Stubborn Scolari gets it right
Dear Big Phil,
You are a stubborn man. The writing was on the wall: after a horrendous season with Tottenham Hotspur, the only way Paulinho could ever emulate his 2013 form with the Seleção would be with the use of a time machine.
Still, you waited three games to finally sack your stuttering midfield dynamo. You waited until Brazil struggled against the already eliminated Cameroon in Brasilia. You had to gamble that Neymar would once again come to the rescue and bail the Seleção out after one of their most horrifying halves of football in living memory.
Never mind Fred, whose offside goal reinforced his lucky poacher status and helped him avoid the horrendous mark of being the first Brazilian No. 9 to go without a goal in the group stage -- forget that he was blatantly offside at the time. Paulinho was dragging Brazil down, but he still lasted one half of a match that should never have been that nervy.
This is not an exercise in hindsight, Mr. Scolari. Just look at how the insertion of Fernandinho changed this game. It's true that the Manchester City midfielder is a late arrival to this team and wasn't part of your beloved 23 that thrashed Spain in Rio last summer. Prior to the World Cup, it was hard to shake the idea that winning the Confederations Cup final gave Brazilian fans some unrealistic expectations, but in any case, your brand of high-tempo and high-pressure football would be possible only with everybody pulling together. As it is, your box-to-box man failed to deliver.
Fernandinho had only one game, a friendly in South Africa, to show he deserved a place in the squad. But you surely followed his wonderful season for Manchester City, his formidable partnership with Yaya Toure serving as the crux of their second Premiership title in three seasons. You did see he was a resourceful player capable of replacing Paulinho or enforcer Luiz Gustavo. Still, it took awhile for you to unleash him. And yet, Fernandinho delivered more than you expected.
He indeed jelled with Luiz Gustavo and closed down many avenues in midfield that the Cameroonians seemed all too keen to explore. (They will also look extremely tempting for Chile, an opponent that might have a history of choking against Brazil in World Cups, like in 1998 and 2010, but look transformed in 2014 under the guidance of Jorge Sampaoli.)
Fernandinho also went forward after Neymar was withdrawn in the 71st minute, scoring a peach of a goal that until last year, one would have backed Paulinho to score.
The thing is, Phil, this is 2014, a World Cup in which Brazil already have a lot on their plates. Your reluctance to change things could have cost the team dearly -- at one point, Mexico's late rampage against Croatia in Monday's other Group A decider had them within a goal of taking first place. Brazil needed a firm display against Cameroon, though the 4-1 result hasn't fooled supporters. They know that this Seleção side still look edgy and need Neymar in peak form and condition in order to have any chance at a sixth World Cup.
But boy, didn't Fernandinho make the team look different? It now gives the nation an interesting discussion about the ideal system. Ramires' arrival in lieu of Hulk changed the Seleção's usual setup. Alongside Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo he forms a very interesting, assertive trio that can sit behind Neymar and Oscar with Fred up front.
In a nutshell, Mr. Scolari, you have been presented with a "Rai" moment. In 1994, after some abysmal performances by no one less than the biggest pin-up in Brazilian football and Socrates' younger brother, the Seleção manager had no choice but to drop the man who also wore the captain's armband. That manager was Carlos Alberto Parreira, the same man who serves as your technical director. Take a leaf from his book if you haven't taken it already. Refusing to drop your trusted lieutenants is a dangerous trap, as football has so often shown recently including in this World Cup -- look no further than Vicente Del Bosque and Iker Casillas.
On Saturday, Brazil will meet Chile in Belo Horizonte knowing that they have been far from convincing in the mother of all campaigns so far. But Brazilian fans have a few reasons to smile. With Fernandinho on the pitch, Brazil finally show some of the spirit that made them so fearsome and so annoying to play against last year.
In Neymar they have a talismanic "Roy of the Rovers" figure whose maturity is impressive -- the boy was really tested and teased by the Cameroonians, who took every opportunity to harass him. Above all, Brazil have shown they can step up a gear and maybe show a hint of a Plan B. Whether this will be enough to win them a sixth World Cup title is a whole different story, but it certainly looks more promising than it did until 45 minutes into Monday's match. Given how "un-Brazilian" the Seleção have been in this tournament, that's a massive step.
In this sense, thank you for backing down a little, Mr. Scolari. A lot of people are really grateful.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Fernando_Duarte.