Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Group 3 was an 'iron' one, difficult to predict, yet, all teams were more or less problematic. Brazil, Spain, Sweden, and Austria. Austria on the rise, Sweden – never an outsider, Spain finally reaching the finals, and Brazil, the eternal favourite. More or less, Austria was seen as potential last, Spain and Sweden fighting for one qualifying spot and Brazil, either first or second in the group, but surely going ahead. Brazil, with wounded pride in 1974, naturally was ambitious, but also under heavy scrutiny. Reputation demanded success, everybody in Brazil demanded success, but in Brazil everybody is also competent critic and the team was, is, and never will be just right, but always imperfect and wrong. And nobody was blind: Brazil failed in 1974 and continued to be miserable in the following years. Osvaldo Brandao was sacked in 1977, replaced by Claudio Coutinho, a prominent figure in Brazilian football and very controversial too.
Coutinho, born in 1939, was one of the young coaches characterizing the 1978 World Cup. Unlike most of the others, he was already well known name, although not exactly as a coach, but as theoretician and journalist. Coutinho had unusual background, especially for Brazilian coach – he came from the military and was specialist in fitness and physical training. He was also the most vocal critic of traditional Brazilian football and perhaps the biggest advocate of 'Europeanisation'. He supported total football, but his version was based on physical condition, tactics, and discipline. Not surprising at all, considering his military education. He was a huge supporter of the 'Cooper Test', very popular during the 1970s, which was based largely on running and purely athletic measurements – players everywhere hated the test, so one can imagine what Brazilian players thought about it: there was no ball and hardly any football elements in the test. Coutinho was criticized from the moment he was appointed – and among his critics was Mario Zagallo, who introduced the dreadful 'European' football in 1974. Of course, Coutinho was heavy critic of Zagallo a few years back, so it is interesting to see how the two differed – not much, really. Both wanted disciplined play, strong defense, and following a tactical plan .

Both wanted players in perfect physical condition. Coutinho just went a step further than Zagallo, but it was also strange to see him compared to Osvaldo Brandao – the former coach was especially criticized for using defensive-minded 4-4-2 scheme, emphasizing tactical discipline, and based his team on Rivelino. Which was pretty much the concept used by Zagallo in 1974. And Coutinho did not change that – his team was based on Rivelino. Since Rivelino and Zico practically duplicated each other, there was a problem already seen: neither star was very effective and they even clashed with each other. Rivelino himself gave a thoughtful and very intelligent interview early in 1977, saying that he is not centre-forward and not at all a Pele-type of player. He pretty much articulated the best way for using his talent – something like a striker coming from the back, not at the edge of attack. Which more or less demanded imaginative playmaker, controlling the flow of the game and giving sharp passes in the right moment. Perhaps Zico was the best option, but seemingly Rivelino was placed as playmaker and Zico – as something approximating centre-forward. Coutinho kept that – which was not at all a change from Brandao's days. Coutinho did not get much sympathy, although not everything was his fault: intellectual coaches are hardly loved in generally unintellectual football world, so his long tactical and theoretical lectures were held against him, but the traditional European tour before the World Cup finals was not his fault at all. Brazil did it for many years – to test its team against the greatest opponents. Suddenly it was decided the tour was weird and counter-productive: since the finals were in South America, there was nothing to benefit from European tour, it was argued. The players would only get tired and perhaps – if the results were negative – demoralized. The critics thought Coutinho should have canceled the tour. The tour itself was almost a carbon copy of the tour before the 1974 World Cup, culminating with a friendly against West Germany. It was tough fight, which Brazil once again won 1-0 . Not a trace of artistry, just like the match few years back when Zagallo coached. Critics slowed down a bit; Coutinho theorized a bit, but generally cautioned that there is a lot of work to be done yet. Then the draw for the finals came, then the squad was announced, then Coutinho came under new volley of critiques – he announced his starting eleven for the first official match on May 19! Zagallo was the first to criticize such weird move, forgetting his own words from 1970, when he said that the starting team should be known about 4 months before the beginning the World Cup. It all depends on the momentary standpoint... Coutinho's selection was not at all to everybody's liking. Just as ever...
1    GK  Leão                                 11 July 1949 (aged 28)            50  Palmeiras
2    DF   Toninho                             7 June 1948 (aged 29)            4    Flamengo
3    DF   Oscar                                20 June 1954 (aged 23)          4    Ponte Preta
4    DF   Amaral                              25 December 1954 (aged 23) 22  Corinthians
5    MF  Toninho Cerezo                 21 April 1955 (aged 23)         16   Atlético Mineiro
6    DF   Edinho                               5 June 1955 (aged 22)            12  Fluminense
7    FW  Zé Sérgio                          8 March 1957 (aged 21)          2    São Paulo
8    MF  Zico                                   3 March 1953 (aged 25)         21  Flamengo
9    FW  Reinaldo                            11 January 1957 (aged 21)      12  Atlético Mineiro
10  FW  Rivelino                             1 January 1946 (aged 32)        88  Fluminense
11  MF  Dirceu                               15 June 1952 (aged 25)           14  Vasco da Gama
12  GK  Carlos                                4 March 1956 (aged 22)         0    Ponte Preta
13  DF   Nelinho                              26 July 1950 (aged 27)           13  Cruzeiro
14  DF   Abel                                  1 September 1952 (aged 25)   1    Vasco da Gama
15  F     Polozzi                               1 October 1955 (aged 22)        0   Ponte Preta
16  DF  Rodrígues Neto                   6 December 1949 (aged 28)    7   Botafogo
17  MF  Batista                                8 March 1955 (aged 23)          4   Internacional
18  FW  Gil                                      24 December 1950 (aged 27)  22 Botafogo
19  FW  Jorge Mendonça                 6 June 1954 (aged 23)             0   Palmeiras
20  FW  Roberto Dinamite                13 April 1954 (aged 24)          20 Vasco da Gama
21  MF  Chicão                                 30 January 1949 (aged 29)     5    São Paulo
22  GK  Valdir Peres                         2 February 1951 (aged 27)     5    São Paulo

This was an young squad – only Rivelino was over 30 years old. Young squads have few friends – even those who demanded radical changes usually change their minds before important tournaments and see young players as a liability: they lack experience. And Coutinho's selection clearly had little experience - 11 players with less than 10 matches for the national team; 3 of them not having even a single game for Brazil. A single player from the strong Cruzeiro, no matter their domestic and international success in the last 2 years, but 3 players from insignificant Ponte Preta. Only 6 survivors from the 1974 squad, which probably was lesser problem, since these team left bitter memories. Some new big stars – Zico, Roberto Dinamite – some rising players of recent fame – Gil, Reinaldo, Amaral, Jorge Mendonca – but also few players, who appeared questionable – Chicao, Abel, Polozzi. The strangest part of the team was the defense, given Coutinho's demands on 'European' kind of football, tough defense, and disciplined 'realistic' approach – just a few months back, in 1977, Carlos Alberto, Francisco Marinho, and Luis Pereira still played for Brazil. All of them seemingly were suitable exactly for Coutinho's concept, but none was selected for the finals. Curiously, Luis Pereira was a key option as late as the beginning of 1978 – and perhaps the quintessential Coutinho's type of player: tough, no-nonsense player, with vast experience, playing in Europe for years. The 'European' Brazilian... but he was out. Francisco Marinho was most likely discarded because of his conflict with Nelinho, yet, Rivelino and Zico were in the team, although they were in conflict with each other as well. Ze Maria was also out, although he was, like Luis Pereira, almost sure member of the squad. The defense was complately changed – not exactly remade, for there was uncertainty about the final line: when Coutinho announced his starting eleven at May 19, Ze Maria was among them. Nelinho was reserve – just like before 1974 campaign. Rivelino was the central player, but Dirceu was a reserve. And so was Roberto Dinamite – a player with higher profile than Gil and Reinaldo. Zico was firmly placed among the strikers. Coutinho's team was open for massive criticism and God help coach and players – Brazil had to made up for the 1974 disaster; in Brazil only World Cup victory counts. Outside Brazil the team was seen as favourite – after all, Brazil is always considered a favourite – but somewhat enigmatic and not so great. Many little known players, but then if Brazil doesn't have talent, who does.
No matter what version, always a favourite – Coutinho's Brazil against West Germany. Ze Maria was out of the final squad, but the rest were charged to restore the country's reputation. As a bit of trivia: Leao, difficult,quarrelsome, and often unruly, seemingly had no problem playing for disciplinarian coach. And the former military man Coutinho had no problem with the rebel. May be the meeting point for them was the emphasis on defense. Despite such departure from traditional Brazilian football, Coutinho's team was named favourite by Pele – along with Argentina, Italy, and West Germany.