Teams of the Decade #12: Brazil 2002

January 28, 2010

It’s easy to forget what a mess Brazil were in just months before the 2002 World Cup. They had their worst-ever qualification campaign for the tournament, and Luiz Felipe Scolari only took over in June 2001, with Brazil sitting outside the qualification places. Scolari struggled through – he lost his first game, but Brazil sealed their place in Japan and Korea by just three points.

The odd thing about this World Cup-winning side is that, were it not for a bizarre injury to Emerson days before their first match, their central midfield pairing (and therefore overall shape) would have been completely different. The plan had been to field the captain, Emerson, as a holding player, alongside Juninho Paulista, who would be given more license to roam. That all changed when Emerson dislocated his shoulder whilst playing as a goalkeeper in a training session, and was forced out of the tournament. Kleberson was called up to replace him, whilst Gilberto Silva (himself a surprise inclusion in the squad) became Brazil’s first-choice holding midfielder, with Juninho alongside him.

That’s how it stayed for the first few games, with Gilberto playing the role Dunga had fulfilled in the 1994 and 1998 tournaments, and Juninho linking with the front players. Midway through the second round match against Belgium, however, Scolari replaced Juninho (who had been Brazil’s best player in that game) with Denilson (an even more attacking player) and Brazil went on to win.

Quite what convinced Scolari to then drop Juninho and insert Kleberson, another fairly defensive midfield player, alongside Gilberto Silva remains unclear. The England midfield of Beckham-Butt-Scholes-Sinclair hardly necessitated another anchorman, but Brazil won, and Kleberson remained in the team until the end of the tournament, and was probably Brazil’s best player in the final. Perhaps Scolari had decided that Gilberto was not as mobile as Emerson would have been, or perhaps he was worried by Belgium’s dominance in midfield.

Elsewhere, the team was a joy to watch, in a free-flowing 3-4-1-2ish formation that saw as wonderful an attacking trident as the tournament has ever seen in Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Ronaldo was the spearhead, with Rivaldo remaining in close contact, and Ronaldinho dropping deepest to collect the ball.

The wide players, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, had the luxury of playing as wing-backs rather than as full-backs, meaning they scampered forward more than ever.

Brazil’s three-man defence also worked wonderfully despite possessing the awful Roque Junior. One of the other two defenders, usually Edmilson, played as a sweeper with license to bring the ball forward from the back, which produced this wonderful goal against Costa Rica.

It was far from a classic tournament, and this is far from the greatest Brazil side of all time. But, somehow, Scolari managed to create a truly wonderful side from a squad of players lacking any direction or discipline just twelve months previously. The misconception amongst the British media is that Brazil are at their best when they possess as many creative players as possible – far from it; they have always been their best when they play a relatively rigid shape defensively that allows two or three flair players to express themselves without the worry that their failings will cost the team defensively. Ominously, that’s exactly how Dunga has them playing at the moment.

Here are Ronaldo’s two goals in the final – the first may have been fortunate, but the second was beautifully crafted:

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