Brazil being one of the two best national sides in the world surprises nobody. The surprise is how they're doing it.
Much to the chagrin of a Brazilian public who had bought into the notion of style before results, Dunga has reminded the Selecão there's another way to win. To this point, Dunga's way is proving more consistent: 2007 Copa America, 2009 Confederations Cup, finishing on top of CONMEBOL qualifying, number one team in the world. As a result, the cries about the style of Brazilian football have been drowned out by the victory celebrations.
The change in style comes down to pragmatism, a value system that is an extension of Dunga, the player, former captain of Brazil. Amongst his 96 caps are the seven in the 1994 World Cup, where he led his team to the world title. Then, in addition to converting the winning penalty kick in the final against Italy, Dunga's efforts in defensive midfield in front of the stellar Aldair and Márcio Santos held Brazil's opponents to three goals, keeping five clean sheets.
Because of the way they won the title, the 1994 Brazil team is not remembered amongst the nation's classic teams - the 1958, 1970 or even the 1982 team - a distinction that has done little to change Dunga's approach. If anything, Dunga has become more set in his ways, building his team around the spine of Julio César, Lucio, Kaká and Lúis Fabiano, eschewing players who would not fit or could distract - players like Ronaldinho and Adriano.
There continue to be detractors - those who thought Ronaldinho, Neymar, or Ganso needed to be in the final 23 - but their only recourse is aesthetics. Though people may not like the way the results were cultivates, the results are there. Brazilian was not only the best defensive team in CONMEBOL qualifying. They scored the most goals, and critics need only look to the Confederations Cup final to know if Brazil can score goals when they need them.
Not that the critics are looking.
How They Got Here
South American qualifying was a story of three parts for the Selecão.
Through the first 11 rounds of CONMEBOL's double round robin, Brazil only lost once; however, they'd only won four times. Then, starting in April 2009, Brazil rolled-off five straight wins, including historic triumphs in Montevideo and Rosario. With three rounds of qualifying left, Brazil had punched their ticket to South Africa.
Brazil used the final three rounds of qualifying to look at the players who would fill out their World Cup squad. Nilmar got a hat-trick against Chile. Diego was given a chance for their loss at Bolivia. Lucas got a start in a draw with Venezuela, and after the tournament was over, Brazil only had a one point win over Chile.
And at the beginning of qualifying, that one-point-picture may have been an accurate reflection of Brazil's qualify. At the end, Brazil didn't care, but in the middle - in that critical span that sent them to Uruguay and Argentina, that saw them distance themselves from Paraguay and Chile - Brazil showed themselves on a different level from their rest of the continent.
How They've Fared Before
They've won the competition five times, a record, the last time in 2002. They've made the final two other times and the semifinals and additional three.
But as remarkable as the high-end of their achievements is, the low (or, lack there of) is also equally beguiling. Brazil has gotten out of the first round of sixteen consecutive World Cups.
Players To Watch
Kaká is the key to this team. In a central, attacking midfield position, he enables Brazil to transition into the counter attack upon which they rely. Be it carrying the ball into the attacking third, finding Robinho wide or playing the ball through to Fabiano, Kaká is the only player who can make the attack work. If anything were to happen to him, Brazil would have to completely change their approach, a worrisome notion considering Kaká has lacked fitness and form in his first season at Real Madrid.
Luis Fabiano may be the world's most productive striker at the international level, but it's the little things that make him so valuable. His work along the line occupies center halves who could otherwise be breaking-up counters before they form, and those defenders who mistime attempts to break-up those counters find Kaká feeding Fabiano behind them. He has a knack for space room in the box, potentially match-winning on set pieces or at the end of crosses.
Lucio, the team's captain, is arguably the best central defender in the world. The only potential criticism of him is a slight lack of foot speed; however, he reads a match extremely well, almost always knowing when he needs to leave his position to help. He seems to relish the physical game and can guide his team with his experience from the 2002 World Cup.
In goal, Julio César is in the conversation as best in the world, recently receiving accolades for his performance at the Nou Camp, when Barcelona's late match substitutions left the hosts with a team working the flanks around the box. César's decision making was exemplary, and as teams are forced wide by a Brazil defense whose strength is in the middle, the Internazionale keeper will again have opportunities to control matches.
Brazil also has Maicon, arguably the best right back in the game, but it is this spine that is the key to the Selecão.
How Far They Can Get
They'll be expected to win and should be disappointed if they don't. With the tournament's drastic altitude and climate differences, Brazil's strength, physical fitness, and style augment their case vis-a-vis Spain.
A lot can change over the next two months, but as of now, it's difficult to see them tripping up against any other team.
|June 15||North Korea||Johannesburg (Ellis)|
|June 20||Cote d'Ivoire||Johannesburg (Soccer City)|
|César, Julio||30||47||0||Internazionale (Italy)|
|Gomes||29||9||0||Tottenham Hotspur (England)|
|Alves, Daniel||27||33||3||Barcelona (Spain)|
|Bastos, Michael||26||3||0||Lyon (France)|
|Silva, Thiago||25||6||0||Milan (Italy)|
|Baptista, Julio||28||45||5||Roma (Italy)|
|Kaka||28||76||26||Real Madrid (Spain)|
|Melo, Felipe||26||16||2||Juventus (Italy)|
|Silva, Gilberto||33||86||3||Panathinaikos (Greece)|
|Fabiano, Luis||29||36||25||Sevilla (Spain)|