Mano Menezes: I have to be quite careful talking about this because I am certainly not unhappy with what the team has shown so far, given the circumstances. It is easy to simply look at the results – in particular the defeats we suffered to Argentina, France and Germany – and overlook the fact that we have had a major overhaul of the national team since the last World Cup. We have basically changed the vast majority of the team who went to South Africa and there was no way we would escape paying the price. We have brought in a whole load of young and inexperienced players who had never played together before, but it was something we had to do to move forward.
Doesn’t this reshuffling strategy run the risk of increasing the pressure for a forthcoming World Cup that is already full of expectations?
It certainly has brought more demands and the reshuffle obviously made things harder for us on the pitch, especially against the stronger sides. But we can’t refrain from throwing the kids into the tougher missions. That is the only way we will be able to prepare them for what is to come. Always a difficult tournament, the World Cup will bring the added pressure of playing at home – and we can’t underestimate that. I believe we are learning a lot without great traumas. The players know they will have to be tested because, in 2014, they can’t expect teams to simply roll over.
Why do you think Brazil’s senior side has struggled of late?
There is no surprise in this because Brazil is still looking for its identity. We have been trying to return to our traditions of a strong passing game with individual skills. At the same time we are searching for a new mentality. We are getting there, but it is not something that will happen overnight. The team needs more fine-tuning and we have also suffered with injuries to key players. Lucas Leiva, for example, is a very important player for us and his absence will certainly cause trouble. Ganso is crucial for the kind of system we want to play, where a creative midfielder joins the strikers as often as he can. We also have to think about more immediate targets like the Olympics.
Brazil have never won the Olympic tournament and it has proved to be a problematic competition for both the country and its coaches in the past. Should you really have taken the Olympic job too?
First of all, it would be quite hypocritical of me not to be the Olympic team manager. Since I took over I have been going on and on about the importance of the Olympics as a tournament for Brazil, in terms of historical results and as a crucial step for our World Cup plans. Players who are now eligible for London 2012 will form 70 per cent of the 2014 squad. These games will be more important than ever for Brazil. Thus, wouldn’t it sound crazy if I simply decided not to take the team there?
But wouldn’t losing make your position more complicated?
I am never going to play safe just to keep my job. There are obvious risks and pressures, but you simply can’t obsess about getting fired. My job is also about overseeing a generational transition and, above all, to stimulate a change of attitudes on the pitch. For me, this shift is more important than sitting in the dugout in two years time.
Do you worry that you could be sacked if Brazil don’t win the gold medal?
I have learned in football not to work with “ifs”. I have been trying to get the strongest possible team together for the Olympics and I understand how important this competition has become to Brazilian football. But somebody needs to keep cool at the moment and, as the manager, I need to be the first one to take a deep breath. The pressure has always existed in the national team.
But unlike his predecessor Ricardo Teixeira, the Brazilian Football Confederation president Jose Maria Marin has not only publicly defined the gold medal as a priority but he has also commented on team selection. Has this made life harder for you?
I prefer to see it as style differences. President Teixeira didn’t speak his mind publicly and president Marin does. But I do know Marin has good intentions, although people might take him out of context.
How do you view your opponents in the group stage of the Olympics?
The under-20 team played Egypt last year and it was a complicated game [they drew 1-1]. I believe they will have a lot of those players in the Olympics and the fact it will be our first game in the competition makes it trickier. Brazil are always a good scalp to have. Belarus, our second opponents, did a great job at the Under-21 European Championship. We don’t have much information about New Zealand but you just can’t dismiss opponents. Brazil will have to prove on the pitch they are a better team.
What teams do you see as your main rivals in the competition?
Mexico, Great Britain and Spain are, in theory, our main opponents and we somehow hope they do their jobs in qualifying in first place in their groups so we can have very strong semi-finals.
So, can this group of players finally win the gold medal for Brazil?
I trust this group and I believe they are aware of the importance of this tournament. But the Olympics medals are the result of what happens over two weeks; they are a consequence of the moment of a team and we need to be at our best from July 25. That’s when we will know how good our chances are. But we have made progress in the last two years and I am confident that we are moving forward.
Would it be fair to say that the current generation are not as blessed with talent as some of those before them?
It might be a bit precipitated to say it now, when this crop of players hasn’t been tested in a big tournament, but we have some very exciting names and I really don’t believe we should be that pessimistic. We are making progress –
and the most important thing for the players to understand is that talent alone won’t be enough to make things work.
But would you agree that a lot of people in Brazil and abroad are starting to think this team might not win the World Cup?
As of today, we are not the favourites like Spain and Germany could be considered. But we can arrive in 2014 much closer to them. Let’s remember that the World Cup is the portrait of a specific moment lived by a team. Argentina arrived in Japan and South Korea in 2002 after cruising in the qualifiers and ended up going home in the first round.
Does the inclusion of three over-age players in your Olympic squad mean you are not going to rely just on youth in 2014?
Experience is important in football, and extremely valuable when you think of the challenges the group will face in 2014 – something that could overwhelm a younger player. I am not the kind of man who shuts the door for a professional purely for age reasons, so I am observing the over-30 players. If they are in good form by the time 2014 arrives, why should I exclude them?
Does that mean that Kaka could still have a part to play?
There is nothing preventing him from coming back and I even called him up for the Gabon and Egypt games last November. He got injured, though. Let me say that a lot of the criteria we use to cap players is not revealed to the public. We worry about not overexposing athletes, which is why I gave Robinho a break recently after he was getting a lot of stick back in Brazil. People say I protect Ronaldinho, but the only thing I said when I called him up for the first time in 2010, for the Argentina friendly in Doha, is that I would certainly not have him for just one game as it would be disrespectful to an athlete with such a history in the game.
Ronaldinho has had some good moments back in Brazilian football, but he is certainly not the same player who dazzled the world between 2002 and 2006. Is it really feasible that he could play in his third World Cup in two years time?
It’s not what Ronaldinho does in a week that will count. He’s a player with an importance that cannot only be measured on the pitch; he’s got the experience of world football. But, I admit, his fluctuating form is an issue.
Among the young players you have brought into the fold is David Luiz. Were you worried by his erratic form at times
for Chelsea last season?
David is a player I had been observing since his Benfica days and I do believe he has got amazing technique and a lot of maturity – which is why I was surprised to see him struggling at Chelsea. It led me to have a private chat with him. I just told him to calm down and stop trying to do everything. He needs to remember he is a defender, and that bombing forward should be an exception for it could expose him against quality opposition – he’s the last line of defence. But I believe David was just trying too hard to show his commitment to a club that invested heavily in his services. He’s had a lot of stick, but he’s an intelligent guy who will shrug it off and move on.
Interview by Fernando Duarte