Thursday 29 November 2012

Greetings from square one: Felipão returns after Menezes dismissal

Timing, in football and in life, is everything. Just ask poor old Mano Menezes. The 50-year-old, who had (somewhat fortuitously) kept his job as Brazil coach in the wake of a shoddy 2011 Copa América campaign and again after a bitterly disappointing loss in the final of the Olympic football tournament, was relieved of his duties on November 23 – just weeks after the seleção produced the two most impressive performances of his reign.

In time, it will become clear just how thankless the task undertaken by Menezes really was. The inheritor of a side troubled by the twin terrors of age and underachievement, Menezes managed to inject some spark back into the seleção. He successfully integrated a new generation of players, ended the perceived selection bias towards players plying their trade in Europe, and got Brazil playing proactive football after years of stuttering under Dunga.

True, his stewardship was not without fault. Brazil's Copa América performances were as stodgy as the pitches they were played on, while it took an inordinate amount of time to find a central midfield combination that suited the progressive game he wished his side to play. But he has reason to be thoroughly disappointed at his dismissal, which comes just 18 months before the World Cup. Menezes's whole project was based on a four-year cycle, which seemed more than fair given the enormity of the job at hand. As it is, he has been deprived of the opportunity to sit his final exam, that by which his work could have been fairly judged.

His sacking, which was orchestrated by CBF president José Maria Marin (of whom more later) speaks again of the short-termism at the heart of Brazilian football (and of football per se, for that matter), and leaves his replacement, Luiz Felipe Scolari with two options, neither of which is particularly appealing: to build upon Menezes's work (in which case why fire Menezes himself?) or to rip it up and start again just when things are taking shape.

Of the three names initially linked to the job in the wake of Menezes's departure, Scolari seemed the least attractive option. The sultry Muricy Ramalho may have turned down the seleção in 2010, but his CV (three consecutive Brasileirão titles with São Paulo, another with Fluminense, a Copa Libertadores win with Santos) is hard to ignore. Tite, who guided Corinthians to their first ever Libertadores title this year, looked an even more likely candidate, particularly when the CBF announced that Menezes's successor would only be appointed in the new year  i.e. after the Timão's long-awaited Club World Cup campaign.

Another name was thrown into the mix by sports paper Lance!, who claimed that Pep Guardiola was interested in the job. The mouthwatering prospect of a tiki-taka takeover was rejected out of hand, however, highlighting the commonly-held (if increasingly outmoded) view that Brazil should never be coached by a foreigner. "I believe in Brazilian managers," scoffed Marin: "We've won five World Cups with our own coaches."

That reverence for the successes of the past reached its logical conclusion with Scolari's appointment on Wednesday. Felipão, of course, is one of the famous five; he was parachuted in to the Brazil job in 2001 and led the seleção to their fifth World Cup. That success, and the fact that Brazil have failed to replicate it in the decade since, ensures that Scolari has a significant and vocal constituency. Indeed, the pro-Felipão groundswell in the days following Menezes's dismissal was almost palpable, with assorted Brazil alumni (including national-treasure-turned-political-nodding-dog Romário) piping up in in support of their man.

But public opinion isn't always right. If the last ten years have been hard on the seleçao, they've been even harder on Scolari, whose trophy cabinet has been expanded to the fairly measly tune of one Uzbek title and one Brazilian Cup. A lengthy spell in charge of Portugal promised much but delivered little, while his last high-profile job, at Chelsea, lasted for all of seven months.

A return to his homeland hardly helped matters; while Scolari deserves credit for guiding Palmeiras to the Copa do Brasil earlier this year (a title that reaffirmed his reputation as cup specialist), his fingerprints are all over the ignominious relegation of the Verdão to Série B. One of Scolari's most notable managerial attributes – his ability to galvanise team spirit even in the face of criticism – was in scant supply in São Paulo, with his prickly personality creating rifts in the boardroom and in the dressing room. Tactically, too, his best days appeared to be behind him: his decision to use a three-man defence in 2002 was indicative of a coach willing to take brave, unexpected decisions; his Palmeiras side, by contrast, traded in clunky, percentage football.

All of this, apparently, was lost on the CBF, whose decision smacks of petty politicking. At appears that Marin, whose greatest hits include the not-so-subtle pocketing of a youth tournament winner's medal earlier this year, wanted to break up the de facto Corinthians old boys alliance that had control of seleção. Sanches (a close friend of former CBF president Ricardo Teixeira, the man Marin replaced) also found himself seeking new opportunities a couple of days after Menezes was sent packing, as Marin marked his territory. In this context, the appointment of Scolari – and of Carlos Alberto Parreira, another World Cup winner, as technical director – must be seen as populism, plain and simple.

Of course, good outcomes sometimes come from what appear to be bad decisions; history can make a fool of anyone. For now at least, though, Scolari's appointment looks misguided. In Menezes, Brazil had a thoughtful coach who was improving as his side did; a man who, despite some hiccups, successfully oversaw a much-needed generation change. Scolari may be the popular choice, but you can only go back to the future so many times.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian HERE.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Tears and fears as relegation looms for Palmeiras

Tears rolled down the faces of the Palmeiras fans gathered inside the Fonte Luminosa ("Luminous Fountain" - yes, really) stadium on November 4. With Botafogo leading 2-1, their side was taking another small but irreversible step toward the indignity of relegation from Brazilian football's top tier.

But these weren't tears of despair; rather, military police at the ground had resorted to the use of pepper spray after objects began to rain down onto the pitch, just the latest indignity suffered by supporters for whom sadness has given way to anger in recent weeks.

You can read the rest of this article at ESPN FC (né ESPN Soccernet) here.

Friday 9 November 2012

Brazilian Football Digest: October

Enjoy Brazilian football but don't have time to watch/read about it as much as you'd like? Help is at hand, friend. I'll be writing a monthly digest for Betting Expert, in which I'll pick out the key stories and performers from Série A and the seleção.

My October round-up features an ageing playmaker, some handball nonsense, a tactical leap forward and some bloke called Neymar. Read it here.

Monday 5 November 2012

Book Club

Long-time readers of SKP will know that I have had a number of articles published over at the lovingly-compiled blog In Bed With Maradona. Now, one of those pieces has found its way into a lovingly-compiled book, entitled IBWM: The First Two Years.

The book, as its title so opaquely implies, compiles a number of articles which appeared on the site during the last couple of years. Its editor, David Hartrick, was kind enough to include my tribute to Ronaldo Fenômeno, which now sits alongside articles by some of my favourite bloggers and writers.

The book is available in various places, but I'm told that buying it directly from the publishers is preferable to those who put a good deal of time and effort into the project. All proceeds will go to maintaining and improving IBWM, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is a worthy cause.