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A few thoughts on Brazil vs South Africa

   

Brazil vs South Africa.  The last international break before Scolari announces his final World Cup squad.  The final audition.  And, interestingly enough, a golden opportunity to discover exactly how far Brazil has come.

As I was pondering this match last week, I thought at first that there were only three real storylines of note.  The first, obviously, is how Fernandinho and Rafina do, especially the former.  The second is the re-inclusion of Fred.  Is he truly an integral part of this team, or did he simply benefit from an extended hot streak during the first half of 2013?  If the latter, can he regain that momentum?  The third, of course, is the single most important story from now until the kickoff against Croatia: can our players avoid serious injury?  For Brazil fans, anything and everything that happens between now and June is quite simply of secondary importance.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a fourth story.  The fourth story is that this match is yet another measuring stick for how far the team has truly progressed under Scolari.

Rewind to September, 2012.  The Seleção took on Bafana Bafana in São Paulo, escaping with a 1-0 victory thanks to another super-sub performance by Hulk (though Oscar also played well.)  Despite the victory, the match left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths.  For the most part, Brazil looked jaded and disinterested.  South Africa probably put together more moments of inspired creativity than Brazil did, and it was only due to alert (and somewhat lucky) defensive work by Diego Alves and Dede that Brazil kept a clean sheet at all.

“One must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he isn’t in the mood.  I have learned to master myself and am glad I’ve not followed in the footsteps of those…colleagues who have no self-confidence and no patience, and who throw in the sponge at the slightest difficulty.  That is why, in spite of their great gifts, they produce so little and in such a desultory way.”

This was said by the Pyotr Tchaikovsky back in the 19th century, and he was speaking about several of his fellow Russian composers who, while talented, were often underwhelming in their output.  But you can imagine the same being said, without too much difficulty, of Mano Menezes’ team.  Look at some of the key words in that quote: “isn’t in the mood,” “produce so little,” “desultory.”  Doesn’t that scream Mano Menezes?  His teams were quite capable of bursts of inspiration – or rather, Neymar and Oscar were – but too often they looked like they simply couldn’t be bothered.  Against Romania, against Venezuela, against South Africa…it happened over and over again.

It may be a little difficult to remember now, but this is how life so often was under Mano Menezes.  Scolari seems to have changed all that.  I’ve written at length on how Scolari has improved both the team’s tactics and its personnel, but it’s the change in attitude that may well be the most significant.  While Scolari certainly threw in a few duds of his own last year, these were primarily with the domestic squad.  Only against Switzerland did the regular team look like they simply wanted to be somewhere else.  Even their lesser performances (like the matches against Uruguay and South Korea) were still marked by energy and commitment.  It was their execution that was lacking.

Too often under Mano, the team displayed a demeanor of, “We’re Brazil.  You can wave the white flag now.”  With Scolari, it has become far more akin to, “We’re Brazil, and we are going to make you wave the white flag.”  The best teams, regardless of their tactics or style, have a similar mindset.  They go into every match thinking, “we are going to dominate the tempo of this match. We are going to dominate the style.  We are going to seize the initiative.”  When Mano won, you always got the feeling that it was simply due to sheer talent.  When Scolari wins, it’s more because his players went out there and won it.  The distinction is an important one.

All of this is not to say that Scolari’s Brazil is perfect – far from it.  And it’s not my intention to paint Scolari as some superhuman manager, either.  It wouldn’t take long to list what I feel to be his mistakes, his oversights, his weaknesses.  The point is that Scolari has remade Brazil from being the team that looked so miserable against South Africa two years ago to the team that laid the hammer down on Australia or Honduras.  Again, some of the reasons for this are tactical. Some have to do with personnel.  But I suspect the attitude Scolari has cultivated in the dressing room may be the most important reason of all.

Which brings us back to tomorrow’s match.  This is a game against the same opponent, and it takes place at a similarly awkward time.  The 2012 match occurred not long after an emotionally grueling Olympic campaign.  This one is taking place in the middle of a grueling club season.  Players like Neymar, Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Hulk and the Chelsea trio can perhaps be forgiven for having their minds more on the Champions League than on a one-shot friendly against a lesser opponent.  And that’s exactly the point.  It would be natural for Brazil to come out in second gear tomorrow.  After all, the World Cup can’t be won or lost in March.  But this is also the team’s last chance to play with each other, their last chance to hone their chemistry and polish their tactics before the day of reckoning comes.

This is the test, and to me, it’s the single most interesting storyline of tomorrow’s game.  Can Brazil overcome the creeping apathy that plagued them last time around?  Has Scolari truly shaped a team of professionals trained to focus solely on the objective at hand?  Will Brazil come out and just wait for South Africa to wave the white flag…or will they come out and make South Africa wave it?

We’ll see in less than 24 hours.


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