By his own admission, Brazil’s most recent national coach Carlos Dunga stamped the national team with a pragmatic, counter-attacking style of play that many critics felt derailed the team from its true roots in attacking, attractive football. Socrates, the legendary Brazilian midfielder and captain of the 1982 World Cup team, lamented the pragmatism of Dunga’s style as follows:
“In these times of football as a business, winning became everything and the game is dominated by pragmatism. It is a shame even at the financial point of view, because Brazil could still be cashing in by using their unique tradition of flair, but we have given that away in order to chase trophies.”
1970 World Cup winner Gerson added to the criticism of Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri (Dunga)in a recent interview by claiming Ronaldinho’s omission from South Africa 2010 was unjustified:
"Holland are a good team but nothing exceptional. Leaving Ronaldinho out of the squad made no sense. So he likes to party? So what? What matters is that he knows how to play football at the highest level. Dunga couldn't train a team of bottle tops."
Socrates and Gerson may well be right in their position that Brazilian born players are not suited to counter-attacking football, but it would be unjust to facilely ignore and deride Dunga’s contribution to the national team over the course of a long and illustrious career.
When I think of Dunga I recall his leadership as a player more than anything else as captain of the Brazilian side in 1994 and 1998. In 1998, he imposed his authority on the squad in a manner that quickly solicited rumors that he was in line to coach the national team soon after his tenure as a player was over. Both in the build-up to France 1998 and the tournament itself, Dunga commanded not only the midfield but the team as a whole. When Dunga captained Brazil against Germany in a friendly in Stuggart in March 1998 in the lead-up to France, coach Mario Zagallo fielded a star studded squad with names that rolled trippingly off any soccer aficionado’s toungue. We saw Roberto Carlos tearing down the left flank, Cafu commanding the right and Ronaldo, Romario and Rivaldo near the mouth of goal with Bebeto on the bench and the young sensation Denilson wearing the number 10 jersey.
In one defensive confrontation between Roberto Carlos and Jorg Heinrich, Roberto Carlos was uncharacteristically about to lose his man as latter cut inside from the flank. True to form as a good captain, Dunga sensed the danger early and sprinted from the center of the pitch to win back the ball and initiate a dangerous counter-attack. Months later in France 1998, he routinely reprimanded his team-mates for failing to win a tackle or execute an incisive pass, even going so far as to feign a head-butt against Bebeto in the second match against Morocco. In the quarterfinal against Denmark, Roberto Carlos missed a defensive bicycle kick close to the edge of the penalty area, allowing Brian Laudrup to clinically dispatch the loose ball into the top right corner of the net, leaving the defending champions fighting for their World Cup lives with the score even at 2-2 in the 50th minute.
Immediately, Dunga began gesticulating to the crowd to inspire his team mates. Ten minutes later, his pass found the magical left foot of Rivaldo, who capitalized on the pasture of space left him by the Danish defense by sending a left footed rocket into the back of the net in what became the winning goal in a thrilling 3-2 victory. Never afraid to express his opinion or assert his authority on the pitch, he became synonymous for leadership, inspirational play and passion for the game. The semi-finals featured penalties against the Dutch with Dunga scoring the critical 4th penalty that, moments later, unfolded into the remarkable scene of he and goal-keeper Claudio Taffarel chest-butting each other in celebration as viewers saw, in tandem, tears of joy from Mario Zagallo, the coach.
As the coach of Brazil, the knives were out for Dunga in the fall of 2008 when the team had been held to three goalless draws against Argentina, Bolivia and Columbia. The national side had failed to score on home soil for a year and there was much speculation that he would be fired if dramatic results didn’t transpire soon. And then Brazil played Portugal on November 19, 2008 in Brasilia at the Garrincha stadium. Sensing there was something on the line, the team emerged in glorious form, passing the ball across all inches of the pitch as if their opponents were hardly present, neutralizing Cristiano Ronaldo and executing a dazzling 6-2 victory marked by a hat-trick by Luis Fabiano. The win marked the beginning of a string of excellent results in the South American qualifiers featuring a 3-1 victory against Argentina that constituted their first win over their arch-rivals in Argentina since 1995. Many had thought Dunga would be fired before the qualifiers were completed but he himself noted how the pressure was unrelenting for a Brazilian coach and, like his mother, who struggles daily with his father’s Alzheimer’s disease, he vowed to never give up.
Brazil finished top of the South American qualifying group, won Copa America and won the Confederations Cup. But their games—and even their victories—lacked panache. Dunga had many virtues as a coach, but the team was always in the process of finding itself, at precisely the moments when it should have found itself. On one hand, Dunga’s belief in hard work and teamwork was admirable for a squad that historically lacked discipline out of an unspoken arrogance in the global superiority of their technical ability. And his coaching philosophy—based as it was on a commitment to the basics of defending—and the importance of the rapport between a coach and his players, was well liked by many of the European based players who sensed how difficult it was to beat European teams who knew how to mark their opponents and impose pressure on the Brazilian full-backs the way the French had done in both 1998 and 2006. But the games themselves were ugly and disappointing, save for the occasional moments of brilliance when Kaka, Robinho, Ramires, Fabiano and company would combine down the center.
Brazil failed to find a playmaker in midfield who could orchestrate attacks, and they deviated from the passing game in midfield that won Spain the World Cup. Socrates and Gerson were right to say that Brazil are accustomed to imposing their games on their opponents and that to play any other way is almost invariably a disaster. And to play with one pure striker doesn’t exactly suit Brazil either, who have succeeded, in recent times, only when pairs of strikers such Romario and Bebeto and Ronaldo and Rivaldo stretch defences, occasionally allowing a third striker like Ronaldinho or Alexander Pato to destabilize defences even further. All this is to say that Mano Menezes, Dunga’s replacement, has his work cut out for him. The way ahead for Menezes not clear, but he is certain to encounter the results of the effort and leadership that Dunga invested in the national team, and will need to remould that philosophy and vision accordingly.