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Perhaps the unluckiest man of the next World Cup is Carlos Alberto Parreira, Brazil’s manager. His task is to produce the best football team ever.

When I met Parreira in Rio in 1999, he was a pariah. Brazilians had never forgiven him for winning the 1994 World Cup with defensive football.

Five years on he was managing Fluminense, then in the third division. In the posh neighbourhood around the club’s ground, we watched kids kick around on a playground and when Parreira patted one of them on the head, the boy did not even look round.

Parreira said he had belatedly concluded that a coach who won a World Cup should quit coaching. “It changed my life,” he said in his excellent English, which, like his tailored suit, marked him out as a Europeanised Brazilian.

“I still find excitement in the daily workings of a club. But whether you win or lose, the emotions are not the same as if you win with Brazil in the World Cup.”

Parreira, born in Rio in 1943, never played a match of professional football but qualified as a gym teacher. At his first World Cup, in 1970, he was fitness trainer to Pelé’s Brazil. That team produced o jogo bonito, or “the beautiful game”, the best attacking football in history. It was never forgotten but the fitness trainer soon was.

He began coaching football just as Brazil entered its wilderness years. Fredrik Ekelund, Swedish author of the book Sambafotboll, says Brazil spent the rest of the 1970s attempting “a more European, defensive football”. They failed. Ekelund continues: “Then in the 1980s they go back to jogo bonito. And they play wonderful football, but no results.”

In the 1990s, Brazil tried defensive football again. In 1994, this won them their first World Cup since 1970. Parreira reminisced: “Every time we lost possession, we had eight players behind the ball. That surprised the Europeans because Brazil does not play like that.”

It also surprised Brazilians, who thought Brazil shouldn’t play like that. The consensus at home, wrote the anthropologist Everardo Rocha, was that “Parreira possessed all the defects that could be contained in a coach”.

When I asked Parreira whether he would ever coach Brazil at a World Cup again, he shook his head. “I have been to six World Cups, three with the Brazilian team. I don’t think I would have the same strength to bear all these things, these newspapers. It’s a mess.”

It’s a mess because for Brazilians, even winning a World Cup is not enough. The anthropologist Luis Eduardo Soares told me: “When our national team plays, we feel that the identity of our country is being played out on the field.” The jogo bonito epitomises the creative Brazil that exists in people’s minds. By contrast, Parreira’s disciplined Brazil of 1994 was considered a rip-off of Europe.

At the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Brazil moved towards synthesis: European grit with moments of jogo bonito. They reached the final both times, winning once. Next year, they must do better. Most Brazilian fans take victory in Germany for granted. After all, the Seleção has reached three consecutive World Cup finals as well as winning three of the last four Copa Americas.

The aim in 2006 is not merely to win. It is to repeat 1970, says Leonardo, one of Parreira’s players in 1994, now a director of AC Milan. “That’s what the preparation for everything we’re doing is for,” he said at last month’s International Football Arena conference in Zurich. “In 1970 there were five very technical players in Tostao, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Pelé and Gerson.

“Now you have five players like that. Having a team you can compare to 1970 is the aim, plus reaching four straight World Cup finals, which has never happened before.”

This time the five greats are Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo, Adriano and Robinho (who may start on the bench).

Previous Brazilian teams, even that of 1970, were marred only by an inability to defend. Not this year. Behind the famous five are brilliant defensive players: Emerson and Ze Roberto in midfield, Roberto Carlos and Cafu at full-back, and Lucio and one other in central defence. For once Brazil even have a good goalkeeper, Dida.

Parreira must persuade his defensive players to spend the World Cup defending. “It’s not difficult to teach a Brazilian team football,” he told me. “The value of the coach is to organise them as a team, to motivate them to sacrifice – because sacrifice is not a big word in Brazil.”

But it is becoming a big word. Even by 1994, Brazil’s players were mastering European efficiency. “Many of them played for European clubs so they knew the importance of marking, playing quick,” Parreira said.

This generation is even more Europeanised. Adriano crossed the Atlantic at 19, Ronaldinho and Kaka at 21, while Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu have been here more than a decade.

And this team is more united than most of its predecessors. They dance samba together, pray together, work together. They are so good that they might be almost as good as Brazilians expect.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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