How Tite dragged himself and then Brazilian football into modernity
“I am talking to the ball, seeking a few answers, spending time, remembering situations and travelling back in time to when I was a player. I admit, now [as a coach] it is nice and pleasurable, but playing football remains the great fascination. Playing football is fascinating. It is extraordinary. Practicing the sport is extraordinary.”
Adenor Leonardo ‘Tite’ Bacchi, Lille, 13 November 2017
Tite often wanders off on his own. The Brazil coach walks out of the dressing room, leaves behind the players’ murmur and seeks out the solitude of the training pitch. The scene already set with cones, strips and bibs, Tite ambles from corner flag to corner flag, gently kicking the ball – a few meters at a time. “Everyone has a ritual, a habit of concentration,” he said. “I do mine before the tactical trainings.”
The ritual has been repeated, across countries, across continents – in Montevideo, in Melbourne, in Lille. Craving a moment with the ball, Tite zones out. It is almost a tête-à-tête, intimate and profound, yet natural and frank. Tite nudges the ball along, it seems to obey, but, self-willed and defiant, the ball returns the most probing of questions: ‘What, precisely, is it that you want from me?’
“Merecer vencer [deserve to win],” replies Tite.
Tite’s response is poignant: football is a results-driven game, winning is everything, and yet, Tite, as ever, utterly values the underlying process: the result of a game must always be based on merit.
In his first game with the Seleção on European soil, a friendly against Japan in Lille in November 2017, he asked his players to imagine it was a World Cup game, but Brazil – or at least Neymar – struck the wrong note. The second half was laboured. The Japan coach Vahid Halilhodžić put it differently: “We won the second half 1-0.”
Neymar’s petulance, however, was vexing: 3-0 up and cruising against Halilhodžić’s frail team, he tussles with defender Hiroki Sakai in the 55th minute. His part-cuff, part-slap – a fit of pique – touches Sakai on the back of his head. There is no edge to the game, no pressure on Brazil, but Neymar is booked and for a moment Brazil’s star looks aghast, before he breaks into a je-m’en-fou smile. Neymar is impervious, and with reason.
In the Brazilian team, and at Paris Saint-Germain, Neymar enjoys regal prerogatives: he can pretty much do as he pleases, but his immature and fatuous behaviour is off-putting; from Neymarmania to Neymarmaniac is but a small step. That petty diva propensity has always been a part of Neymar’s personality – ephemeral and marginal, but always materialising, one way or another, at various stages in his career.
After the match, a savvy Neymar plays the French media. His September had become difficult following his bust-up with Edinson Cavani, but, emphasises the Brazil star, there is no breakdown in his relationship with PSG and certainly not with the Uruguayan striker or the coach Unai Emery. The stories are fabricated, alleges Neymar, and what’s more, “These things are hurting me,” he says.
The melodrama reaches a crescendo. Tite defends Neymar, who, at 1.75 m, shrinks behind the lectern, playing the victim role to perfection. In dark attire, Tite comes across as your Sunday hipster’s priest of choice. The inflection of his voice, the measure of his words, it’s all quite captivating and convincing. He preaches understanding and forgiveness. “No one is perfect,” says Tite. “We are human.”
With his singular eloquence and imposing presence, Tite commands the audience’s attention, projecting his authority, often expanding on his vision of the beautiful game and existential conundrums. He is puritanical, but at the same time intelligent and considerate, everything his quarrelsome predecessor, Dunga, was not.
Tite eulogises Neymar’s personality and, moved, the player sheds some tears – crocodile ones. It’s a masterstroke from Brazil’s coach, a public showing of loyalty to his only megastar player, the one who at club level can topple the celestial LeoCr7 duopoly and who, above all, at international level can, and must, propel Brazil to glory in Russia.
Four days later, in the bowels of Wembley Stadium, Tite offers no explanation or analysis for the Neymar soap. His press talk is perfunctory and even strangely subdued.
As the press conference wraps up, Osires Nadal, the Nestor of the Brazilian press corps and a Seleção beat reporter since the 1970 World Cup, ambles towards Tite. Nadal pulls out his phone and shows his discovery of a street named Tite. He beams with pride and Tite softens up.
In Chelsea, Tite Street is named for William Tite, who served as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed London’s Royal Exchange and mapped out numerous railway stations. At number 34, Oscar Wilde conceived the immortal characters of Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray. Today, Alessandro Moreira, a Corinthians fan, lives in Tite Street. In 2012, a superstitious Moreira adorned the street with club paraphernalia until O Timão defeated Chelsea 1-0 in the final of the Club World Cup. He will re-adorn his street and make Tite win the World Cup. Tite is clearly touched.
“And, mayor of Caxias do Sul?” quips Nadal the next day. Tite is amused and chuckles at the joke as he saunters through the dimly lit lobby of the Mandarin Oriental, a luxury Knightsbridge hotel with an Edwardian facade, Hyde Park views, £600 room rates and the cheer of a poorly attended funeral. His tenure has been coloured by delicate political questions and even calls for a presidential run. Jaeci Carvalho from the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Minas had declaimed at the press conference, “Brazil is devastated by violence… the congress for a good part is so corrupt… Brazilians want to see Tite [in charge] because of his sense of responsibility, charisma… you redeemed supporting for the Seleção, you are a reference for all Brazilians… your analysis?” Tite responds to Nadal with a joke.
But for all the gaiety of Tite Street and the political banter, Brazil disappoint against England. Their promising performance against Germany a few days earlier morphs into a 90-minute containment act against Brazil. Englandare anxious: they don’t want to get dispossessed. Gareth Southgate’s team play in survival mode. Even so, Brazil still have 66% of possession, topping 70% at various stages of the match. Tite’s team, however, have no cutting edge, no oomph. In the 76th minute, Fernandinho charges forward and, from outside the box, rattles the woodwork.
The slight feet, the flashes of geniuses do delight, but the experience is sobering for Brazil. They can’t break down mass defending. Neymar is selfish in possession, his decision-making poor, and, drifting inside and dropping deep, Brazil’s category A player slows down the pace. Tite and his backroom staff have much to ponder - Neymar, European defending, the World Cup squad and the entropy that the forthcoming months without friendlies may cause.
Grêmio’s players were slowly filtering into the dressing room. Here was goalkeeper Danrlei, there sat Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning midfielder Zinho, all veterans of the game, accustomed to high-intensity, high-pressure games. This was just another Brazilian Cup final, even if it was at the daunting Morumbi, swirling with the teeming masses of Corinthians fans.
Tite surprised his squad. “Boa sorte [good luck],” read Danrlei’s card, written in his youngest son’s longhand. Every player received a personal encouragement crafted by a loved one or a friend. And in the tunnel, to rouse his players, Tite spoke again but this time in his own words. “Get out there and enjoy it.”
A year earlier, in 2000, in his second season with Caxias do Sul, a small club in the hinterland of Rio Grande do Sul, Tite had conquered the Campeonato Gaúcho, the state championship, defeating Grêmio 3-0 on aggregate in the two-legged final. With structural cash flow problems, limited player personnel, a small backroom staff, making physical coach Geraldo Delamore a jack-of-all-trades, and a historic inferiority complex when compared to Porto Alegre’s clubs, this achievement, the high point of Caxias’s existence, was a remarkable achievement.
“The key factor was that [club president] Nelson D’Arrigo let us stay another season,” says Joel Cornelli, Tite’s assistant at Caxias do Sul. “Even in small clubs of the interior that’s not necessarily the case. That was the difference and Tite could implement his methodology.”
D’Arrigo reinforced the group with skilful but inexpensive players from the interior of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Caxias played a 4-4-2, with the left-back Sandro Neves alternating between defence and midfield. In the final, Cláudio, Ivair and Titi marked Grêmio’s danger man, the 20-year-old Ronaldinho, out of the game. “The success projected Tite onto the national scene,” says Cornelli.
Caxias’s triumph left its mark. The Grêmio President José Alberto Guerreiro, who in 2007 was convicted over the club’s links with the disgraced Swiss marketing group ISL, and his three directors wanted Tite. “Grêmio had followed Tite’s work,” says Paulo Pelaipe, Grêmio director between 2000 and 2002. “He had excelled at Caxias. Luiz Felipe Scolari spoke highly of him and recommended him.”
A small-town club coach at Grêmio, an institution in the Brazilian game? After all, Tite, who began his coaching career in 1990, had been a journeyman with Guarany de Garibaldi, Veranópolis, Ypiranga de Erechim and Caxias’ local rivals, Juventude. “It wasn’t a risk,” emphasises Pelaipe. “Tite’s coaching was a reality.”
He argues that Grêmio opened the door for Tite.
At Grêmio, Tite commanded the core of the team that he had beaten with Caxias, apart from Ronaldinho, who after three games, didn’t renew his contract and moved to PSG for €5 million. Tite, rebuilding the team, struggled with a 3-2 defeat against lowly Vila Nova in the Brazilian Cup but, as the season progressed, adjusted his team’s shape and formation.
“He did it his way, working differently, seeing a team differently,” says Danrlei, Grêmio’s goalkeeper between 1993 and 2003. “Tite spoke a lot to the players, exchanging ideas and new experiences. It was a conversation. He changed the day-to-day, the relationship between player and coach, the management of players.”
Grêmio had been playing 4-4-2, but without the style Tite envisaged. “The pieces were moving and falling into place,” explains Cléber Xavier, Tite’s assistant since 2001. “The new signings offered a possibility to transform the tactical formation. At the time some European clubs were applying that system [3-5-2]. We pursued the idea. We had Roger and Marinho, two central defenders. Ânderson Polga was a holding midfielder, who had worked with me in the youth teams. We had tried the system with him as a third centre-back. We exploited that and used the 38-year-old Mauro Galvão, with all his knowledge about the defensive system, as a leader. Marcelinho Paraíba dropped off slightly. He occupied space in the midfield before surging forward, so we didn’t have two strikers. In reality, it was a 3-6-1. We rotated, Warley and afterwards Luís Mário. We always employed one striker, four midfielders and two wingers who overlapped.”
Tite met Xavier for the first time at Grêmio. Today, they are still together as head coach and assistant. Xavier dissects opponents in meticulous detail, so much so that he comes across as Tite’s tactical mind, but, stresses Pelaipe, “Tite always takes the final decision.”
Xavier was coaching Grêmio’s U-20s, experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation. The system was unconventional in Brazil, but not new. In the late 90s Paulo César Carpegiani had experimented with the formation at São Paulo. Atlético Paranaense, who won the 2001 Brazilian championship, also employed a 3-5-2, built around Kléberson, a strong midfield and the striker Alex Mineiro.
“He saw the qualities of the players and adapted his tactical formation, a very different approach from what established coaches did, the opposite in fact, but also his most intelligent quality at the time,” says Danrlei.
En route to the 2001 Brazilian Cup final, Grêmio eliminated, among others, São Paulo and Fluminense with free-flowing football based on possession, transition and triangulations. In the final, they faced Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s Corinthians. In many ways, Luxemburgo was the antithesis of Tite: established, arrogant, self-loving, and, in the end, almost a caricature, referring to “a French writer called Goethe”. Luxemburgo was the epicentre of his own world. His expensive suits, his narcissism and vocabulary of “macro-plans” couldn’t mask his flaws. At the international level, his inexperience was exposed in a quarter-final exit from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
Back at Corinthians, Luxemburgo wasn’t commanding a club in the image of his own extravagance: the club and American investment fund HMTF reduced spending from a first-season US$25 million lay-out. Still, Corinthians were favourites to win the Brazilian Cup and drew 2-2 in the first leg in Porto Alegre. Ahead of the return game, Tite spoke of “Democracia Gremista”: a player could compel the coach to alter his plans. In the first leg Tite had spoken to the defender Roger on the touchline and altered his game plan following Roger’s remarks. Tite’s approach was egalitarian, perhaps not in the sense of Democracia Corinthiana and its societal reverberations in the early 80s , and he eschewed the self-regard that so marked his counterpart.
Tension was running high and, as ever, blown out of proportion by Brazil’s intrusive 24/7 media. Grêmio’s Marcelinho accused Corinthians of being “fregues” [literally, a customer; in football, a team that always loses against a particular opponent]. Tite sent Xavier to spy on Corinthians’ training, but Luxemburgo and his staff discovered him and expelled him from their training complex. It didn’t matter: Grêmio outplayed Corinthians in the second leg and won 3-1, with all the hallmarks of what Tite wanted from his team: balance, possession and a degree of joy. In a rare show of emotions, Tite sprinted all the way to the goal line to hug Marcelinho when his striker tapped in Grêmio’s third in the 86th minute.
“We enjoyed most of the possession,” says Danrlei. “That wasn’t normal away from home. It left Tite very happy. He always wanted us to play on the ground. Goalkeepers kicked it long and the team had to win the second ball. He insisted on playing on the ground. He left it clear he wanted to play ‘a saida de bola’ [playing out from the back].”
“Tite was a modern coach,” says Pelaipe. “His team defended well and attacked well. He always had a balance - it wasn't only about defending, they knew how to attack.”
For much of his career, Tite had been a journeyman: in his first decade as a coach he worked with six clubs from Rio Grande do Sul’s interior. In the second decade, he yearned for more stability but to no avail: in ten seasons he coached eight clubs, arguably of a higher calibre – Grêmio, São Caetano, Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro, Palmeiras, Internacional and Al Ain and Al Wahda from the United Arab Emirates.
Finally, during his second spell at Corinthians, from 2010 to 2013, the pressure was beginning to take its toll. Tite had won just about everything – national, continental and world titles – and still, for the insatiable fans of Corinthians, 30 million ‘Fieis’ [The Faithful], it was not enough. It never was; they always craved the next victory. Winning was a drug, a daze of euphoria. “The pressure for results from the fans and press is exhausting,” explains Xavier. “Win 1-0 and they ask to win 3-0; win a championship and they ask for the next trophy. In Brazil, you have to build a new team, a new squad every six months [due to the calendar and the implications for the transfer market]. You don’t get the time and space to learn. It was the right decision to take a break. You want to develop.”
In truth, Tite took a sabbatical for a myriad reasons: his acknowledgement of, and frustration with, a lingering crisis of ideas. Many of Tite’s contemporaries were convinced that physical development had taken over from possession football, a jarring view of the beautiful game and Brazil’s heritage. In 2011, they even had a statistic for it: after seven passes or more in attack your chances of scoring diminish considerably. Along came Pep Guardiola and proved the stat hogwash.
On the continent, Brazilian clubs, for all their financial might, weren’t particularly dominant in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League. The rich history of the national team bloated the club coaches. Brazil’s football culture was insular. Tite understood this, but he also had a personal motive in leaving behind Brazilian club football and the everlasting stifling race to win the next game: in 2011, his conquering Corinthians, playing 4-5-1, had little attacking prowess. His quest for knowledge, nuance and development wasn’t merely academic, but existential: he needed to cultivate his attack. Tite decided to glean ideas from the Old Continent.
“Tite was always very good in shaping his teams defensively,” acknowledges Edu Gaspar, Brazil’s general coordinator and a Corinthians director between 2011 and 2016. For a long time Tite nearly carried the label of ‘retranqueiro’, a defensive-minded coach with little interest in the more expansive side of the game, a “much-used word” and “very pejorative term” according to Xavier. In 2011, Tite won his first Brazilian championship, playing a 4-5-1, in reality a 4-6-0, not modelled after the Spanish school but a striker-less formation that was built to smother the opposition.
“Consistency is all a coach can desire,” explains Emerson Sheik, who played for Corinthians between 2011 and 2015. “At Corinthians [Tite] encountered a club that believed in his philosophy. If not, he would have been fired after the elimination by Tolima [in the Copa Libertadores qualifiers at the start of the 2011 season].”
Andrés Sánchez, Corinthians’ president, retained Tite, a surprising decision contrary to the short-sighted culture of Brazilian football. He had seen Tite’s work during the coach’s first spell at Corinthians during the 2004 season when he saved the club from relegation. In a way, the resolve of the chain-smoking Sánchez defined Tite’s career. Tite ordered the exit of both Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos and formed a nucleus around blue-collar players. “Sánchez alone understood,” affirms Xavier.
In line with Corinthians’ enduring ethos of sweat and suffering, Tite implemented a functional style of play. Corinthians conceded just 36 goals, the fewest in the top flight.
“From 2008, 2009 Corinthians’ philosophy was a very solid defensive system combined with a fast, surgical counter-attack,” recalls Sheik. “Once we led 1-0, it was very difficult for any team to reverse the score. Organisation in all zones of the field is one of Tite’s main characteristics.”
His trademarks were defensive stability, focus on structure, cohesion and tactical aptitude. In the 2012 Copa Libertadores final Argentina’s Boca Juniors buckled, with Tite switching to 4-2-3-1, playing Liédson up front, and that same solidity and compactness toppled Chelsea 1-0 in the Club World Cup final. A victory parade, but without grandeur or imagination.
“From the day we began, our trademark was balance,” says Xavier, lamenting the label of retranqueiro. “Our positioning and marking is all zonal. Depending on the moment of the game, this positioning and pressing can be low, medium or high. When the moment comes to defend, you defend – this can be at set pieces or when dispossessed. At the moment of attack, you attack, with players in numbers, sometimes with five or six, at times with seven. It’s neither offensive nor defensive; it’s balanced. We have always bee the protagonist in games.”
Tite’s defensive 4-5-1 needed modifying to find a perfect balance. The French national team offered a solution. Les Bleus, in the second leg of their World Cup play-off against Ukraine, enthralled Tite. For much of the 90 minutes, the game was an incredible mêlée with the barnstorming hosts seeking three goals, redemption from defeat in Kyiv and, above all, a coveted ticket for the 2014 World Cup. Paul Pogba excelled and Karim Benzema dominated the attack, but neither team particularly cared for tactical superiority. However, France’s 4-1-4-1 formation with Yohan Cabaye in front of the defence intrigued Tite, particularly the role of Mathieu Valbuena, who, on the right, often drifted inside and in between the lines.
As Tite toured Europe, talking to elite coaches, soaking up the high performance culture at the continent’s top clubs, he formed a study group with Xavier and Mauricio Dulac, dissecting the 4-1-4-1 formation that fascinated him. Dulac, a performance analyst who had worked at Internacional in 2008, analysed the functionality of the formation and detailed each player’s responsibility. In pre-season, theorising morphed into reality at the 2015 Florida Cup – Tite, overlooked for the Brazil job, had returned to Corinthians – where a chance observation of Bayer Leverkusen’s training sessions prompted the technical staff to deploy a 4-1-4-1. Uruguay’s Nicolás Lodeiro was to play the Valbuena role. He’d later be replaced by Jádson.
“The way Leverkusen played, they’d topple us with their intense work rate, movement and interesting tactical formation,” recalls Xavier. “They drifted to mark, they didn’t play in defined zones. In that sense, they were disorganised. We had to define our zonal positioning well and occupy those spaces to take on Leverkusen toe-to-toe. That’s how we discovered the 4-1-4-1.”
That season Corinthians were triumphant in Brazil. Ralf, as first ‘volante’, shielded the defense, Renato Augusto orchestrated the play from midfield and Vágner Love led the attack, but Jadson played the standout role, drifting in the Valbuena role. “We used to play out from the back and our three midfielders would move forward to open up the opponent’s marking in order to create space in between the lines,” explains Renato Augusto, who played for Corinthians between 2012 and 2016. “Then, Jádson would drift there and that was our secret weapon. He’d receive a pass and the whole team would go and play in the opponent’s half.”
Tite and Corinthians generated a numerical superiority in the midfield. It all proved too much for their domestic rivals. Corinthians had the best attack, the best defense and the best disciplinary record. All that was of secondary importance, though. Corinthians played Tite’s ‘jogo de desempenho’ [performance football], expansive football with a high defensive line, compactness, quick transitions and high pressing. Tite introduced new concepts: ‘ataca-marcando’ and ‘perde-pressiona’ akin to Jürgen Klopp’s Gegenpressing. “Beautiful football,” smiles Edu.
In 2011, Tite had introduced compactness in the Brazilian game, in 2015 numerical superiority in the midfield, resulting in an aesthetically pleasing style. “He improved the attacking sector,” says Renato Augusto. “We had a lot of options on the ball. He had become a complete coach, aligning the defence, which he had mastered in the past, with the attack, which grew very strong.”
A popular phrase in Brazil goes that ‘7-1 foi pouco [was not enough]’. Still, Germany had beaten them by a scoreline that wll echo through history. The Mineirazo trumped the Maracanazo and Brazil were no longer masters of the beautiful game. The European powerhouses Germany, France, Spain and even Belgium had all recalibrated and rebuilt after soul-crushing defeats. In Brazilian football, however, there was no project of renovation.
The sequel was irrational: Carlos Dunga returned as the head coach of the national team to replace Scolari. The whisky-sodden autocrats at the Brazilian football federation, the CBF, shielded their la-la land of self-enrichment and greed. The sense of existential crisis, so tangible in almost all layers of the Brazilian game, hadn’t reached the higher echelons of the CBF. In a parochial move of self-preservation and conservatism they appointed a dinosaur.
Dunga’s reappointment was proof of a football culture in denial and the coach refused to acknowledge Brazil’s footballing fallibility, that of an outdated ideology based on a non-existent passing game. Dunga opted for runners and battlers. His buzzwords were grit and commitment. His Brazil were not pragmatic, but bordering on the boorish. Levity and beauty were taboo. His anti-football endangered the nation’s rich footballing heritage. Under Dunga, Brazil reached their lowest ebb by prioritising, at all costs, results over progress. The beautiful game had never been so ugly.
Did Tite have a long-term vision for the Seleção? “I don’t believe in singling out clichés, talking about ‘7-1 foi pouco’ and winning [the Confederations Cup] in 2013,” said Tite at his first press conference, two days after Brazil’s Olympic gold in football in 2016. “If there is no discernment in the process, you can’t look at the result and then at the process afterwards. You look at the process first and then the result. I have no problem in saying that the 7-1 was the fault of all of us involved in football, but I don’t have a mongrel complex either. It’s the past, like the Olympic gold medal… my legacy, in professional terms and the 13 trophies that I have won, is looking at the process. That counts. I confess that I was at the Maracanã [for the Olympic final], looked at the fans and thought: ‘Yes… our work needs improvement.’”
Tite didn’t fall for the convenience of Brazil’s Olympic victory – the inherent, and incremental, danger of the iconic gold medal promising, amid the euphoric hullabaloo, a new, problem-free future. The Olympic tournament, a glorified U-23 competition, wasn’t a watershed moment for him. His immediate focus was the crunch World Cup qualifier, away to Ecuador. Brazil were floundering in sixth place in the Conmebol standings. With just three practice sessions before the high-altitude game in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, Tite and Xavier worked on set pieces, zonal marking and attack. “He had already begun to transmit his ideas,” says Dulac, Brazil’s performance analyst in 2015. “In essence, the players understood almost 100% of what he had asked for, but he also strengthened himself in front of the group [by winning].”
At left-back, Tite reintroduced Marcelo. In midfield, Paulinho, with whom he had enjoyed a good understanding during his second spell at Corinthians, became his shuttler. He pushed the entire team higher up the field, introducing Real Madrid’s Casemiro in midfield and relying, in the final third, on the pace and daring of Gabriel Jesus, who had enjoyed a meteoric rise at Manchester City before his metatarsal injury.
The 3-0 victory against Ecuador was the seminal moment of Brazil’s World Cup qualification campaign and the defining moment of Tite’s reign. The pressure was off. He had modified the blueprint of Dunga, the staunch high priest of counter-attacking football, averse to any notion of elaborate midfield play. In a short period of time, Tite was squeezing the maximum out of his players, winning matches. The World Cup qualifiers became a triumph.
“Tite brought a realisation to the group that the players were good,” says Claudio Taffarel, the World-Cup winning goalkeeper and Brazil’s goalkeeping coach since 2014. “He brought a good atmosphere. The players liked his ideas. They began to play the football that they played before, in a different manner, more united. From the moment Tite arrived, Brazil won, with good play, with o jogo bonito. Players from the Brazilian team have to play well. Very calm, in a collective. They appropriated Tite’s ideas and from there the results followed.”
In March 2017, Tite’s compact 4-1-4-1 even succeeded in the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo, despite Uruguay taking the lead with a fourth-minute Edinson Cavani goal. The Seleção roared back into the game with the ubiquitous Neymar, who drove Brazil’s attack, and Paulinho, whose forward surges were a major threat.
It was a dream scenario for Tite – not the margin, but the manner of the win: how would his team react if they conceded first? The true test of any side is going a goal behind and Brazil hadn’t yet trailed under Tite. Under his predecessor Brazil had collapsed in Port Elizabeth when they fell behind to Arjen Robben’s goal in the 2010 World Cup. Dunga nearly smashed the dugout and his own emotional collapse precipitated his team’s elimination.
In Montevideo, Brazil were in control, even after conceding. They were calm and composed, mature and majestic, easing their way to an, in the end, simple and straightforward victory. It was a thrilling demonstration of Brazil’s balance, merging diluted idealism with realism. The 4-1 victory was another marker for their South American opponents. In the past, 28 points had always been enough for qualification; Brazil had 30.
“Uruguay in Uruguay,” exclaims Xavier, acknowledging the game was a benchmark on the continent. “It was about Uruguay’s consistency, Óscar Tabárez’s competent work and their important players.”
But for Taffarel, Tite’s ideas, tactical acumen or the team’s composure weren’t the keys to World Cup qualification. “It was the manner in which he talked with the players, how he transmits his ideas to the players,” he says. “That coach-player, player-coach language is very important, there has to be an understanding. The players understand what Tite does.
“He is a great communicator and I think he works hard for it. He captivates the attention of the players; that is fundamental as well. It is not just about talking. Players can be in the clouds; it’s the manner, the tone of his voice, the experience from his career. The timidity was always controlled. In that sense he was timid but at the same time he jokes often and is very extroverted.”
Tite’s true merit, apart from keen man-management and slick communication – ‘a certain mastery of words,’ as Taffarel puts it, in part referring to the press conference in Lille – is that he constantly thinks about the game, his cognitive process consecrated in his trademark words ‘Merecer vencer’.
“When you talk about merit, you don’t only talk about the result,” says Gaspar. “The merit comes before the result. To attain and construct a positive result you need to deserve it – prepare well, good training, good care of yourself and diet, sleep.”
“To win you need to be prepared,” says Taffarel. “Merecer [to deserve] is the preparation, the first thing that he speaks about. Afterwards, on the field, it follows that you have to deserve it, in the sense of playing with the ideas that he transmits during the week and on the eve of the game and taking the opponent into account. If you get all that and play good football, the merit comes and that means so will the victory. It corresponds with what you do on the field, in the preparation, physically, mentally, tactically, so there are various components - so to deserve it you have to do all that and doing this, things happen.”
The mere idea of downplaying the result should be self-evident in the Brazilian game. It’s anything but: for all its success, Brazilian football has always been deeply conservative and, at times, very anti-intellectual. At club level defensiveness and caution have long prevailed. The domestic environment preserves the status quo and doesn't encourage coach education. At the international level, Brazil parted ways with the beautiful game in the late 60s when technocrats began dominating the national team. The notable exception was Telê Santana’s Brazil in 1982.
A new and younger school of coaches, however, is on the rise in Brazil. Corinthians’ Fábio Carille, Palmeiras’s Roger Machado and Vasco da Gama’s Zé Ricardo belong to a class of coaches who grew up with European football and reflect on the game. However, Atlético Paranaense’s Fernando Diniz is the only true revolutionary: he theorises, but also has the audacity to field a modern team. Tite’s curiosity and capacity to learn have set him apart from other Brazilian coaches. He is the Seleção’s first progressive coach since Mano Menezes who, in friendlies against Iraq and Japan, tested a 4-2-4 in 2012. As Menezes’s ideas began to take shape, the CBF sacked him.
Tite often speaks warmly of Pep Guardiola. His Brazil have ‘Guardiolan’ characteristics: compactness, high pressing, high-speed counters and good transitions. “He talks a lot about Guardiola, a young coach, who leaves a very positive impression and playing style, who studies football and sees football uniquely,” confirms Taffarel. But something of the old Tite – that outdated, unwanted etiquette of a defensive coach – has remained. Deep down, the pragmatic and defensive-minded coach is still there. Tite will stick to his principles, but won’t commit to ideals, the way Santana did or Guardiola does. After all, idealism can’t topple balance.
At the Stadion an der Alten Försterei, Union Berlin’s intimate home on the outskirts of the German capital, Tite holds his pre-training ritual. The pitch is all but deserted. His son, Matheus Bacchi, technical assistant of the team, is prepping the field. Tite gently pushes the ball in front of him and stares into the distance. It’s another moment of introspection and self-analysis.
His track record is almost perfect: nineteen games and just one loss, against Argentina in a friendly – but there are nagging fears: has he indulged Neymar too much? Can Brazil deal with European opposition? Has he stimulated enough competition within the squad?
Tite is a loyal coach who never gets drawn into politics; he even declined an audience with President Michel Temer prior to the 2018 World Cup. In London, he deflected Carvalho’s political question by elaborating his ideas on loyalty towards his players.
Tite guaranteed 15 of his stalwarts, his core group during the World Cup qualifiers, a spot on the plane to Russia, but round the edges he is keen to promote competition. History proved that too much loyalty is dangerous: after Tite’s successful 2011-12 Corinthians campaign he kept faith with the same group of players. Without competition, the team’s level dropped – a mistake, he admitted later.
For the March friendlies against Russia and Germany, he included Beşiktaş’s Anderson Talisca and Real Sociedad’s Willian José in his squad for the first time. In Moscow, neither got playing time. Russia, like England, fielded five defenders, massing players behind the ball and denied Brazil attacking space. They isolated Casemiro in midfield and found space in behind the full-backs. “There is still a worry playing against five at the back,” admits Xavier. “We had never encountered that during the World Cup qualifiers. It’s about continuous study, finding alternatives, playing with amplitude and infiltrations. Against Russia, we made progress. At the World Cup, against Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia, you need to understand how you should play each opponent, with defensive consistency and attacking quality.”
At the Luzhniki Stadium, Tite tweaked his formation at half-time, pulling Douglas Costa further wide to draw Philippe Coutinho closer to the Russian penalty area. With the Barcelona player more involved, Brazil ran out 3-0 winners in the second half. Apart from tactical considerations, playing Russia had other benefits. “It was a deliberate strategy to play Russia,” explains Edu. “To be close to the Russian people, to understand Russia better.”
Germany, however, were the real test. Could Brazil go toe-to-toe with the defending world champions after that 7-1 capitulation at the Mineirão, the most astounding result in World Cup history? It wasn’t simply the apocalyptic scoreline – it was the manner and ethos of submission. Brazil had abdicated as kings of world football. By the time André Schürrle netted an incredible seventh goal in the second half, Joachim Löw’s team were almost playing in apologetic mode.
Throughout the game the Germans had showcased the best of modern football with plenty of possession, swift transitions, quick-fire passing, superb movement and lethal counter-attacking. On 8 July 2014, Germany revealed its own superb version of the beautiful game, one that made Brazilian football outdated, outmoded and irrelevant. Brazil’s defeat was a lachrymose acquiescence to a new world order.
“It can’t be erased, it was sour and a strong blow to Brazil and Brazilian football in general, but it’s been assimilated and it is part of the past,” says Taffarel. “You live with this trauma, but football is transient. The past was negative, but today it’s positive. We are living something different.”
Still, Germany’s conveyor belt of talent rolls on. Last year, Jogi Löw drafted the next generation of German prodigies into the senior team at the Confederations Cup. His developmental approach worked. Against Brazil, he also experimented, leaving Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Sami Khedira out of the team. Germany’s new generation is rising, Brazil simply don’t have one. Tite had to rely on Fernandinho, so culpable in Belo Horizonte, to reinforce the midfield.
Brazil won 1-0, which was vital for self-esteem. Tite’s team perfectly coupled o jogo de desempenho with o jogo de resultado. They hadn’t been cavalier, but struck a balance between defence and attack. Often, Tite has said that he can’t control the result. He is of course right. Football is a game of chaos, with endless variables. Tite has chosen to control what he can and, at times, that includes listening to the ball.