Dani Alves likes talking about Pep Guardiola.
It’s no surprise really, given that the Catalan manager turned the Brazilian into one of the most accomplished attacking wing-backs in world football.
Rumours once circulated that the pair would join forces at international level when Guardiola was linked with managing the Brazilian national team. Naturally, Alves was the man to ask about this particular piece of gossip.
“Pep said he wanted to make Brazil a World Cup champion and had an entire strategy to make us a world champion,” Alves told ESPN Brasil.
“But they didn’t want it because they said that they didn’t know if Brazil would accept a foreign coach.”
Indeed, Brazil have never appointed a foreign manager. Even someone with Guardiola’s pedigree struggled to convince the CBF that appointing a manager from a different land, regardless of stature and ability, would be the way forward.
“Pep is the best coach in the world, the greatest sports manager I’ve ever seen,” added Alves. “He revolutionised football, revolutionised a team, and we had the chance to have him with us.
“If you let an opportunity like this go by then you are not really thinking about the national team.
“Ever since I’ve been working with Pep, he has on his mind the Brazilian team that he would like to be coaching.”
So rather than Guardiola turning down Brazil, it was more a case of Brazil never really being interested in a foreign coach, and that includes the former Barcelona man.
But Alves was right. Brazil needed new blood and a rebirth of their old identity in a modern form.
They experimented with the progressive Mano Menezes who had won regional titles with Gremio and Corinthians playing a style of football which stuck out as different, even if it wasn’t effective every time.
“I always tell the players that it is not always possible to produce a pass which puts somebody in front of goal, and it’s not necessary,” Menezes said during his time as Brazil manager.
“In fact, it’s very difficult to do this. But if it’s not possible, then it’s absolutely fundamental that we don’t lose the ball.
“Everybody praises Barcelona and their great merit is that, when it is not possible to find the killer pass, they don’t try; instead they keep possession and wait for an opening.
“If you try and make a killer pass every time, this increases the number of mistakes and allows the opposition the chance to counter-attack.”
Not only does Menezes mention Barcelona, but he also sounds like a Barcelona manager.
Though as with any Brazil boss, or almost any national team manager for that matter, it always felt like Menezes was on trial.
In the build up to the World Cup on home soil, Brazil would settle for nothing less than winning. Things started poorly on that front as they were knocked out of the 2011 Copa America by Paraguay at the quarter finals stage.
He then took charge of the Brazil U23 side during the 2012 Olympics in London, winning every game except the final. This defeat to Mexico in the gold medal match meant that the country which had won everything except Olympic gold, missed out again.
Two months later Menezes was sacked.
The CBF weren’t prepared to wait for a project to bear fruit. They panicked, thinking only in the short term and appointed old stalwart Luiz Felipe Scolari as the manager who would lead them in the 2014 World Cup.
“I am no longer the coach of Brazil. I thank all those that worked with me on this special project, all the players, and to all the people that believe in our work. I wish success to Selecao ahead of our biggest dream, the 2014 World Cup,” tweeted Menezes, hinting that he knew his work would be undone by the next manager.
And it was a backward step. It shattered any hopes that Alves had of playing Guardiola infused football in the shiny new stadiums of Brazil
Brazilian World Cup winner as both manager and player, Mario Zagallo, chipped in with his thoughts on the decision.
“It was not the right time for the CBF to sack Mario Menezes.” he said.
“Things were getting better, all the Brazilians felt the same way. But it is the CBF’s responsibility and they took that decision, but for me it was not the right time.”
The team went backwards under Scolari, and though they did win the Confederations Cup in 2013 and triumphed in plenty of meaningless friendlies in the build-up to the World Cup, they exited the biggest tournament in the country’s history in the most embarrassing fashion.
Would things have been different had they kept Menezes? Who knows. But things certainly weren’t different under Scolari’s replacement, Dunga.
In fact they regressed further. Rather than swagger around like the biggest, proudest, and most decorated of the South American football nations, Brazil retreated further into a shell. They lacked creativity, spark, and well… Brazilianness.
They were stuck in no mans land on Copacabana beach. Not at the bars having fun, or in the sea playing games, but those who didn’t bury their heads in the sand were mere spectators as others progressed.
Their supposedly dwindling talent pool could only watch on as some of the other South American nations played scintillating football. Even if they weren’t always winning, these other nations were entertaining to watch, and many played some pioneering football which influenced the European game rather than trying to copy it.
Brazil were the polar opposite, and you could even imagine Nike bosses sat around a conference table reconsidering the whole Joga Bonito thing.
But the players were there — Brazilian footballers always are, somewhere. So, luckily, was a manager.
Tite had long been mooted as the most suitable Brazilian to pick up where Menezes left off and improve upon it.
Scolari and Dunga harked back to Brazil’s murky, defensive minded recent past. The image of Brazil as purveyors of the Beautiful Game was a myth, but now they had a manager who would at least get close to a beautiful reality.
These old managers were scared of losing, but now they had a manager whose only fear was not playing well.
Tite was recently asked about the possibility of Brazil returning to the top of the FIFA rankings. “What I want is a strong team, a strong mentality, and a good performance,” he replied.
“From all the information I have, the one I least take into account is the FIFA rankings. I do not give a damn about it. I want to prepare the team to play well.”
He often refers to his football as jogo apoiado, which roughly translates to “support game” in English.
It seems like a simple phrase when translated, but then so does juego de posicion — the system used by Guardiola which translates to “position game”.
Jogo apoiado involves creating passing triangles on the pitch so that there is always a free man between the opposition defenders, and it’s also being used by Menezes at his current club Cruzeiro.
Each player, including the goalkeeper, are important to this style, but Brazil’s use of Gabriel Jesus or Roberto Firmino as the centre forward has been particularly notable, as has the emergence of Casemiro in the centre of the park.
Philippe Coutinho has come into the side, seemingly wherever Tite can fit him, thanks to his neat passing, creativity, and general attacking threat.
Coutinho normally plays on the left for Liverpool, but due to the presence of Neymar in that position he takes up a position on the right for Brazil.
Tite: "Klopp is implementing jogo apoiado at Liverpool in his 4-3-3. The attackers are always moving, exchanging position. Dynamic system."
— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStat) February 27, 2017
Tite’s comments on Klopp’s own version of jogo apoiado suggests that there are similarities between the two managers, but Alves compares Tite to another Premier League manager, and there are no prizes for guessing who — Pep Guardiola.
“Tite is very similar to him, because Guardiola is a great coach too,” said Alves.
“He has good results on the pitch because he’s also a great coach. There are very similar aspects and they generate a lot of interest because they improve you [as a player]. These are people I always want by my side.”
If Alves believes Brazil have finally found their own Guardiola, then who is anyone to argue.
Brazil currently top the 2018 World Cup South American qualifying league, and need one more win to secure their place at next year’s tournament.
Their recent 4-1 win against Uruguay was the latest public outing for what is still a work in progress, but with some key personnel now established in the side it’s a case of fine tuning the existing set-up rather than looking for other solutions.
Jogo apoiado may not be as catchy as jogo bonito, but it could well be Brazil’s new version of the beautiful game.
Featured image by Agencia de Noticias ANDES, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.