Tite - revivalist, revolutionary or reactionary? How Brazil recovered from national humiliation

Rob Bagchi
Tite congratulates Neymar and Willian when he takes them off during the victory over Japan in Lille - REUTERS

Brazil in 1970, wrote the great Uruguayan essayist and epigrammist Eduardo Galeano, “played a soccer worthy of her people’s yearning for celebration and craving for beauty”. It has become commonplace to argue ever since their grisly campaign to defend the World Cup in 1974 that the subsequent five decades have been spent in a kind of aesthetic wilderness, betraying the credo and paradigm of ‘the beautiful game’ in grim pursuit of defensive robustness to counterbalance the seemingly ad-lib attacking ingenuity. A fear of being overrun by unyielding, ruthless opponents should Brazil return to first principles as they did under Tele Santana in 1982, the hypothesis goes, has reduced them to sacrificing the poetic for the prosaic.  

System, structure, discipline and world-class strikers earned a fourth and fifth World Cup. We would all feel blessed to be thus compromised. But by 2014, this muddle took them on a foul-strewn run to the semi-final where, without the injured Neymar, they suffered their utmost humiliation in the 7-1 thrashing by Germany. The way the nation treated Neymar’s absence in the build-up, gnashing their teeth as if he had been martyred instead of injured, emphasised the extent of the problem. Those laments were a siren and the autopsy dwelt on the philosophical and psychological inadequacies that disgraced the team’s heritage.

Guillem Balague once asked Roberto Carlos, a World Cup runner-up in 1998 and a winner in 2002, about the burden of expectation on Brazil’s players and he exhaled through a thin smile. “Football made me old before my time,” he said. “My country is one of suffering where the people look to victory in football to take them away from the poverty. Football is the only thing that can make the people happy. 

“And that brings enormous pressure - we have to bear and play under its weight. It’s down to us to make the whole country happy. [Only we] can make the people forget about the assassinations and kidnappings, the economic crisis. We are God’s chosen ones to step up to the plate.”

After the 2014 World Cup, fears that the bond between the public and its team (that had sustained football’s most important and optimistic culture) had been sundered provoked an understandable but unfortunate reaction from the incontinently scandal-plagued confederation. Ignoring that it had been the pragmatic taskmaster Luiz Felipe Scolari who had presided over the great indignity, Dunga, coach from 2006 to 2010, was reappointed once again to instil discipline, tactical rigidity and penitence.

Dejected Brazil fans after the 7-1 semi-final humiliation Credit: AP Photo/Andre Penner

The CBF has lived high on the hog since 1958 when Joao Havelange’s ascendancy began as president of the Brazilian sports confederation, but it never sees the harm in prescribing a spell of sackcloth and ashes for the players to deflect from broader deficiencies. 

The board had two options in July 2014: Tite, who had won four regional titles at four clubs and, with Corinthians, the championship of Brazil, the Copa Libertadores and the Fifa Club World Cup or Dunga, a World Cup-winning captain who had won the Copa America in his first year as national team coach but packed his team with so many workhorses and cloggers by 2010 that it resembled a rat’s nest and left South Africa unmourned at the quarter-final stage.

The CBF went for the familiar and disappointed Tite, who had taken a season’s sabbatical in anticipation of succeeding Scolari, his former PE teacher and team-mate, and tried to prepare himself by visiting Arsenal and Real Madrid to observe and consult with Arsène Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti. While the national team was flagellating itself in a show of atonement under Dunga, mired in his usual incoherence, Tite returned to Corinthians and won a second national title.

When Brazil were eliminated from the Copa America Centenario at the group stage following a draw with Ecuador and defeat by Peru, the confederation at last redressed its error, sacked Dunga and summoned Tite. 

Brazil treated Neymar as if he'd been martyred rather than injured Credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

He was appointed in June 2016 and rejuvenated the qualification campaign for Russia so thoroughly that they won nine successive group matches and were the first team to join the hosts in the pot last March. Yet the hopes that Brazil’s resurgence is because the coach is the heir to Jorge Saldanha, the man who fashioned the 1970 side but was manoeuvred out of his job before the tournament because of his opposition to the military dictatorship, and also Santana are not supported by the evidence. 

Tite is as much a pragmatist as his predecessors but he has introduced one crucial change he refined at Corinthians that has re-established midfield as the power train of the team. Scolari deployed flying full-backs as the creative motor of his side, stationing two holding midfielders in front of the centre-backs, a forceful, hard-running centre-forward ahead of wide men and a 10. Hulk and Oscar were no one’s idea of wingers but they started on the flanks and cut in to leave space for the bombing Dani Alves and Marcelo. Dunga tried variations of 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 but could never get the balance right. 

By contrast Tite has stuck with largely the same personnel yet has turned them into a coherent whole. Renato Augusto, a 2016 Olympic gold medallist, was already in Dunga’s side but has been transformed into a deep-lying playmaker in the Andrea Pirlo mode by Tite who used him there for Corinthians. During four seasons at Bayer Leverkusen, he played in the hole but in this withdrawn role he dictates the tempo and runs the game. Behind him sits Casemiro or Fernandinho and to his right the recalled Paulinho.

These three positions are the heart of the new Brazil - a holder, a playmaker and a box-to-box raider - just as Ralf, Jadson and Elias drove Corinthians on from the same berths. With Neymar to the left, Philippe Coutinho or Willian on the right and Gabriel Jesus or Roberto Firmino through the middle, they have the flexibility to spring from 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-3 and, with Paulinho’s lung-bursting runs, something approaching the 4-2-4 that makes the heart sing. 

We’re not looking at midfielders of Gerson’s quality or Socrates’ or Falcao’s, more a functioning system in which the players understand their assignments and have the confidence to trust the coach’s judgment. Last March Paulinho scored a hat-trick in a 1-4 victory over Uruguay in Montevideo arriving each time with the judicious timing of a player who reads the game fluently. As we saw at the typically bombastic Barcelona unveiling in August, Paulinho may not be able to execute pointless tricks with precision but stick him in a match and he plays with poise and intelligence.  

Paulinho was restored to the side by his former Corinthians manager and scored a hat-trick in Montevideo last March Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

In addition Tite has addressed the reliance on Neymar by sometimes, paraphrasing Barry Davies’ immortal line, “using him by not using him”.

“The collective empowers the individual,” the coach says. “If the ball arrives to Neymar, they mark [him], but the other side is more exposed. Coutinho creates chances. Enter Fagner, enter Paulinho. We take Neymar to one side, let him be isolated and make room for another.” You can tell by the tears when Tite praised him last week and pledged his support, that Neymar, caricatured as a prima donna, is anything but in a canary shirt.  Note that the collective ‘empowers the individual’ but only to serve the collective and Neymar buys into this.

The coach's habit of rotating the captaincy apparently indiscriminately would make the armband fetishists among the England correspondents apoplectic but he does it simply to stress the team counts more than any of its components, much like Billy Bremner’s old mantra: “Side before self, every time.”  

Brazil will walk out at Wembley on Tuesday night second behind Germany in the betting for next year’s World Cup. Under Tite they have lost only one game, a friendly last June at the Melbourne Cricket Ground against Argentina, and won 10 of 12 competitive matches. Perennial favourites for tournaments often for sentimental reasons, this time their claims are genuine. Because now they are not being led by a revivalist, a revolutionary or a reactionary but an astute, dauntless and enlightened coach who has found a fourth way.