How Brazil recovered from embarrassment to build the world's best team

Julian Finney

Brazil's biggest prospects have flamed out, they've been awful in their last two big tournaments and they fired their coach less than two years ago. And yet, here they are, World Cup favorites.

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The Brazilian national team enter the World Cup with the weight of an entire nation on their shoulders. Granted, that happens to every country that happens to be hosting a World Cup, but the expectations aren't always the same for each host, and nor are they consistently realistic. A star-laden France side won the World Cup they hosted in 1998, but South Korea and Japan four years later were simply expected to get to the knockout round; South Africa accepted that they were likely to bow out early in 2010 and Germany were quite pleased with their third-place finish back in 2006.

Brazil though... Brazil are expected to win this World Cup. They have the best defenders, a solid midfield, a global superstar in Neymar and a good mix of attacking players to compliment him. They are not the favorites just because they're the hosts -- Brazil are arguably the best international team in the world at present, and might be favored to win this World Cup if it were hosted anywhere but Spain, Germany or Argentina.

While fans pegged them as favorites to win this tournament the second they found out it was going to be held in Brazil, their road to becoming a world power again was a rocky one. They flamed out of the 2010 World Cup in spectacular fashion, then proceeded to play profoundly uninspiring soccer through 2012. Their coach picked his teams poorly, prospects flamed out and stars that were performing for their clubs couldn't bring their best to the Selecao.

With a new coach came a new philosophy and a professional attitude. With less than two years to prepare, Luiz Felipe Scolari has turned a broken Brazil team into the favorites to win the World Cup.

This is the story of how Brazil fell apart, then picked up the pieces and fused them into what might be the best team in the world.

2010 World Cup qualifying: Samba football is dead and Dunga killed it

In 2006, Brazil were favorites to retain the World Cup. Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were two of the world's finest players, while Cafu and Roberto Carlos -- arguably the key to their 2002 success -- still had plenty to give. But Brazil lost in the quarterfinals, and the powers that be decided that the country, then famous for its flair and risk-taking, needed to join the rest of the world in taking a more balanced approach to the game.

Enter Dunga, a former international, hired to reform Brazil in his image. In his playing days, Dunga was a tough-tackling defensive midfielder who won 91 caps for his country. He was the antithesis of what comes to mind when one thinks of Brazilian footballers, but the Selecao have always tended to back up their flair with at least some steel. If one player sits deep and does the dirty work, the rest of the squad can play the beautiful soccer the team is known for. Or so went the theory.

Dunga didn't just add a little more structure to the team, he overhauled it completely. He was roundly criticized for the move to a more defensive system, despite the team still being more attack-minded and free-flowing than the vast majority of the world's elite. His team won the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Confederations Cup, then finished top in CONMEBOL qualifying.

How did they finish top? By allowing the fewest goals, and by a wide margin. Five of Brazil's qualifiers ended in 0-0 draws. Much of the public -- and the most vocal members of the Brazilian press -- didn't care about results. To many, Dunga was ruining what made the Selecao an international phenomenon and a source of national pride.

Dunga has largely stayed out of coaching, taking just one job since 2010. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

2010 World Cup: "But they won that tournament."

BBC journalist Tim Vickery resides in South America, where he covers soccer on that continent. On an episode of BBC Radio 5 Live's World Football Phone-In, prior to the 2010 World Cup, Vickery recounted a bizarre exchange between Dunga and a journalist during a press conference.

Despite grumblings that Brazil should have taken then-18-year-old phenom Neymar to the tournament, he was left off Dunga's squad, and understandably so. While Neymar had been very good in the 2009 Brasileirao and the 2010 Paulista, he'd never been tested against top-level competition. According to Vickery, an outraged journalist screamed something along the lines of "You're going to be remembered like Menotti was for not taking Maradona to the 1978 World Cup". Dunga looked puzzled for a few seconds before responding the only way he could: "...but they won that tournament."

And at the time, it looked like Neymar really would be the 2010 version of what Maradona was to the 1978 World Cup winners. They won Group G comfortably, then demolished a very good Chile side in the Round of 16. Then came Felipe Melo's 20 minutes of insanity -- he scored an own goal to let the Netherlands back into the match and proceeded to get himself sent off after Brazil went behind. From there, there was no way back for Brazil, or for Dunga. The team that was expected to meet Spain in the final was eliminated in embarrassing fashion, the journalists had their "I told you so" moment and the manager was axed.

His replacement was Corinthians coach Mano Menezes, who promised to build a team around young talent and bring the flair back to the Selecao. His appointment was widely heralded as being exactly what Brazil needed. It turned out to be a disaster.

A year of excellence

The calendar year after Menezes took the reins featured a handful of events that seemed to spell an enormously bright future, that they'd head into the 2014 World Cup and beyond as a juggernaut, loaded with world-class young talent, all while playing the style of soccer Brazil had become famous for.

Neymar's debut

Menezes probably would have picked Neymar for his first squad no matter what, but it wouldn't be surprising to learn that selecting him was the result of a directive from higher up. On July 26, 2010, Neymar made his debut for the senior national team and scored in a 2-0 victory over the United States. He's been first-choice for every match he's been fit for ever since.

2010 Copa Libertadores final: Internacional vs. Chivas Guadalajara

Delayed until August because of the World Cup, this edition of South America's biggest club game featured Brazilian side Internacional. In their team was a 20-year-old defensive midfielder by the name of Sandro, who had already agreed to move to Tottenham Hotspur for roughly £10m. He was brilliant in both legs, and went on to become one of the key players in Menezes' team.

2011 Copa Libertadores final - Santos FC vs. Peñarol

As great of a showcase as the 2010 final was for the future of Brazilian football, these matches were the showcase of what the world could expect from the Selecao going forward. The first leg in Uruguay ended 0-0, but Santos found goals in the second leg. Neymar scored the first and played the pass before Paulo Henrique Ganso's assist on the second. Ganso played the pass before the assist for Neymar's goal -- an absolutely gorgeous backheel to Arouca.

Not only did Neymar and Ganso shine in this final -- that Santos team also featured experienced Brazilian international midfielder Elano, super prospect Alan Patrick, and a pair of current FC Porto stars who will likely take over from the more experienced duo of Marcelo and Dani Alves shortly, Danilo and Alex Sandro.

2011 Copa America: Embarrassment

No one really knew how the 2011 Copa America was going to play out, but it was clear that Brazil had the easiest group. While Chile and Uruguay ended up in the same group and Argentina had to deal with a resurgent Colombia, Brazil got a limp set of teams. Paraguay and Ecuador are no pushovers, sure, but they were quite clearly not among the five best squads in the tournament and should have been handled comfortably. Venezuela was expected to be a non-factor.

Instead, Brazil drew against Venezuela, 0-0, and then against Paraguay, 2-2. But they turned on the style in a 4-2 win over Ecuador in the final group stage game, with Neymar and Alexandre Pato both scoring twice, inspiring some hope that Menezes' young team was starting to put it together. Thanks to Copa America's bizarre format, Brazil drew Paraguay in a rematch in the quarterfinal. What transpired must surely rank amongst the worst major tournament games in soccer history.

Unlike in the group stage game, Paraguay made no effort to attack. They defended so deep that Brazil only had a small handful of chances, wasting all of them. It was 0-0 at the end of 90 minutes, and extra time featured both teams standing around, waiting for penalties. As it turns out, that was a very bad decision on Brazil's part.

Screen_shot_2014-06-11_at_5.43.43_pm_medium

2012 Olympics: Silver again

The Olympics are the pinnacle of most sports, but men's soccer is a notable exception. Because the Olympics come during the same year as the European Championships and interferes with the start of the European club season, it's an Under-23 tournament with three over-age players allowed. Clubs often request that certain players be excluded from the tournament, and mostly get their way. As a result, it's not that big of a deal ... with one major exception.

Soon, everyone but the host country can stop caring about the men's soccer tournament at the Olympics, but not until Brazil win their gold medal. The Olympic gold medal is the last major honor that the Brazilian men have never won -- they've captured all of the World Cup, Copa America, Under-20 World Cup and Under-17 World Cup at least three times, but they've never been Olympic gold medalists.

This led to Brazil taking a hilariously stacked squad to London. The likes of Neymar, Ganso, Pato, Alex Sandro, Danilo and Sandro qualified as Under-23 players. Their three over-age players? Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Hulk. They won all three of their group stage games, snuck by Honduras in a fun quarterfinal and blasted South Korea in the semifinal en route to a date with Mexico in the gold medal match. They were expected to win comfortably.

Instead, Mexico over-age star Oribe Peralta -- their starting center forward at this World Cup -- torched them, scoring twice to help El Tri to their first ever gold medal. It was an outrageous upset, and one that had massive implications for the senior team.

Most teams appointed a specific Under-23 coach, promoted their Under-20 coach temporarily or had their senior team's assistant manager take over the Olympic squad. But Brazil? They put Menezes in charge of the team, so the senior manager had to bear the burden of the Under-23 side's failure.

A win in Brazil's next game wasn't going to be enough to preserve Menezes' job. He needed a spectacular blowout.

Mano Menezes finally bites it

He didn't get a spectacular blowout. Instead, Brazil drew against Colombia in New Jersey on November 14, with Juan Cuadrado scoring just before halftime. Neymar netted an equalizer in the second half, but it wasn't enough to save Menezes. Brazil's sub-par performance sealed his fate, and he was fired just over a week later. Luiz Felipe Scolari was hired to replace him, even though he'd just made a very significant contribution to getting Palmeiras relegated. This was a Hail Mary hire.

Waiting for Ganso

Remember Paulo Henrqiue Ganso, Santos' playmaker in their Copa Libertadores triumph, who went to the 2011 Copa America and 2012 Olympics? He's now a shell of his former self. The once-great playmaker is now a perpetually-injured disappointment, struggling to get back into the international picture. There are promising signs that he can become a star again -- he's played as many minutes in half of the 2014 season as he did in all of 2013 -- but any chance of him becoming an all-time great, which looked entirely possible three years ago, is probably long gone.

There was a time when Ganso was considered more ready for European club soccer and the Brazilian national team than his club teammate, Neymar, and just as much Brazil's golden boy. His skills were absolutely unparalleled.

Ganso needed Neymar and Neymar needed Ganso. Without Ganso's passing, Neymar's tricks were meaningless. Without Neymar's runs at goal and spectacular finishes, Ganso's through balls led nowhere. The dynamic duo were set to be the two key players at the 2014 World Cup.

Now one of them isn't even close to the national team picture.

If Ganso was the only can't miss superstar prospect to flame out for Brazil in the last few years, that would be one thing, but they've truly dropped like flies between World Cups. Sandro wasn't able to get fit after a knee injury just over a year ago. Ditto for Romulo, one of the few prospects to escape the Olympic debacle without any stink on them. Pato has the same never-ending fitness issues that Ganso does, while Leandro Damiao and Dede failed to leave Brazil when they should have and as a result have seen their careers stagnate completely. The aforementioned Alan Patrick and another super prospect, Alex Teixeira, have been massive disappointments in Eastern Europe and are miles off Scolari's radar.

Back in 2011, if you said that all of those players -- Ganso, Pato, Sandro, Romulo, Damiao, Dede, Teixeira and Patrick -- would be serious busts, without exception, but that Brazil would still be the best national team in the world, no one would have believed you.

And yet, Brazil are probably the best team in the world

Between his Brazil stints, Luiz Felipe Scolari had a stint at Chelsea. It was a colossal failure. At the heart of his struggles was his unwillingness to adapt to the Premier League and the players at his disposal. He wanted to play his way, with the type of players that he liked, and it ultimately cost him his job.

It appears that failure at Chelsea represented a significant learning experience for Scolari, who has turned a tire fire of a Brazil squad into World Cup favorites by keeping it simple. He identified his best players, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then proceeded to build a team around them.

He has world-class central defenders, so he can play an attacking game. But his fullbacks are brilliant going forward and average at defending, so he deploys a true defensive midfielder to help mitigate the threat of the counter when they're caught up the pitch. Neymar and Hulk are pure attacking wide forwards who don't do much of the dirty work, so Oscar, Paulinho and Fred were brought in to do it for them.

It's a sensible side, but one with only five truly world-class players -- Neymar and the back four. And even though the fullbacks are among the best in the world, they still have obvious deficiencies. Oscar may join that group someday, but most recent six months in a Chelsea shirt have been very poor, and he's mostly in this team because he has the highest work rate of Brazil's attacking midfielders.

Scolari's team plays pretty entertaining football, but they're much more Dunga than Menezes. This version of Scolari is just the continuation of Brazil's current cycle; he was appointed to replace the tactically inept Menezes, who was appointed to replace the boring Dunga, who was appointed to replace the tactically inept Carlos Alberto Parreira.

A backlash against practicality in the name of preserving a country's ideals is what sent Brazil into turmoil in 2010, but it's practicality that's sending them into the World Cup as favorites, even though a majority of the big prospects their future seemed to hinge on back in 2011 have flamed out.

This isn't the Brazil you came to love in your childhood, or that you've become infatuated with thanks to the magic of YouTube clips, but this is a very effective one. Given what's happened to them over the last four years, it's more than anyone could have reasonably hoped for.

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