With a thumping 4-1 away win at second-placed Uruguay, Brazil’s miracle turnaround under Tite has seen them transform from qualification doubtfuls to top of their CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying Group by seven points and among the favourites to be crowned champions in Russia next year.
12 June 2016: Still bearing the scars of their unspeakable World Cup mauling at the hands of Germany on home turf in 2014, followed by a pitiful display at the 2015 Copa America that saw them knocked out in the quarter-finals by Paraguay, Brazil suffers further embarrassment after a defeat to Peru sees them unable to advance out of a group also containing Haiti and Ecuador.
Bafflingly awarded a second chance upon his rehiring by the CBF in 2014, after having originally being sacked in the wake of the disappointment brought about by the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, ex-captain Dunga again had his contract terminated and the thankless quest to find his successor began as the Seleção also looked in danger of failing to qualify for Russia 2018.
Then entered Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite, who assumed the mantle after the successful Summer Olympics campaign spearheaded by Rogerio Micale. Still largely-unknown outside of Brazil at the time of his appointment, Tite, once taught PE by World Cup 2002-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as a boy, rose through the ranks of football management by winning the local championship in his home state of Rio Grande do Sul with Caixas and Grêmio at the turn of the Millenium before eventually winding up at their bitter rivals Internacional and scooping the Copa Sudamerica, best compared to the UEFA Europa League, in 2008.
It was his second stint at Corinthians however, Brazil’s second-most followed team behind Flamengo, that brought him his most success at club level as the São Paulo based outfit claimed the national title in 2011 in addition to the Copa Libertadores, South America’s answer to the UEFA Champions League, and the FIFA World Club Championship the following year by defeating Chelsea in Tokyo. Although backed by the fans, Tite decided not to renew his contract after a 2013 season that brought the South American Supercup but was largely viewed as a failure.
Instead, he headed to Europe to learn more about the game as part of a sabbatical that is reported to have seen him make visits to both Arsenal and Carlo Ancelotti during his Champions League-winning tenure at Real Madrid. Under the false impression he was next in line to take over the national team after Scolari, Tite was passed over in favour of Dunga and instead decided to put his studies into practice at Corinthians by returning to oversee a successful 2015 championship campaign that was the strongest in history of the Brazilian league and provided almost weekly masterclasses in defensive football.
Soon after, the CBF finally came knocking and Tite’s mountain of a task to overturn the fortunes of a struggling five-time world champion at grave risk of failing to qualify from the ever-tough CONMEBOL group commenced. Things started well with a resounding 3-0 away victory at Ecuador in early September that saw Neymar and wonderkid Gabriel Jesus – then making a name for himself during a season that culminated in Palmeiras claiming their national first title in 22 years and swiftly reserved by Manchester City – building upon their successful Olympic partnership whilst a third dimension was added to the attack with the inclusion of Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho.
Five days later, a 74th minute winner, set up by Coutinho, saw Neymar extract revenge against Colombia – a team whose roughhouse tactics ended both his 2014 World Cup prematurely through injury and the 2015 Copa America after a red-carded retaliation to their constant manhandling of the Barcelona great – saw Brazil move up to second place and just a point behind leaders Uruguay.
The following month, a 5-0 drubbing of Bolivia in Rio Grande do Norte had Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar all making their mark in addition to Coutinho’s Liverpool teammate Firmino and Atletico Madrid defender Filipe Luis. In Caracas, Brazil made it four wins from four with a 2-0 away win against Venezuela with Chelsea attacker Willian stepping in for Neymar and joining Gabriel Jesus on the scoresheet.
While the Brazilian public was impressed with its national team’s reversal in fortunes, a feat even Tite himself admitted he believed would be much harder to pull off, the true litmus test would be Argentina’s November visit to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte with Brazil returning to the site of their 2014 World Cup semi-final humbling to Germany for the first time in over two years. After a Coutinho goal put his side up on 25 minutes, Brazil then ran its bitter rivals ragged to hand Leo Messi, kept quiet for the duration of the game thanks to a dominating performance from Real Madrid defensive midfield linchpin Casemiro, and his cohorts a 3-0 hiding as a 54,000-strong crowd mainly made up of Atlético Minas Gerais and Cruzeiro fans, i.e. rivals to Corinthians, did the unheard of by singing Tite’s name in rapturous unison.
With six wins from six and a fourth consecutive clean sheet, Brazil finished 2016 top of the qualifying group with a 2-0 away victory in Peru when Gabriel Jesus scored on his full team debut and set another up for Renato Augusto; leading us back nicely to last night’s match in Montevideo against second-place Uruguay while of course not overlooking a January 1-0 friendly defeat of Colombia to commerate the tragic Chapecoense plane crash.
Although the hosts were without Neymar’s Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez, this would still be no easy feat with striker Edison Cavani currently enjoying the best season of his career at PSG. Naturally, it was Cavani who converted an eighth minute penalty to put La Celeste 1-0 up and provide the greatest threat yet to Brazil’s unbeaten record since Tite took over.
The lead was short lived however as ex-Corinthians and Spurs man Paulinho scored a golaço equaliser just ten minutes later and added a second by putting Brazil 2-1 up just after half time. Then, receiving a long ball from captain Miranda with his back turned and taking just one touch with his thigh to cut inside two defenders and chip it over the keeper’s head, Neymar put the game beyond Uruguay’s reach before Paulinho completed an outstanding hat trick in stoppage time.
As detailed by South American football expert Tim Vickery, Brazil looked miles ahead of the competition and, although not officially confirmed, have now probably confirmed their passage to Russia even in the event of a monumental collapse. Under Tite though, this seems highly unlikely.
Once little more than a band of talented yet underperforming household names evidently frustrated with one another and suffocating under Dunga’s more physical approach to the game, Brazil now plays as a unit and is given the freedom to express its flair as a watertight defence and midfield has allowed just two goals to be conceded under its new coach’s command.
Additionally, this is also a man who rolls to the beat of his own drum and refuses to pander to big stars or give in to the average armchair fan’s demands. Heading into the 2014 World Cup, Brazil was widely-regarded to boast international football’s best defence with Marcelo and Dani Alves at left and right back respectively joined by Thiago Silva, then arguably the world’s best defender and David Luiz, its most expensive, in the centre. Although Thiago Silva was absent from the 7-1 demolition job carried out by Germany in the semi-final, he was dropped by a disgusted Dunga after Scolari’s resignation for refusing to take a penalty against Chile in the knockout stages – despite captaining his country.
Upon taking the reins, Tite, although recalling Thiago Silva last year and placing him on the bench last night, still refuses to pick the PSG defender and Luiz is nowhere to be seen at all despite being much improved under Antonio Conte at Chelsea in a season looking highly-likely to end with a Premiership title. Instead, he opts for the more reliable Miranda, his chosen captain in Montevideo, alongside Silva’s club teammate and ex-Corinthians young gun, Marquinhos – an ever-maturing star of the future.
In a similar fashion, Tite was accused of favouritism through his selection of Paulinho and Renato Augusto in midfield – the former a catalyst during his aforementioned 2010-2013 purple patch at Corinthians and the latter a key feature of the 2015 Brazilian league win – who had been deemed to have committed career suicide by heading to the backwaters of the Chinese Super League in a move usually regarded as the tolling of the death knell for a player’s international ambitions. As witnessed last night however, his faith has paid dividends with Paulinho showing glimpses of the class that saw European clubs queuing up for his signature after Brazil’s 2013 victory in the Confederations Cup. Likewise, Renato Augusto doesn’t at all look out of place in a team with an embarrassment of riches that can still afford to keep the likes of Bayern Munich ace Douglas Costa, Willian and Lucas Moura on the bench among others.
While it would be remiss to suggest that the continued rise of Neymar – currently in the form of his life and last night elevated from ‘craque’ (a gamechanger or skilled player) to ‘cracaço’ (a genius among the best in the world) status by a punditry team for national broadcaster Globo that contained none other than Il Fenomeno, Ronaldo – is solely down to Tite, few could argue that he is enjoying his football for the national team more than ever seen previously. As he put it himself this week in a pre-match interview, in perhaps a veiled criticism aimed at Dunga, Brazil’s players have ‘bought’ Tite’s idea and because of this are performing at their current level whilst now among the favourites to lift next year’s World Cup.
Regardless of whether the team brings home gold or not, Tite has refused to renew his contract until after the conclusion of the tournament. Providing Brazil at least reaches the semi-finals however and that the CBF doesn’t live up to its reputation as one of football’s most erratic federations, many fans would opt for him to be shown the same trust as say Germany’s Joachim Löw, now entering his 11th year as Die Mannschaft head coach, to oversee a long-term project that would also include an attempt to reclaim the Copa America for the first time since 2007. Otherwise surely Tite, well-versed in the continent’s footballing culture and methodology after his 2014 sabbatical, would head to Europe to try his luck in any one of its big leagues.