There are 190 million coaches in Brazil. Some want to see Ronaldinho. Some want to see Roberto Carlos. Others have been clamoring for the Meninos da Vila, the young Santos trio of Neymar, Ganso, and Andre. On May 11th, Dunga will make the ultimate decision. That announcement is just days away. Specualation is rampant as to whether he will call up a 30-man preliminary list or the final squad of 23. Dunga, ever the pragmatist, has enjoyed great success in the 3.5 years that he’s been coach – from winning the Copa America and Confederations Cup to humbling victories against Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, and Portugal.
For once, it’s a true team and it’s thanks to Dunga. So, who is going to South Africa? Dunga has routinely said the team will have no surprises. Our starting line-up is all but set. And another 8 or 9 players are locks. So, that leaves about 4-5 players who are on the fence. Historically though, the teams don’t change very much from the final official friendly prior to the World Cup. In March 2006, Brazil played a friendly against Russia and we only saw 3 new players in Germany (and really only 2 of those were new). So, we likely can expect the same in South Africa.
Goalies -- Julio Cesar is the starter in goal…and he’s the best in the world right now (how about that save on Messi’s shot in the 2nd leg of the Chamions League?). Our two reserves are largely a question mark. Dunga has always had Doni as the #2, but he’s currently been riding the bench for Roma for months now (compatriot Julio Sergio supplanted him).
The once-erratic Gomes was a regular reserve for Brazil, but was eventually dropped. But he’s now regained his form for Spurs and is one of the main reasons why the Spurs have earned a spot in the Champions League next year. Porto’s Helton has also regained his form and looked quite good. And Victor, who earned an award for best goalie in last year’s Brasileirao, could be in South Africa. Predictions: Julio Cesar, Doni, Gomes.
Central Defenders – Captain Lucio and Juan form arguably the best center-back duo in the world. They’ve been playing together for almost 6 years. The substitutes are also quite well. Benfica’s Luisao has been a regular for Brazil. Thiago Silva, one of the few bright spots for Milan, has been a rock for Milan and should be in South Africa. Dunga has used him somewhat regularly. Some outside chances for Naldo, Alex, Miranda, Cris, and David Luiz. The quartet though is pretty much 99% decided. Predictions: Lucio, Juan, Luisao, Thiago Silva.
Wing Backs – Well, the right side is settled. Maicon, who is the more well-rounded of the pair, is the starter. He has a wicked shot (that goal against Juve?), galloping runs, and solid defense. Daniel Alves is more versatile, but he’ll have to come off the bench. Dunga has also used him as a midfielder and left back – famously seen in the Confederations Cup last year.
The left-back position is an issue. Dunga has used over 7 different players at the position. The starter was Andre Santos at the Confederations Cup. And it now looks like Lyon’s Michel Bastos will be the starter. Deportivo’s Filipe Luis probably would’ve been on this team had he not been injured. He’s set to play his first game in months this weekend but it may be too little too late for him.
Marcelo is probably the most intriguing player – he’s playing his best football…ever and has been fundamental in Madrid’s fight for the title. But like Michel Bastos, these two players tend to play as left midfielders with limited defensive duties on their respective teams. While they may be the two best left-backs right now for Brazil, their lack of defense is a worrying prospect, which is why Dunga will probably only call up one the two. And the one who’s been playing lately for Brazil has been Bastos. Andre Santos was average for Brazil, but Dunga used him a fair amount and is likely confident in his abilities. Predictions: Maicon, Daniel Alves; Michel Bastos, Andre Santos.
Defensive Midfielders – Midfield is the part of the team that is no doubt giving Dunga the greatest headaches. It won’t be a fun weekend for him as he tries to figure out who to take. The starters are settled. But the rest? At volante, or defensive midfield, it will be veteran Gilberto Silva, who has enjoyed a championship-filled season in Greece.
His partner is the physical Felipe Melo – who won Italy’s Bidone d'oro for the worst player in Serie A. Despite Melo’s struggles for Juventus, he’s been a consistent player for Brazil and has earned his spot in the starting 11. The defensive-midfield reserves remain a bit of a question mark.
The diminutive Josue, while not the best player, will likely be on the team. However, many Brazilians question his inclusion on the team – and should he get called up, many will be scratching their heads.
Dunga has not settled on a physical substitute for either Melo or Gilberto. Both Sandro and Lucas stand a chance of getting included, but Dunga will likely opt for Josue. Denilson stands an outside chance, but he has not been on the team in some time. Predictions: Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo, Josue.
Midfielders - Our two-way midfielders are also quite settled. Elano with his deadly set-pieces and passes will split time with the scurrying Ramires. Who starts will likely depend on the opponent. Kleberson, the 2002 veteran, might be on the team – he was present in our most recent friendly against Ireland. But his form has been so poor for Flamengo that Dunga might just not include him, especially since he was never a regular. Predictions: Elano, Ramires.
Attacking Midfielders - Kaka, our #10, needs no introductions. His form has been a main concern however, but he should recover in time for our training camp. But what do we do about his substitute?
Dunga has stubbornly called up Julio Baptista. Always. The Roma midfielder brings some useful traits to the table. His powerful shot. His no-nonsense play. His sheer physical strength. But that’s it. He’s a good player, but he’s only seen about 90 minutes in the past 10 Roma games. Yes you read that correctly. Simply put, he should not be Dunga’s creative option from the bench…and for whatever reason, Dunga has been very insistent on this.
Ronaldinho and Ganso are the two main options that everyone wants to see. Ronaldinho has been in Dunga’s doghouse since the Olympic failure in Beijing. That was Ronaldinho’s chance and with a very good team, he blew it. His form this season for Milan has been up-and-down. Poor in the beginning, with some excellent play in January and February. It’s been a bit average now, but no doubt, is largely due to the fact that the entire Milan team is struggling and battling with injuries.
Ganso, on the other hand, is the best player in Brazil at the moment (it’s not Neymar, Robinho, or Hernanes). Everything on the magical Santos team runs through him. His vision – it’s like Socrates/Zidane/Rivaldo. He’s that good and is the best player Brazil has produced since Kaka.
He also has leadership, he has the will, he has garra, as we say in Brazil. That was most recently seen in the hotly-contested Paulista Final last week against Santo Andre – Ganso refused to be substituted. Some would look to this as insubordination (think of Robben against Lyon, whining that he was substituted).
But Ganso refused to leave because he took control of the team – he looked at the coach and pointed down to the grass – it was an adamant “I’m staying.” He was the key to victory in a game where Santos needed to hold on. His refusal to leave proved to be successful as he would be the one who largely held onto the ball in the final 15 minutes, thus ensuring that Santos would win the title.
Of course, had things turned out differently, Ganso would have been vilified. But pundits in Brazil and this author saw something else – a player growing up on the pitch – one who became a leader. So, conventional wisdom says he should be Kaka’s sub in South Africa. But, then again, Dunga said no surprises. He’s been sounding almost like a broken record – “we have to look at the body of work from the past 3.5 years” – essentially. So maybe, neither will be there.
On the other hand, pundits say that it would be a surprise for Dunga to NOT include either. Either would be a good option for Kaka. But this is the World Cup. Experience matters. Ronaldinho has been there, and while he hasn’t really played well for Brazil in years, it’s just too much of a gamble NOT to take him.
Ronaldinho has generally struggled for Brazil, but as a substitute, he should be a great option. Ganso, as good as he is, has not. If there’s a way for both to be on the team, that would be excellent, but Dunga will likely not go that route. There are some outside shots for Alex from Spartak Moscow or Carlos Eduardo from Hoffenheim. Carlos Eduardo is intriguing, and was on the squad against Ireland. However, he was called up as a replacement and it is unlikely that he will make it to South Africa. Diego won’t be there either – he’s a player who has largely disappointed at every level of the national team, for whatever reason (he has the talent). He is forever enshrined though, with the Hail Mary pass to Adriano in the 2004 Copa America Final against Argentina.
It is also possible, that Dunga does in fact drop Baptista in favor of a defensive midfielder, although that was Baptista’s original position before Sevilla converted him into an attacking midfielder. Some have speculated that Andre Santos will be dropped and we’d only go with one natural left-back. In this case, a player like Daniel Alves could see increased time at midfield or left-back, both of which he can play. Predictions: Kaka, Julio Baptista, Ronaldinho
Forwards: There are two types of forwards on this Brazil team. The nimble and quick variety – Robinho and Nilmar. Both are locks. Robinho, along with Elano, have either scored or assisted on some 70% of Brazil’s goals. He is vital and while he may not score all the time, he does the little things which Dunga loves. In his loan spell at Santos, he has regained his form and matured in the process, gradually deferring the scoring role to Neymar.
Nilmar’s name may be a surprise to some, but his performances for Brazil have been stellar with 7 goals in his last 7 games, including a hat trick against Chile.
The second type of forwards is the poacher. This forward set-up is somewhat of a novelty for Brazil. In 2006, one of the main failures was Parreira starting two forwards who played similar styles – Adriano and Ronaldo. In reality, it probably should’ve been Adriano and Robinho.
4 years later, Dunga has essentially employed this change. Luis Fabiano has been nothing short of sensational for Brazil, although his club form this season has been injury-riddled and somewhat average. A common trend among many of Brazil players – they play well for Brazil and that’s really all that should matter.
The second poacher spot is wide open. Adriano has struggled to regain his scintillating form for Flamengo…and he just hasn’t played well as Fabiano’s substitute for Brazil. The fact is we just don’t have anyone else. Hulk is untested and served a lengthy suspension – and he didn’t have the best of seasons for Porto anyways. Pato, like Ronaldinho, has struggled for Brazil and was last given a significant chance in the Olympics. He has been ok this season, but injuries have derailed his campaign and he has little chance of making the team.
Grafite is another possibility – he was one of Sao Paulo’s stars a few years back and had an amazing season for Wolfsburg…last year. He has struggled mightily this season, often fighting with his coach…and his team was unable to defend its Bundesliga title. Brandao, Marseille’s star forward, has enjoyed a stellar season and recently told the Brazilian media that he was ready to play in South Africa. But he too remains quite the outsider since Dunga never called him up.
Oh, and there’s this kid named Neymar, who is really more of a Robinho/Nilmar. Neymar is difficult to figure out because there have been many players like him in the past. Robinho and Denilson come to mind. Not to mention the fact that the level of competition in the Paulista Championship (where he shined), and in the early rounds of the Copa do Brasil (he scored 5 goals in one game), is very mediocre.
Of course, Ganso plays against these very same opponents, but traits like passing and vision translate at any level. If you have this “football IQ” you can pretty much play anywhere. So Ganso is a different beast altogether. Neymar is still a phenomenal talent and he has the finishing touch, something that took Robinho a few seasons to develop...and which Denilson (formerly of Betis) never had.
But Neymar simply isn’t ready yet, physically and mentally, and Dunga already has two battled-tested players who play like him. On the other hand, the two starters for Santos are Robinho and Neymar. So it could very well be that Neymar sneaks onto this team at the expense of Adriano, who has pretty much shot himself in the foot with poor form and attitude. This is really a tough call. Let’s call it a coin-toss. I’m going with Adriano. Predictions: Robinho, Nilmar; Luis Fabiano, Adriano.
We will likely see at most 3 changes from the squad that faced Ireland in early March. It is important to keep in mind that this is Dunga. He will not call up a plethora of attacking players. He wants well-rounded players who can contribute on offense and defense. Most likely, of the relevant substitutes, we will see Andre Santos and either Ronaldinho or Ganso at the expense of Kleberson. Dunga will opt for either, but it's extremely unlikely that he will pick both. There are good arguments for both and at this point, it's anyone's guess. The other main question is whether Dunga will call up the preliminary squad or a final squad. Naturally, if he calls up 30, we will probably see many players who are on the bubble. This may prove to be the more prudent option because it will make the players fight harder as well as give Dunga more time to evaluate the candidates.
Goalies: Julio Cesar, Doni, Gomes
Central Defenders: Lucio, Juan, Luisao, Thiago Silva
Wing Backs: Maicon, Daniel Alves, Michel Bastos, Andre Santos
Defensive Midfielders: Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo, Josue
Midfielders: Elano, Ramires
Attacking Midfielders: Kaka, Ronaldinho, Julio Baptista
Forwards: Luis Fabiano, Robinho, Nilmar, Adriano