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Brazil’s Long Road to Redemption

As Copa America 2015 approaches, Dunga continues to succeed in his colossal task of mending Brazil’s broken bones.


As South America gears up for June’s Copa America tournament in Chile, the continent’s longstanding standard-bearers are nursing near-fatal wounds. Brazil’s shock World Cup 2014 exit is the kind of cultural tragedy that lingers for years, maybe even generations. There’s no foreseeable grandstanding when a soccer-mad nation takes an L on home soil like the Selecao did against Germany. There’s no “buts.” You simply put your collective heads down, take the loss with any shred or semblance of honor available, and then go grab a First Aid kit. It’s an ugly process but also a necessary one.

Wins serve as gauze in this journey.

Under the guidance of new/old coach Dunga, Brazil ended this week’s international break with two impressive albeit unspectacular wins. A comeback away win versus France was a welcome accomplishment, as the traditional passion and guile of Brazil’s side was uncovered. The 3-1 victory wasn’t a dominant performance — not by a long stretch — but it highlighted the Selecao’s obvious strengths: speed, counterattacking, and decisiveness in-front of goal.

Brazil then followed up with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Chile. Like the two teams’ World Cup meeting last year, it was largely difficult to separate the two over the 90 minutes. Per usual, it was a bit of long-distanced quality that shone through in the end for Brazil as a clever through ball from right-back Danilo found Roberto Firmino, who cleanly rounded Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo to slot home the winning tally.

In truth, the same things that have plagued Brazil for years remain prevalent. An average midfield, in a football climate where centre-of-the-park players are king, will continue to keep Brazil just outside of the upper echelon of international greatness. Fernandinho, Fernando, and Luiz Gustavo, while all fine talents, do not measure up to the bolstering midfields of Germany, Spain, Italy, and, probably even on most days, France. Luckily, as far as South American competition goes, Brazil’s midfield still stands above most, although Sunday’s match against Chile showed that Dunga still has much work to do on the pitch.

These latest friendlies did reveal some positives for Brazil, however. Notably, the inclusion of Sunday’s hero, Roberto Firmino.

Firmino’s road to the Selecao has been wrought with blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of waiting. That might sound weird when you discover that the Alagoas native is only 23-years-old, but it’s true. Despite repeated stellar performances over his 133 appearances for Hoffenheim since 2011, Firmino was only given his first cap for Brazil in October of last year. Dunga’s usage of the attacking midfielder in a more advanced false-9 role proved savvy against Chile as Firmino deposited the winner (his second in four appearances for Brazil) in a manner reminiscent of legendary samba forwards Romario and Ronaldo.

Firmino’s presence is Dunga’s middle finger to Brazil’s World Cup disaster. It may not be pointed directly at Phil Scolari’s head, but it’s certainly in his vague direction. With such a historical failure weighing on the hearts and minds of millions of Brazilians, not to mention the ones actually donning the jerseys, the revamped Dunga understands his objectives. The biggest one: toss the final scoops of dirt on top of last summer’s memory, then bury the shovel.

SOCCER: MAR 26 International Friendly - Brazil at France

So how does Dunga actually do that? It’s not as difficult as you may think. The disbanding of “Phil’s boys” might be all it takes. Calling up the players who deserve it based on their domestic showings is a start. Players like Firmino, Miranda, Felipe Luis, and Danilo. Thinking twice about sentimental selections like Jo, Henrique, Paulinho, and Fred. Focus on molding a unique blend of veterans, sparkplugs, and in-form talents, and the squad will naturally take shape. The focal points won’t change; Thiago Silva at the back and Neymar up-front, that much is certain regardless of who the coach is. The rest can be tampered with a bit. Spots shouldn’t be guaranteed but earned.

Dunga honestly has it good right now. Very good. Scolari has temporarily been blacklisted from any and all events containing yellow shirts, so there’s no harm in being compared to “the last guy.” Most Brazilians understand that it cannot get any worse than Belo Horizonte, which means Dunga’s expectations are at an all-time low. Yes, Selecao supporters believe their boys  belong amidst the elite of international football. But they also know there’s a grace period required this time around. This year’s Copa America might be too soon. (If they were to somehow win this summer’s South American tourney, while it’d be a lovely achievement, it’d only amount to the first step in a multiple-years-long trek.) The images of “7-1” cannot leave their culture soon enough, though that’s something that needs to be exorcised, not wished or dranken, away. Enter Dunga in the role of Father Merrin.

Speaking to The Daily Mail this week, the Brazilian boss spoke of the role his side plays in the general zeitgeist of his country: “In Brazil, football is all people think about 24 hours a day. We are not really that engaged with politics or economics. It is football, football, football, football.”

He’s not lying. Although I’d like to believe that all of Brazil is too concerned with the economic struggles of their nation, I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. But their addiction to football thrives as significantly as ever, and like an addiction, the relationship to the monster amplifies most when things are down. So, how does Dunga bear that cross for his people?

“I don’t think of the pressure. I just get my job done and block it out.”

That’s Dunga in a nutshell: Just leave him alone, and let him work. What better way to combat an overflowing emotion of national pride that resulted in a collective drowning than to assign to it a knuckledragging hardman who doesn’t dance Samba and whose heart has never been introduced to his sleeve. The same man who criticized many of his own players for crying after that Germany loss, dying their hair during the World Cup, and wearing hats promoting their own brands. How do you heal a broken nation? You put that guy in charge.

Or is that how you ruin it for good? Oh well, we’ll find out soon enough.

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