It has been more than two decades since the Brazilian national team contained such a talented group of players; it has been almost as long since they left the World Cup at such an early stage.
In 1990, a 1-0 defeat against Argentina saw the yellow jerseys exit in the last 16. On Saturday night Brazil lost by the same scoreline to the team who are becoming even greater international rivals: France have won their last three World Cup encounters with the five-time champions.
After the game, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira said he took responsibility: “In Brazil, it’s often like this. When you win the Cup, it’s the talent of the players. When you lose, it’s the coach’s fault. The script has already been written, and is now being confirmed.”
It was hard to judge from his abated tone the degree of irony in his words. Yet Parreira has pulled off a remarkable achievement: winning the World Cup in 1994 with an average squad, and then sqaundering the chance with an abundance of stars. How did he do it?
On Saturday he fielded a team using a line-up and tactical formation that he had never even trained with in his tournament preparations, let alone used in a match. Juninho Pernambucano started, making a three-man midfield together with Kaká and Ronaldinho. The trio may be the best players in their respective club leagues, in France, Italy and Spain – yet they seemed to cancel each other out.
Instead of basing the team around the top players’ strengths, Parreira’s solution was to try to fit in as many of the stars as he could. In order to do this, he had created the so-called “magic quartet” of Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaká.
Ronaldinho, who has won Fifa’s World Player of the Year twice in a row playing as a forward for Barcelona, was given a role further back where his duties included marking. Kaká, who is positioned directly behind the two strikers at AC Milan, was moved to the right. Parreira’s greatest mistake was that he did not find a way for his most talented players to play the way they do at their clubs.
Indeed, the whole concept of the magic quartet was based on a fallacy. This was the formation that brought Brazil success in last year’s Confederations Cup. Yet in that competition the foursome included Robinho instead of Ronaldo. In Brazil’s best performance in the World Cup qualifiers, against Chile, Ronaldinho was absent and Robinho took his place.
Parreira insisted that Ronaldo and Adriano played up front together, two lumbering presences that defences found easy to neutralise. With Robinho coming on as a striker, as he did as a substitute in the first two games, Brazil looked sharper as he created space with his dribbles and runs. Had he not been recuperating from a muscle injury, perhaps Parreira would have chosen him to start against France.
The game against Japan, in which Brazil used five reserves and won 4-1, was seen as proof that the team’s youngsters should replace ageing veterans such as Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Parreira, famously conservative, returned to his original line-up for the following game against Ghana, and a 3-0 scoreline flattered the title-holders.
The Brazilian press was not pleased with the performance and even Parreira admitted that the team needed a “jump” to a higher level.
Before the game against France, Parreira’s style was being called into question. After grandly announcing his first team almost two months before the competition began, against Japan he kept the line-up secret from his team until they reached the dressing-room before the game. The players did not like this and so for the last two games he told them the night before.
Brazil’s media said his behaviour was irritating and confusing the players, who wanted more dialogue. The Brazilian Football Confederation has also been critical that he had not shown enough leadership, concentrating on tactics rather than team spirit.
Unlike the 2002 coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who made all the players feel part of a family, Parreira’s posture was more like a university professor. When he chose the team against France, he ditched the “magic quartet” for an untested formation. For someone so methodical, it seemed out of character.
In retrospect it was the last act of a desperate man.