Belo-based trio define Dunga's Selecao
Following the dispiriting hiring of former player agent Gilmar Rinaldi as technical director and the underwhelming return of Dunga as national team coach, Brazil's brave new dawn has so far shone as brightly as a 40-watt bulb. Given such straitened footballing circumstances, the announcement of the first "Dunga Redux" squad yesterday was met with general, if somewhat lukewarm, approval among the Brazilian media.
If the exclusion of 13 players from the squad that turned everybody else's "Copa das Copas" ("the best World Cup of them all," to use Brazil president Dilma Rousseff's tagline) into a Cup of Woe for the hosts was the glass looking half full, then the retention of 10 players -- including 33-year-old Maicon and whipping boy Hulk -- made the same receptacle look in serious need of topping up. That said, the selection of bright attacking midfielders such as Philippe Coutinho, Ricardo Goulart, Everton Ribeiro and Diego Tardelli -- and the blessed absence of a lumbering centre-forward like Fred or Jô -- was widely applauded, even if it exposed Brazil's lack of options in the latter position as much as a desire for tactical innovation.
"The good news is that the squad isn't packed with defensive midfielders, and that there are more creative players," said ESPN's Paulo Vinicius Coelho in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. If Brazil are to return to their previous dominance then "players who can dribble, and are good technically, will be fundamental," he added.
One place where Dunga's list will have been greeted warmly is the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte, stage of the now fabled "Meltdown at the Mineirão."
The selection of Cruzeiro players Goulart and Ribeiro and Atlético Mineiro's Tardelli is recognition of the progress made by the city's two biggest clubs in recent years. Until San Lorenzo won the 2014 edition of South American football's biggest crown last week, Belo Horizonte was home to both the Copa Libertadores holders (Atlético) and reigning Brasileirão champs (Cruzeiro). And Cruzeiro currently lead this year's title race without so far having needed to break into much of a sweat.
Perhaps the best known of the three players outside Brazil is Everton Ribeiro. After starting off as a left-back with Corinthians, he had morphed into an attacking wide-player by the time Cruzeiro paid Coritiba 1 million pounds for his services in 2013. As quick with the ball tied to his foot as he is without it, his goal against Flamengo in the Copa do Brasil was perhaps the prettiest of last year's Brazilian domestic season. He was also voted the league's best player as Cruzeiro romped to the title.
While Ricardo Goulart (currently Serie A's top scorer) may lack a touch of his teammate's grace, he is bigger and stronger than Ribeiro and can also play as a centre-forward. "He's aggressive and competitive. ... He gets into the area well so he can be a surprise element, and he's a good finisher," Dunga said yesterday.
Skillful, athletic attacking midfielders who pass the ball smoothly and know where the goal is? The similarity between Joachim Low's Brazil-slayers and Goulart was not lost on some. "Ribeiro really reminds me of Ozil, and Goulart is like Muller. They complement each other well," wrote 1970 World Cup winner Tostão of the Cruzeiro pair in the Folha de São Paulo this morning. Atletico fans, meanwhile, will not care to be reminded that Goulart came close to signing with "Galo" when he left Goiás at the end of 2012; some sources even announced the deal as confirmed.
Diego Tardelli also fits the "Vorsprung Durch Attacking Midfielders" model. Named after one of Italy's goalscorers in the 1982 World Cup win, he can play in any of the attacking positions, giving him a most modern versatility. Seen as talented but wayward during spells at São Paulo and Flamengo, he exploded as a striker with Atlético in 2009 and 2010, scoring 73 goals in 114 games during his first spell with the club. He spent the next two years in Russia (with Anzhi) and Qatar (Al-Gharafa) before returning to Belo Horizonte, playing out wide as Galo won the Libertadores.
"He's the link between the spectacular passes of Ronaldinho, the speed of Bernard and Jô up front," wrote Tostão of Tardelli's role in the team. "Tardelli is not a centre-forward, a creative midfielder or a winger. He's a mixture of all three. He gives and goes, dribbles, can pass and scores goals."
The call-up of the three Belo Horizonte-based players caps a remarkable couple of years for the city's football, particularly at a time when Rio de Janeiro's clubs have lurched from one crisis to another -- Vasco da Gama are currently in Serie B, while Botafogo and Flamengo, both in financial turmoil, often seem intent on joining on them -- and not a single team from São Paulo managed to qualify for this year's Libertadores.
It is an impressive transformation from 2011 when, forced to play outside Belo Horizonte because of World Cup stadium rebuilding work, both Atlético and Cruzeiro came perilously close to relegation. Things began to change when "Galo" made the simultaneously thrilling (and alarming) announcement that they had signed Ronaldinho in 2012, then on the ups after a disastrous spell with Flamengo. "This will show them there's a proper team on this side of the mountains," said Atlético president Alexandre Kalil, a reference to the geographic division that separates the unprepossessing city from Brazil's traditional footballing, financial and media powerbases of Rio and São Paulo.
Ronaldinho's arrival -- and Atlético's ensuing progress -- forced Cruzeiro to redouble their own efforts, and the club signed a number of key players in addition to Goulart and Ribeiro. The results have been spectacular -- Cruzeiro are currently by some distance the best footballing side in Brazil.
Belo Horizonte's heightened profile is not just down to its clubs, either. The city played host to Brazil's exciting Confederations Cup semifinal victory over Uruguay last year and was also the scene of one of the biggest, and most violent, of the political protest rallies that took place during the tournament, when more than 100,000 people marched on the Mineirão on the day of the Japan versus Mexico game.
This summer Chile, Uruguay and Argentina were based in or around the city for the World Cup, while six out of the eight teams that played first-round games at the Mineirão progressed to the knockout stage. No one is likely to forget the drama of the host nation's Round of 16 penalty shootout win over Chile at the stadium on June 28 -- or the remarkable events of that Brazil versus Germany semifinal just a few days later.
While there is no doubt that Goulart, Ribeiro and Tardelli have earned their call-ups, it remains to be seen how they deal with the step-up to international football (though Tardelli, who is already 29, played in a few games under Dunga in 2009 and 2010). "It's difficult to know where the Campeonato Brasileiro sits in an international context," wrote Paulo Vinicius Coelho, "so it's hard to know how Ribeiro or Goulart will perform."
If they can reproduce just a little of the footballing success that Belo Horizonte has enjoyed recently, however, they should do just fine.
James Young writes about Brazil and its football. His collection of short stories and blog writings, "A Beer Before Lunch," is available on Amazon.