Dunga still losing battle with the press
September 5, 2009. Arroyito Stadium, Rosário, Argentina. Brazil have just guaranteed their ticket to the 2010 World Cup after a convincing 3-1 win over hosts Argentina. Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri (a.k.a. Dunga), walks into the media room looking relaxed for the first time in a few months.
After a hesitant beginning in the South American group, he has managed to steer the Brazilian ship home. A ten-match unbeaten streak with six wins, 20 goals scored and only three conceded has finally done the trick. The five-time World Cup winners will be in South Africa.
Dunga sits down smiling as he listens to the first question: a well-known Brazilian reporter asks Dunga's opinion about a "poor, disorganised, surprisingly limited Argentinean side". Before the Brazilian gaffer can mutter an answer, the journalist adds: "Does this diminish your sense of achievement? We've rarely seen such a dismal home performance by Argentina".
Dunga's body language changes drastically. He moves awkwardly in his chair, shakes his head and appears to count to ten before speaking. When he does, his voice betrays him: "anger" would be an understatement to describe its tone. "I don't know what else this team or I need to do. We've just beaten a side with some of the best players in the world. But it seems as though whenever we win, it is never by our own merit, and every defeat is always our fault".
A combative, charismatic, but technically limited defensive midfielder, Dunga played club football with the same passion for seventeen years in four different countries (Brazil, Italy, Japan and Germany), until his retirement in 2000. However, his more-hate-than-love story with the Brazilian media goes back to his tenure with the national team, 96 very intense caps that saw him go from hell to heaven in the space of two World Cups.
After consecutive failures in 1982 [with Johan Cruyff's Holland in mind, that Brazilian team was probably the best squad to not win the World Cup] and 1986, the Brazilian Federation decided that all that "jogo bonito" stuff was nonsense, and brought a certain Sebastião Lazaroni to implement a more pragmatic approach for the 1990 World Cup.
At first sight, Lazaroni, winner of three consecutive Carioca Championships with Flamengo and Vasco de Gama, looked like the Brazilian Arrigo Sacchi. Modern training techniques, "European" tactical approaches and his refined way of interacting with the public made him the ideal candidate to take Brazil back to World Cup glory.
The new boss started well, winning the 1989 Copa América while breaking a 40-year drought for Brazil in this tournament. However, the local press had already decided against this new, more cynical Brazil, and their complaints started to pour: "Do we really need a sweeper?", "Why are we playing with five defenders?", and, above them all: "Why is Lazaroni selecting such a bunch of thugs to play for Brazil?"
The hard-working but not very talented Dunga was then chosen by the media as the main representative, the icon of this new, insufferable Brazil. Thus the "Dunga Era" was born, a phrase coined by certain newspapers to criticize Lazaroni by aiming at his most emblematic player.
The defining match of the "Dunga Era" was, curiously enough, Brazil's last-sixteen encounter against Argentina in that 1990 World Cup. That hot June afternoon Lazaroni's starting line-up included three centre-backs, two full-backs and three defensive midfielders to face the great Diego Maradona and his sidekick, Claudio Caniggia.
Truth being told, Brazil spent most of the match in Argentina's half, squandered plenty of chances and hit the woodwork five times (one of them on a header by Dunga). However, with only 10 minutes left, the unthinkable happened.
Maradona picked up an apparently harmless ball right in the central circle. He easily left a lazy Alemão behind, resisted a strong tackle from Dunga, advanced 15 metres, went right, taking no less than three defenders with him, and put a gorgeous ball in the path of an unmarked Caniggia, who dribbled Brazil's goalkeeper Taffarel and scored with his left foot.
For all intents and purposes, that was the end of Lazaroni's reign, and for most of the Brazilian journalists, that should have been it for the "Dunga Era" as well. The midfielder swallowed the headlines announcing his demise as a national team player, kept playing consistently and eventually secured his place in the 1994 World Cup. The Brazilian coach at the time, Carlos Alberto Parreira, trusted Dunga with the captain's armband after Raí got injured; but more importantly, asked him to share a room with /look after Romário, the biggest troublemaker and the most important player on that side.
Based on their tidy defending and taking advantage of the fantasy of both Romário and Bebeto, that Brazilian side broke the spell and won the World Cup 24 years after their last victory. Dunga scored his penalty in the final's shootout and raised the Cup only four years after his own era seemed all but over. His leadership skills and determination had prevailed.
After this reversal of fortunes, Dunga was obviously on the cover of several magazines and subject of endless interviews, portrayed to the whole country as an example of personal achievement. Nevertheless, his relationship with the Brazilian media never recovered the confidence lost during the Lazaroni fiasco.
Things only became worse when Dunga himself was appointed to replace Parreira as Brazil's coach after their shambolic performance in the 2006 World Cup. That side's lack of disciplined was all too obvious, and the Brazilian FA hired Dunga to revive that fighting spirit and make some tough decisions about players that were clearly well past their best years.
The widespread opinion among the press described this decision as a transition move. The lack of available candidates (Muricy Ramalho, Paulo Autori and Wanderley Luxemburgo were all under contract), and the long four years until the next World Cup had left the inexperienced Dunga as the only option to clean the dressing room. The journalists saw him almost as a caretaker manager that would stay for a couple of years until a better prepared, more seasoned manager became available.
This obviously did not make Dunga happy, but once again he answered with results. Victories in the 2007 Copa América and 2009 Confederations Cup, together with the qualification for the 2010 World Cup, have brought both the media and the country closer to the national team. However, despite his success on the pitch, Dunga is still the press' favourite target.
His team selection, tactics and substitutions are still endlessly questioned, as most Brazilian journalists will never be 100% satisfied with a team that wait for the opposition to take the initiative and live off counter attacks and set pieces. Even Dunga's (daring, to say the least) clothes, chosen by his daughter Gabriela, are subject to mock and scorn.
"Our critics make this team more united and stronger", said Dunga before Sunday's meaningless 2-1 defeat at the hands of Bolivia at altitude. The new "Dunga Era" has now reached full steam. Don't be surprised if you seem him raising his second World Cup in less than nine months time, while some Brazilian media keep looking for another reason to criticise him.