Yet while lifting the trophy on Jul. 15 in Moscow would mark a remarkable recovery, it is not the sole objective of the man credited with resuscitating the flagging form of the architects of “o jogo bonito,” the beautiful game.
Tite, an understated, under-the-radar kind of coach with grey hair, dark eyes and darker clothes, took the reins in June 2016, replacing Dunga after Brazil had crashed out of the Copa América at the group stage and were floating precariously in sixth place in South American qualifying. He had spent the previous year in Europe picking the brains of some of the world’s top coaches, including Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane, and within nine months of his appointment Brazil had become the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
When he sat down to speak to Arab News after the finals draw last weekend, he did so with an impressive record: 17 games, 13 wins, three draws and one defeat. Asked if he was concerned that his team might be peaking too soon given many of his players are employed in Europe where they will face a gruelling next six months, the pragmatic 56-year-old was unequivocal.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “And you know why? Because I do not know how far this team can go. If I get scared and put the brakes on, I will not know how far it can evolve. I’ve only had 17 games; half a season in domestic terms. I can challenge them to be better. I want Fernandinho to be better, that Casemiro is better, that Paulinho is better, Gabriel Jesus... What if this team has greater potential than now? To promise results and victories is a very small and shallow discussion. Everyone wants to win.”
If evidence is required of Tite’s philosophy, you need only look at the way in which his team wins. Brazil have started to rediscover their famous, free-flowing, flair-filled style. Under the former Corinthians coach, they have scored 38 goals and conceded just five. Or, to put it another way, they have conceded fewer goals in Tite’s entire 18-month tenure than Brazil conceded against Germany in 90 minutes in Belo Horizonte.
It is not a comparison that the coach would likely be comfortable with. Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager in charge of the most embarrassing defeat in Brazil’s long and storied history, was Tite’s physical education teacher and later mentor. Tite, when asked if he has a plan to ensure that, unlike under Scolari in 2014 Brazil are not dependent on Neymar, he is quick to point to circumstance.
“The 7-1 does not serve as a parameter because there was neither Neymar nor Thiago (Silva, the captain) and there was a very inspired rival,” said Tite, who won the Copa Libertadores with Corinthians in 2012 and followed it up by defeating Chelsea in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup. “But we’ll be ready. Think about the midfield of Brazil now — Casemiro, Paulinho, Renato (Augusto), Fernandinho, (Philippe) Coutinho — you can close your eyes and choose any three because of the quality they have. In attack: Willian, Douglas Costa, Gabriel Jesus, (Roberto) Firmino, Neymar. We have high-level options; a wider range of options.”
Last Friday’s draw in Moscow grouped Brazil alongside Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia, a solid yet unspectacular trio. However, while Tite will arrive in Russia in June presiding over one of the tournament favorites and placed in a group that he is obliged to top, he refuses to consider comfortable passage, citing Costa Rica’s surprise run to the quarter-finals in 2014 when they won a group containing Italy, England and Uruguay.
David Beckham once said Brazilians play the same whether they are playing in the Bernabeu being watched by millions or on the beach with friends and family: With smiles and a sense of fun. Until Tite arrived, that joie de vivre had faded, but now it is not only back, but is the solitary goal demanded of the team next summer.
“In Russia, I only hope that the team can play the football it has presented in recent months,” he said. “I hope the players feel what it is to be an athlete of the Brazilian national team, can produce at a high level and be competitive, but at the same time have joy to play. If that happens, I’ll be extremely happy. Whether we win or not, I don’t know, but this is the only wish, the only demand, that I have.”