Dorival Junior: Brazil’s new coach could be the firefighter they need as Copa America looms

You would be forgiven, ahead of their friendly against England at Wembley this weekend, for being a little perplexed by the state of the Brazil squad.

There are, of course, a few familiar names. Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Raphinha and Richarlison are all in the running for attacking berths. Old stager Danilo is still knocking about. The midfield department has a strong Premier League flavour: the returning Lucas Paqueta is joined by Bruno Guimaraes, Douglas Luiz, Andreas Pereira and Joao Gomes.

Beyond that core, though, things get more than a little fuzzy. There are 11 uncapped players in the group. Seven others have fewer than five caps. This isn’t so much a who’s-who of Brazilian football as a “Who’s that?”.

This is far from ideal, not least because this year’s Copa America is just three months away. Brazil’s injury list, currently at Moby Dick length, will probably have shrunk by the time the games begin in the U.S. in June, but preparation time is in short supply. The two games over the next five days — they play Spain in Madrid on Tuesday — should be an opportunity for final tweaking; instead, they feel a little like an open trial.

The sense of flux is only accentuated by the fact they also have a new coach.

The idea — the wonderful, awful idea — was for Brazil to be gearing up for the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti at this point. He was supposed to sweep in on the eve of Copa America 2024 and add a final dusting of sweet, eyebrow-elevating magic to a side already whipped into shape by interim coach Fernando Diniz.

In the event, Ancelotti left Brazil sobbing at the altar and Diniz completely flunked his audition. After three defeats on the spin, the Selecao languish in sixth place in the South American World Cup qualification group six games in, behind Venezuela. That might be forgivable if there was some nascent project in place, something to build upon, but there is just fresh air and tumbleweed.

The man charged with sorting the mess out is Dorival Junior, a 61-year-old who has previously managed… well, pretty much everyone in Brazil, including eight of the country’s big 12 clubs. He has experience coming out of his ears; this is his 26th coaching job.

This is not to demean him. Brazilian football is so chaotic that even the best managers are doomed to have weird CVs. The point is that Dorival is no coaching prodigy, not a shiny new cab off the rank. He is at the other end of the spectrum, very much in the ‘served his time, merited his chance’ category.

Dorival won the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Libertadores with Flamengo in 2022 (Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

A journeyman midfielder during his playing days, Dorival moved into the dugout in 2002. He first came to national prominence in 2009 when he dragged Vasco da Gama out of the second division; a year later, his Santos side — featuring a young Neymar — won the Sao Paulo state championship and the Brazilian Cup, playing some thrilling stuff in the process.

For a while, that looked like being his pinnacle. In 2022, however, his third spell at Flamengo culminated in a historic Copa Libertadores win — South America’s equivalent of the Champions League). Then, last year, he took the reins of a struggling Sao Paulo FC and guided them to their first Copa do Brasil title. It was the momentum built across those two jobs that carried him into contention for the Brazil gig.

Unlike Diniz, Dorival is not a tactical fundamentalist. He tends to favour quick, attacking football, but he is not wedded to a specific formation. His Santos side played 4-2-3-1; at Flamengo, he favoured a midfield diamond and two strikers. He is flexible rather than didactic.

“I never arrive with a pre-conceived system,” he explained at his first Brazil press conference. “I prefer to work out what I have at my disposal and then decide on tactics.”

That, in the context of the Brazilian game, is probably a sensible approach. Sweeping philosophies are hard to implement when the guillotine is never more than a defeat or two away. Dorival is also known for his ability to smooth over conflicts and bring a squad together. His is a low-key brand of authority, built more on conciliation than ego.

As such, it is hard to find a player with a bad word to say about him.

There was an instructive scene in the wake of Sao Paulo’s Copa do Brasil win against Flamengo last year. As Dorival did his post-match media duties, a parade of Flamengo players — his former charges — made a point of stopping and saying hello. Football doesn’t hand out prizes for likability, but it’s a useful thing to have in your toolbox.

Together, these characteristics have earned Dorival the reputation of a firefighter, the guy you call when the flames are beginning to tickle your toes. While the Libertadores and three Copa do Brasil titles are his standout achievements, a lot of good work has also been done down at the bottom end of the Brazilian league table. He knows his way around a rescue act.

By this point, you can probably see why Brazil have turned to him, and why the decision was so popular, too. Two months on from his appointment, there is a broad consensus that Dorival is the right man for the job — an achievement in itself given the divisiveness of Diniz’s reign. “A great choice,” former Brazil captain Cafu called it. “He has deserved this for a long time,” said Muricy Ramalho, one of the grand old dogs of the Brazilian game.

Leonardo Miranda, who writes about tactics on the GloboEsporte website, echoes that view but also sounds a note of caution. “I have always been a big fan (of Dorival),” he tells The Athletic. “I thought he should have taken over (immediately) when Tite left the job after the (2022) World Cup, but I do ask myself whether he will be able to oversee a long-term project.”

That question comes later. The immediate task is to get Brazil into respectable shape before the Copa America.

In that opening press conference, Dorival hit most of the usual talking points — playing like Brazil (a complex knot of an issue at the best of times), getting the fans to fall back in love with the national team — but there was also recognition of the fact that he has to hit the ground running.

“What we don’t have is time,” he said. “We have to speed up the process. It’s like being a club manager: we need results yesterday, not tomorrow.”

The scratch squad he will lead at Wembley tomorrow (Saturday) complicates things, of course. Taking charge of his first international match would be daunting enough with Alisson, Marquinhos, Casemiro and Neymar in the side; it’s another matter when the options include Rafael, Fabricio Bruno, Pablo Maia and Pepe.

The good thing for Dorival is that the fragile state of the Selecao is not lost on those back home. No one is expecting to be blown away by what Brazil produce, either against England and Spain this week or in the Copa America. The hope, for once, is a modest one: that the firefighter can do what the firefighter does.

(Top photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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