-up. This time around however, the same player is back on board for South Africa, and this time not even overtures to national pride are cutting little ice with that constituency of Brazilian fans who would otherwise welcome his inclusion. Kleberson, in recent weeks, has been ushered towards the fringes of a dysfunctioning Flamengo squad, and when he did make an appearance recently in the Libertadores quarter-final versus Chilean side "La U", he was anonymous.
Though they compete for different positions, the juxtaposition has been eagerly seized upon by the public between that of Kleberson's ineffectiveness and a different, startling performance, also held on the same night, by Ganso as his Santos side lost away to Gremio in a 4-3 thriller. "Dunga, are you watching!" was the incredulous cry of an exasperated Brazilian audience. The "Goose" is so named because of his deceptively awkward gait, rotund-like waist and thin limbs, not to mention a beak-shaped face (unless my eyes deceive me), but his football is anything but clumsy. He set up Santos' second goal, came close to adding one of his own with a seemingly impossible lob from about 10 yards only to clip the crossbar, was constantly threading balls through a decent Grêmio defense (featuring the impressive Mário Fernandes - a proto-Puyol in the making) for centre-forward André, and then capped it all off with a lofted diagonal ball onto the chest of Robinho who volleyed home for Santos' crucial third and a lifeline for the return leg.
Mention of Santos, inevitably, cannot exclude talk of Neymar, the wirey jitterbug of a second-striker-cum-winger (not unlike Robinho) and of his exclusion from Brazil's 23-man squad. Dunga's refusal to bow to pressure on this front made a pointed reference to how, despite the stellar rise in form of Santos over the past six months, this has amounted to winning the São Paulo State Championship against many a provincial side, whereas in their most recent baptism of fire - playing for Brazil at U-20 level - neither of the Santos kids were impressive, hence his doubts about their ability, at the moment, to make a step up to such an elite level.
My own view on the pair is that Ganso is the more worthy of inclusion, not so much because of a perceived superiority/inferiority with regards Neymar in absolute terms, but because in the case of the Goose, his game is such that it is more collective-minded, team-oriented; he is a playmaker after all, and therefore more conducive to complementing his senior teammates were he to make any appearances, however brief. Neymar is pure excitement, irreverance, a dribbler with a spontaneity that could prove useful in the future if allied with a greater awareness of those around him.
Thus the ground was laid for some of the most jagged questions, dare say accusations, hurled at Dunga during the press conferece. Each query was a variation on this theme, the Santos kids, and each was couched in language ranging from respectful to insistent to denunciatory; in the latter case, journalist Cicero Mello pulled no punches when he expounded: "Dunga, I thank God you were not national team coach back in 1958, 'cos on this basis you wouldn't have taken Pele to that World Cup". Dunga's response was measured, but his assistant Jorginho decried such comparisons between Neymar and Pele as absurd. A visibly flustered Jorginho leapt to his former team mate's defence when another question from the floor pryed as to whether Dunga was waging and ideological vendetta on talent since his 1994 group of victors were, on the whole, not noticeably talented, and also as to whether Dunga (and players of his ilk) were incapable of recognising or appreciating talent. It is hard to imagine someone addressing Fabio Cappello in such terms at Soho Square!
Right now, Robinho provides an individualist wild-card for Dunga, so there seems to be less of a case for bringing someone of similar characteristics and besides, Nilmar is a reliable back-up for the Manchester City misfit in the outside-left slot, offering directness, speed and goalscoring ability. Of Ganso's type, there is no other, young or old in this Brazil squad, and on that basis alone, I think it would be worth taking a risk on him.
Other approving noises were made by the technical staff in honour of those players who had proved their versatility at both international and club level in recent years. Players like Daniel Alves were heralded for their willingness to "play anywhere you want me to, Professor, as long as it's not in goal", and now the Barcelona wing-back is Dunga's most adaptable weapon, Player No.12, with a view towards claiming right-back (behind Maicon), right-interior-midfield and even left-back in the event of any adjustments. Michel Bastos looks to have claimed the left-back slot, somewhat belatedly, but doubts remain concerning his positional awareness (raised by the press pack). Jorginho refuted this by pointing out that, in having played for Lille and then Lyon mostly as a wide-left midfielder and more recently as a right-sided tornante, people shouldn't view this as something detractory or undermining but rather see it as a chance to exploit other qualities gained through such versatility. But Jorginho then went on to extend the rebuttal into an urbi-et-orbi appeal, a plea even, for people to stop being so negative about everything, why can't you see the positive....get behind us: overall it conveyed self-pity, a dose of moralism, and arguably bordered on emotional blackmail.
In terms of sriking options, there is plain confidence in Luis Fabiano's credentials but those of his back-up, Grafite, are being questioned. Do bear in mind that Wolfsburg, despite being 2008-09 German champions enjoy a very low profile in Brazil, where perhaps only Bayern Munich register on the consciousness. Grafite is seen as emblematic of a typical Dunga inclusion; rewarded for hard work, the former door-to-door bin-bag salesman has quietly but seriously gone about shaping a career for himself in Europe. Alas, this absence of a star name or a more glamourous team only generates a mistrust in his compatriots, who fear, however injustly, that he may be simply another Afonso Alves.
Dunga will doubtelssly take delight in confounding those pundits an ex-players who take a view of the game that he would consider absurdly romantic, naive and even effete and decadent. To be fair, the fatuous Nike-isation of Brazil's footballing image in recent years has done much to support his argument against ball-juggling, irresponsible street entertainers. In return this has only ilicited a firey reaction from the more 'macho, football-as-war' segments of the footballing public in direct proportion to such frivolity. But both views are mistaken, in my opinion. The strength of Brazilian football as demonstrated 1958, 1970 and 1982 was the ability to play convincing, pro-active football, garnished with individual virtuosity and fused with a sense of synchronisation and tactical solidity; this is the country, after all, which orginated the back-four system.
Mauricio Macri, the current mayor of Buenos Aires and former Boca Juniors president, once attempted to explain traditionalist Argentine misgivings about then albiceleste boss Marcelo Bielsa, whose side were garnering plaudits for their adventurous Dutch-inspired attacking play between 1999 and 2002: "He has mechanised football", proffered Macri. In other words, for many Argentines, whether of the cynical (Bilardista) or noble (Menotti)persuasion in their footballing tastes, Bielsa's Argentina played too fast and too intensely, with little room for improvisation. The caveat is that Bielsa's machine was geared completely towards offensive, adventurous football. Dunga, in contrast, has mechanised the Brazilian team towards a different operating system; a coiled spring, a pressing machine which contracts and then lunges in rapid and objective counter-attacks. It is so compact, that the midfield has practically ceased to exist as a component.
One thing has become clear to me is that Dunga displays the materials necessary to be a club coach. The consistency of his work since taking command in August 2006 bears the hallmark of an authority that usually can only be wielded on a day-to-day basis at club level. There is talk of more than one Italian Serie A suitor, but even a World Cup triumph will not satiate a large swathe of the Brazilian people.