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Aug 19, 2014

Dunga offers redemption to Brazil vets

New manager Dunga named his first squad since replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari after Brazil's disappointing World Cup.

In the end, it has been nothing near the cull some people were predicting. But Dunga's first squad announcement after returning to Brazil was still nothing conservative in sheer numbers. The 1994 World Cup-winning captain kept only 10 out of the 23 players taken by Luiz Felipe Scolari to the most recent tournament, shutting the door most notably to Dani Alves, Marcelo and above all Fred, whose single goal against Cameroon may have helped him escape the ignominy of becoming the first Brazilian striker to fail to score in their first World Cup games -- but still looks pathetic compared to the other four games he did not find the net.

Neither has Dunga promoted a radical reshuffle, though. Although the list of 23 names he read aloud this Tuesday in a news conference in Rio brought new names -- such as Cruzeiro's attacking pair Ricardo Goulart and Ricardo Ribeiro, alongside Corinthians defender Gil -- the number of surviving veterans is bigger than the contingent that started the 2010 cycle when the same Dunga was brought in to oversee the departure of stalwarts such as Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Ronaldo.

Even the long-overdue second chance for Philippe Coutinho was hardly a huge surprise, and some might argue that the midfielder's displays last season should have been enough for Dunga's predecessor, Big Phil Scolari, to give the boy a chance. Coutinho will probably get some decent playing time in next month's friendlies against Ecuador and Colombia.

Philippe Coutinho has completed his move to Liverpool
Philippe Coutinho will likely see his first action with the Seleção since the lone cap he earned in 2010.

The reality is that Dunga had already warned public and media there would be no witch hunt. Contrary to his arrival in 2006, marked by the perception that the Ronaldo generation had put individual pride above the common interest, the returning manager this time inherits a talent pool that looks even shorter than four years ago, but whose components will certainly be eager to prove that the events of July 8, 2014, in Belo Horizonte were as abnormal as the 7-1 score in the World Cup semifinal against Germany suggests. For the surviving veterans, the manager's nod is an invitation for a shot at redemption.

The drubbing ministered by the Germans only last month showed more than superiority on the pitch and in fact exposed decades of leniency in the way football is organized in Brazil. The problems cannot be solved in four years, and while CBF showed immense lack of ambition by summoning Dunga back, he is hardly somebody who failed miserably at the job. Also, players who worked with him at his first Seleção stint will invariably praise his character, even in more private conversations.

Of the 23 called up, Ramires and Maicon are the only ones who traveled to South Africa four years ago. It is quite likely that Thiago Silva, currently injured, will join them for the remaining friendlies this year -- so far, Turkey, Japan and Argentina are expected opponents. The way Ramires spoke with joy about a return to the team suggests the survivors of the "Mineirazo" are keen to dig in.

Dunga would be foolish to disregard experience. Differently from the past World Cup cycle, Brazil will have to go through the long and exhausting South American qualifiers if they want to play in Russia in 2018 and keep the Seleção's 100 percent attendance record -- they are the only team to have done so, by the way. There will be 18 matches over almost three years and anybody who followed the action in Brazil this summer will remember how supporting actors like Chile and Colombia have bigger ambitions these days. You simply don't take a bunch of newbies to a tournament like that.

Thanks to Dunga's short fuse and eternal moaning, it's easy to forget his Brazil managed to thump Italy twice and Argentina thrice, including the Seleção's first victory in enemy territory in more than a decade. If the football sometimes wasn't pretty it was by no means eternally dull.

A quick glance at his call-ups shows already some contentious points like the presence of Hulk and even the decision to give David Luiz a chance straight away after his shenanigans in Belo Horizonte. But at the same time there are interesting signs: Fred's exclusion -- his announced international retirement last month seeming to have stuck -- finally seems to have buried Brazil's insistence on a classic No. 9, a character whose status of endangered species was exposed in the past World Cup, despite Miroslav Klose's heroics.

With Coutinho and Oscar on board, Dunga could even test different formations that do not rely on a fixed striker and that might actually give Hulk a chance to play as the second striker he has always been.

Maicon still has a place in the Brazil squad for now, but will he still be active for his third World Cup in 2018?

Alves and Marcelo's departure looks also like Brazil thinking twice before deploying two marauding full-backs in an era when even Germany are not careless with space left for the opposition to work. Whether Maicon and Filipe Luis are the right replacements remains to be seen, especially when one takes into account that the Roma full-back will be 37 come 2018.

To crucify Fernandinho for being sucked into the maelstrom of incompetence at Belo Horizonte would be unfair, and until that night Luiz Gustavo had been arguably one of Brazil's best players in the tournament. Oscar and Willian, if deployed in an intelligent manner, can be lethal players. Neymar, even without the public martyrdom following his injury, is still Brazil's best player in the past four years, even when having to pretty much carry the team on his back.

In goal, Dunga seems to be leaning into promoting Jefferson from the eternal understudy position. The absence of Valencia's Diego Alves, a player recently linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona but who got the coldest of shoulders from Scolari, remains a mystery. Napoli's Rafael Cabral, now set to become Rafa Benitez's first choice for the 2014-15 season, was also called up and will be a nice shadow for the Botafogo keeper.

It's only the first list and changes will happen, starting with more tests with players eligible to play in the Rio Olympics, like Marquinhos, despite the fact for the first time in years the Seleção manager will not be responsible for the Olympic team. It's a wise decision when there is enough work to be done with the big boys.

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