“I fear only one thing: death.”
Those words were not spoken by the Faceless Men in Braavos, but rather uttered by Carlos Dunga in the bowls of the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts when the assembled Brazilian and international media asked him about his job prospects after Brazil’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Peru, and the ensuing humiliation of an early exit at Copa América Centenario.
Dunga’s words were both bullish and foolhardy, but more so, delusional – stubborn and gnomic to the very last in a chronicle of a sacking foretold. But, at the same time, Dunga’s demise was also the tale of Brazil’s sad slide in the global game. “Dopey” faced a paucity in players at his disposal, but, ultimately, his many limitations and deficiencies surfaced again in his 2.0 era.
Yet to wail about his dismissal would be unjust. Dunga’s case must be examined from a pertinent angle: why did the Brazilian FA, the CBF, appoint him in the first place?
Apart from its many fine features, encompassed by the term Jogo Bonito (at least in the past), Brazilian soccer has some other peculiar traits and penchants: corruption, conservatism, and weirdness. Those can be translated, roughly, as mismanagement, skewed policy decisions, and – post-2014 World Cup – in Dunga’s renewed anointing as Brazil’s coach.
In an act of utter estrangement from reality, the CBF, however, deemed him fit to lead Brazil again in the summer of 2014. Brazil’s unforgiving 7-1 semi-finals defeat by Germany on home soil had been a stinging indictment for the Brazilian game. Brazil slid into a deep depression, with the outmoded and outdated approach of Luiz Felipe Scolari and his assistant Carlos Alberto Pereira. The Seleçao had fallen behind European avant-garde nations, like Germany and Belgium.
The reality demanded radical change, but the CBF’s choice for Dunga reeked of self-preservation and conservatism. It was also a fine example of Brazilian soccer’s tendency to be an oil tanker, as soccer journalist Tim Vickery often says – very slow to turn around, not even after a historic humiliation in the World Cup.
Dunga very much remained irascible and ill-tempered. His tempestuous relationship with the press remained, his touchline emotions boiled over again in a friendly against Argentina when he gave the Argentine assistant the “Cheirador” treatment.
As a coach, at least he evolved a bit. His persistent omissions of both PSG’s Thiago Silva and Real Madrid’s Marcelo were flabbergasting and inexcusable, but tactically Dunga realized that he needed to play a more expansive game during Copa América Centenario. He dared to field two creative midfielders, but ironically for Dunga, who is a pragmatist, that completely backfired against a young and experimental Peru.
Consecutive Copa América eliminations and a World Cup qualifying malaise rendered Dunga’s position untenable. Above all, the coach had neither a blueprint to change Brazilian soccer nor the desire to conceive one. He didn’t aspire to revolutionize the Brazilian game, in its most precarious state since the 1950 Maracanazo. Not that his bosses at the CBF encouraged him to. The whiskey-sodden autocrats wanted their little La La La Land intact, where a culture of greed and self-enrichment flourished.
The profound sense of existential crisis, so tangible in all layers of the Brazilian game, hasn’t filtered through to the higher echelons of the CBF. The next coaching appointment is of critical importance, because it offers Brazil a chance to reconfigure its game.
In Europe, continental powerhouses reshaped and remodeled their soccer identity after soul-crushing defeats. Spain reinvented its style and tactics after a 3-2 capitulation against Nigeria at the 1998 World Cup. Eventually, the La Roja would win Euro 2008. Germany renounced defensive solidity and organized build-up from the back for a more dynamic and adventurous approach when Joachim Low and Jürgen Klinsmann took charge after a disappointing first round exit at Euro 2004. A decade later, Die Mannschaft won the 2014 World Cup. Each time the overhaul spanned at least a decade, culminating in a renaissance.
Brazil better follow a similar roadmap. With the qualification for the Russia 2018 World Cup already in serious doubt, the alternative would be self-destruction, or as Tostão (Brazil’s 1970 World Cup great) put it, lead to “the funeral of the Brazilian game.”