Should Brazil break with tradition and hire a European coach to win elusive sixth World Cup?
Brazil are the only country to have won the World Cup five times. And on every occasion, the man in charge was Brazilian. So, say most of the Brazilian coaching fraternity, there is no need to start a revolution through a foreign appointment to the national team.
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To some, the idea of an outsider commanding the foremost symbol of the Brazilian nation is anathema. But there are problems with this way of thinking. For a start, it is entirely backward looking. It fails under the test of “what have you done for me lately?” More than two decades have gone by since Brazil last lifted the World Cup in 2002. In that time every campaign has ended as soon as they came up against a European team in the knockout stage. And the worrying thing is that the European teams are getting smaller — where once it was France and Germany, now it is Belgium and Croatia.
Another problem of the conservative view is that it misunderstands the history it seeks to venerate. There is a widespread belief that Brazil’s golden age was the consequence of having the best players and sending them out to express themselves, without concentrating on such mediocre details as defence. Good mythology, bad history. Golden-age Brazil were extremely organised. They pioneered the back four, for example, and when it was first introduced at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden — still the only time they have won in Europe — they did not concede a goal until the semifinal.
Paving the way for the triumphs of 1958, 1962, and 1970 was a mentality with a remarkable open mind and willingness to experiment — a process in which non-Brazilian coaches made a significant contribution at the club level. Argentines and Uruguayans were important in the early years, and the 1958 team was given a push in its tactical efficiency by Ondino Viera, from Uruguay, and Bela Guttmann, from Hungary.
Thirdly, facts must be faced. With Tite stepping down after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after 6½ years in charge of the national team, there is not a single outstanding, or even strong, Brazilian candidate to take over. Brazilian coaches have been losing space at home, and there is no doubt as to the three most impressive coaches in Brazil over the last few years. Jorge Jesus, from Portugal, caused a sensation when he constructed a front-loaded Flamengo side that swept all before them in 2019. Another Portuguese, Abel Ferreira, has used a much more pragmatic approach, taking Palmeiras to two continental and one domestic title in the last three years. And Juan Pablo Vojvoda from Argentina has conducted a minor miracle on a much lower budget with Fortaleza, carrying them up the league and into the CONMEBOL Libertadores.
Brazilian coaches, meanwhile, are rarely found elsewhere in South America and almost never found in Europe. The fraternity complain that this is because their coaching qualifications are not recognised in Europe. This might be true, but it is hardly relevant. There is simply no demand for them. Luiz Felipe Scolari did well with Portugal, but his time with Chelsea was a disappointment, like that of Vanderley Luxemburgo with Real Madrid. Both seemed stuck in Brazil, throwing the full-backs forward and finding the space behind them exposed by opponents who pressed higher than they were used to.
All of this leaves the Brazilian FA in an awkward position. Which way should they go? A while back, they had a plan — bring Xavi Hernandez in as an assistant, let everyone get used to the idea and then have Xavi take over after Qatar. But Xavi could not be seduced from Barcelona, and now they have to start from scratch.
And they run into an obvious problem. The best Brazilian players are all in Europe. This hurts many in the local game, even if some seek to deny it. But it is clearly true. This century, occasional forays into a more home-based selection policy have usually ended badly. And the best players are transferred at an ever-earlier age, meaning that they have no real knowledge of or contact with some of the Brazilian names who are floated as candidates, such as Fernando Diniz, coach of Fluminense.
And so Brazil’s focus would seem to be on top-line European coaches who, with the aid of the contacts book of the Brazil legend Ronaldo, are being approached behind the scenes. Carlo Ancelotti is seen to be the ideal, but he has a job with Real Madrid and is unlikely to walk out on it to take charge of Brazil. Of those not currently employed, the names of Zinedine Zidane and, especially, of former Spain coach Luis Enrique have been speculated.
None of these, though, have detailed knowledge of domestic Brazilian football — and this knowledge would be vital from a diplomatic point of view, winning people over by showing interest and curiosity. Luis Enrique, in particular, has never shown much interest in cultivating this type of diplomatic subtlety. Any foreign coach is in for a rough ride from the local media and coaches, especially the older ones, but the task would be made much easier by showing an attempt to engage with Brazilian club football, and the occasional callup of some home-based players.
It might be, then, that the happiest medium is to go with one of those non-Brazilian coaches who have enjoyed success in the country. This entails a step down from the top shelf of big names. But there are advantages in being able to straddle both worlds, to have the simultaneous capacity to engage with Brazil while also being part of a global network.
But Brazil have expressed a desire to go with an attack-based coach, which would seem to rule out Ferreira. The experience of Vojvoda is limited to South America, leaving Jorge Jesus (now at Fenerbahce) as the one ticking most of the boxes. But whether the chosen one is him, a bigger name European or a lesser known Brazilian, the path ahead looks full of pitfalls.