Football, one sometimes forgets, is played, watched and written about by people. Sentient beings with biases, emotional reactions and flaws. It is not all about pass completion, interception statistics or the ability to cover 11.5 km in 90 minutes. Of course, those things are important, but without a group of united and motivated human beings on the pitch, on the bench and in the stands it becomes very difficult to win matches.
This is something that Brazil’s national team manager Tite appears to understand perfectly. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, the irascible and endlessly confrontational Dunga.
Tite’s policy of rotating the captaincy, for example, is a way of creating a sense of shared responsibility and self-confidence amongst his players. When Fernandinho was handed the armband for the important away qualifier against Peru in November Tite was showing that he trusted and valued the player, even though he would not have been first choice had Casemiro been fit.
With the selection of his squad for this month’s World Cup qualification matches, against Uruguay in Montevideo on the 23rd and Paraguay in São Paulo on the 28th, the Brazil boss has once more shown that sometimes the personal and emotional side of the game will come ahead of the purely technical.
The decision to include Diego Ribas and Diego Souza is one that is designed to please people, but this time the watching public rather and the regional press rather than those inside his camp. Both men played in the recent friendly against Colombia that featured only home-based players, but inclusion in a squad for these qualifiers is an altogether different proposition.
Their selection has been criticised by some. Why pick two aging forwards who ply their trade in Brazil when there a plenty of younger players doing well in Europe that could use the experience of a call up ahead of next year’s World Cup? The answer is political.
Diego Souza plays for Sport Recife, the biggest team in Brazil’s vast and grindingly poor North-East. It is the first time a player from a club in this part of the country has been called up for a World Cup qualifier since Sport’s central midfielder Leomar took part in a game against Peru in 2001. As Cassio Zirpoli, a journalist for Recife’s most popular newspaper, Diário de Pernambuco, wrote after the squad was announced; “the hiatus is over.”
Tite justified the decision by saying that Diego Souza was the joint-top scorer in last year’s Brazilian Série A. He was indeed, but that was certainly not the only factor weighing on this decision. One only has to look at this reaction in the press to see what it means to the people there.
Diego Ribas plays for Flamengo, the biggest club in Rio de Janeiro and a club that is hugely popular all across this continent-sized country. Dunga had been accused of favouring players from São Paulo clubs and, with his connection to Corinthians, Tite was in danger of the same happening to him. With the inclusion of Diego he has, if not eradicated the possibility of these accusations rearing their heads, at least put them on hold for the time being.
The dispute between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the Seleção is one as old as the team itself; in 1920 the squad for the Copa América was made up entirely of players from Rio because of a quarrel between the Rio and São Paulo State federations. Putting this division to one side is surely an intelligent move from the manager.
Tite hasn’t just included two players in his squad, he has included the people of the whole country. Brazil is not a nation in the way that most of the political entities of Europe are. It is a collection of socially and culturally distinct regions with little to link them. Football is one of the few things that are capable of creating a sense of unity so the manager of the Seleção holds the role of nation builder as well as football coach. It seems Tite has fully embraced the duality of his position.
It is also possible that he wants to ensure he always has at least a couple of Brazil-based players in his squad. This keeps casual fans who perhaps do not watch much European football happy and keeps the door open for home-based players. Were he to choose only those who play in Europe it would be intensely demoralising for those players performing consistently well in the Brasileirão and Copa Libertadores.
Apart from the two Diegos the only notable selection is young Benfica goalkeeper Ederson who comes off the back of some wonderful performances in the Champions League. The rest of the squad is made up of the players who Tite has built his team around, the players who he trusts completely, many of whom he managed at club level.
Before the World Cup Tite may well need to bring some young blood into the squad to give it a lift and decrease the average age of the team, but time remains for that work to be done.
For now these selections are an intelligent and politically expedient move. It is unlikely that they will play many minutes, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino looks a more natural replacement than Souza for the injured Gabriel Jesus, and Diego Ribas, a classic number 10, plays in a position that does not exist within Tite’s 4-1-4-1 system. They will, however, please some people who need to be pleased, both in the press box and on the terraces.
The full squad can be seen here: