By Rupert Fryer
Footballing epochs are inherently defined by individual moments that provide a summation of the greater narrative. Mano Menezes had hoped his would arrive in 2014 as Brazil lifted the World Cup on home soil for the first time in its history, banishing the monkey of 1950’s ‘Maracanazo’ from the nation’s collective backs for good.
Instead, as he was ushered out of the door by CBF President Jose Maria Marin yesterday, an individual error by a Manchester United full-back at Wembley Stadium will be the lasting memory of two years in charge that brought 21 wins, six draws and six defeats.
When Rafael turned down the line after 30 seconds of the Olympic final with Mexico, he saw nobody ahead of him. Committed to expressing his coach’s possession-based rhetoric, he refused to aimlessly punt the ball downfield and turned back inside looking for a short pass. He didn’t find one, instead playing a loose ball straight to Oribe Peralta who fired past Gabriel to put Mexico ahead.
Brazil never recovered. And neither did Menezes. Rafael was held culpable in the immediate aftermath, but individual errors are usually indicative of the larger problems plaguing a side.
Justifiably concerned at the lack of support Neymar offered Marcelo at left-back, Menezes dropped Hulk – controversially selected as one of the three over-age members of the squad – to introduce Alex Sandro to the midfield in what resulted in a lopsided setup that left Rafael isolated on the right.
“Thankfully, today we've seen [Menezes’] last match … he can’t pick a team,” said Romario. His declaration proved a few months premature, but summed up the frustration after the only major tournament Brazil have yet to win evaded them once again.
It all felt a bit muddled that afternoon - a word that perhaps best embodies Mano Menezes’ tenure. He’s a forward-thinking coach, one happy to intellectualise the sport, but he never seemed to settle on a style. Since then, he was on borrowed time, with many already surprised to see him survive a Copa America campaign that saw the Selecao exit at the quarter-final stage to Paraguay. And yet, it had all started so well.
With just five of the 23 who featured in Dunga’s dismal World Cup 2010 campaign, Mano’s new-look Brazil blew USA away with a dazzling display of expansive football on a coaching debut that was supposed to usher in a rebirth of Brazilian football. “Football is joy!” roared Globo. “With Menezes, Brazil is about the beautiful game,” gushed Marca in Spain. “Young Brazil impress,” said Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport. While in Argentina, Olé asked: “Who’s the Mano?”
Menezes, not known for an adventurous approach to the game, had been charged with leading Brazil out of a philosophical crisis; an era that Socrates had labelled “an affront to our culture.”
But despite becoming something of a symbol for the ‘beautiful game’, Brazil’s approach to football has always been pragmatic. Still, the nation was changing. And its football team desperately needed a fresh start.
Victories over Ukraine and Iraq followed, but back-to-back defeats to Argentina and France raised concerns over a coach who wasn’t even supposed to be there – the job was quite publicly offered to then Fluminense coach Muricy Ramalho, but the approach was rebuffed by both club and Ramalho himself.
Menezes has since developed something of a reputation for not quite being up to the biggest of challenges. Denmark aside, not once did he beat a team inside Fifa’s top 10.
An increasingly schizophrenic style has seen repeated changes to the shape and personnel, with a number of players going from stalwarts to forgotten men almost overnight – he fielded 65 different players in 27 full internationals.
His latest experiment was to bring Kaka back from the international wilderness in a striker-less formation, and while the Real Madrid man performed admirably in comprehensive and impressive victories over Iraq and Japan, the system looked flawed in its first real test against Colombia last week.
Marin believed Menezes was still posing questions where he wanted answers.
“[Marin] wants to change the way things are done,” said national team director Andres Sanchez. “I don't think we should be changing tack at this time … but I was overruled.” There are suggestions that the decision is little more than Marin – who was less than satisfied with the penalty shootout victory over Argentina in the Superclasico de las Americas – simply flexing his muscles by dismissing a man appointed by his predecessor.
“At last the incompetent board at the CBF have done something good for Brazilian football,” said Romario on Friday, this time waiting until the decision was officially announced. Not all the ‘incompetents’ felt it was time for a change, but the man who matters most did.
Replacements are already being lined up with a view to next year's Confederations Cup. And with 200 million Brazilians demanding nothing less than victory in 2014, whoever replaces Menezes will face an Olympic task.
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