With Luiz Felipe Scolari safely ensconced at CBF Towers it seems now that the whole thing was just a dream, half-forgotten on waking. But for a few days there it seemed as though history might be in the making.
Last Monday, reputable sports magazine Lance! published an open letter to CBF president Jose Maria Marin, calling for the appointment of Pep Guardiola as the next coach of the Seleção. “Dear President Marin,” the letter ran, “bringing in Pep would be your contribution to the transformation that our football needs, your legacy. And you can be sure that you will have public opinion on your side.”
It felt like a ground-breaking moment – a key element of the resolutely populist Brazilian media coming out in favour of a foreign coach, and equally importantly, confidently stating that it was doing so in the name of the Brazilian people.
For all the swaggering on-pitch assurance of its players, Brazil’s vision of its place in the footballing world is complicated. Fans have watched unhappily as European leagues have grown fat on a harvest of young Brazilian talent. And the powers of the Seleção, almost mythic in status for much of the last 50 years, are now greatly diminished.
Perhaps because of this fall from grace, the country’s relationship with the exterior is a curious mixture of stubborn national pride, occasional grudging admiration for the achievements of Spain or Barcelona, and some rather insular thinking. “We gave the gringos the bloody jogo bonito,” the thinking often runs, “what can they teach us?”
And there are wider historical factors at play. There are many in an often troubled society who gaze with envy at the comfort and ease of life in the more affluent parts of Europe and the USA. But at the same time a feeling of resentment exists, based around the theory that Brazil’s problems are, at least in part, related to the shadowy role played by foreign powers in the country’s history, from Portuguese colonialism through to alleged CIA support for the military dictatorship that took control of Brazil in 1964. “It’s all the fault of the rich countries,” former president Lula was fond of saying, about subjects ranging from the economic crisis to Julio César’s moment of weakness against Holland in 2010.
Which is why the idea of passing the reins of the one of the country’s greatest treasures, the Seleção, to a European coach is complicated to say the least. Unsurprisingly, for a few short days footballing civil war raged in Brazil.
The red (and blue striped) coats pointed to Guardiola’s success at the Camp Nou, and his key role in the Barcelona philosophy which believes that football done right is the result of a continuous long term planning and development process that begins not long after the cradle. Something that stands in direct contrast to the current Brazilian footballing mentality, where a Serie A coach can be sacked two games into a new season.
Team Guardiola also pointed out the weaknesses of the local candidates for the job – from Muricy Ramalho`s Libertadores failures (other than a Neymar inspired triumph with Santos in 2011) and world-class grouchiness (before his Santos side were dismantled by Barcelona in last year’s Club World Cup, he sourly remarked that Guardiola could only consider himself a top class manager once he had proved himself in the Brasileirão), to Felipão’s raging paranoia and disastrous recent spell at Palmeiras. Tite of Corinthians and Abel Braga of Fluminense were judged solid, if unthrilling, choices for the job.
Over in the other trench, those who would Buy Brazilian were equally vociferous. CBF Director of Seleções, Andres Sanchez (who left his post soon after his wish to keep Manezes in the job was overruled) was pulling no punches on Tuesday. “It`s ridiculous,” he blasted, “we’ve got loads of good coaches in Brazil!” When asked which Brazilian managers would be better choices than Guardiola, he bellowed “all of them!”
Chairman Marin, 80 years young, was only slightly more equivocal. “It’s difficult to see us having a foreign coach. We’ve won five World Cups with Brazilian trainers,” he smarmed. And needless to say, Guardiola’s rivals for the job were less than thrilled at the prospect of a Catalan Invasion. Muricy and Tite both poo-pooed the idea, with the Corinthians coach grumbling that “he’s only managed Barcelona…and who wouldn’t want to work with the players he had?”
As for the man himself, Guardiola (the Banquo’s ghost at many an under-threat manager’s dinner party) said nothing when buttonholed by a reporter last Monday. Surrounded by such bluster and counter-bluster, keeping his own counsel could hardly have been wiser.
Public opinion seemed to be split. Lance! reported that three major sporting polls had made Guardiola the favourite by a stretch. But it’s unclear how representative such polls might have been. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Man on the Copacabana Omnibus would like a Brazilian coach better, but would also like better Brazilian coaches.
Which is ironic, given that the situation is very much a mess of Brazil football’s own making. The exercise in stasis that is the CBF is the diametric opposite of progress, and the hot-headed “hire them then fire them two months later” attitude of club administrators, turning promising young managers into burnt out husks in a couple of years, has ravaged the Brazilian coaching landscape, leaving only a few hardy dinosaurs standing.
In the end, despite his Palmeiras debacle, Brazil plumped for Felipão, and Guardiola-gate will now become a mere footnote in Brazilian footballing history. It’s easy enough to see why Scolari got the nod – the pressure to win it all in 2014 will be immense, and the idea that the magic of 2002 can be recreated is a tempting enough fantasy.
But there is also a reek of the “same old, same old” about the decision – take a familiar face, add a quick fix, throw in a healthy dollop of short term thinking, and sprinkle a rebuke to those who might suggest that there is anything to be learned from the rest of the football world. The stars – a world-class coach on the market, a country in dire need, and a ground swell of favourable public opinion – do not often so fortuitously align, and it may be that an opportunity has been missed. As the great German Paul Breitner told an audience at the Soccerex conference in Rio this week, “football has changed. Moved in other directions. And you didn’t keep up.” Come 2014, all of Brazil will hope he’s wrong.
By James Young
James blog can be found here