Tim Vickery Column: Fitness staff a crucial aspect of World Cup campaignThe fitness levels of Neymar will be crucial to the hosts' chances this summer
As Brazil’s players gather in the hills outside Rio and begin their build up to the World Cup, the work of one man now takes on special importance. The most important man in the country at the moment is physical preparation specialist Paulo Paixao, who now has three key tasks; evaluate the physical condition of the players, draw up individual programmes of exercises tailored to their needs, and ensure that they are ready to give their all in the World Cup, preferably hitting peak physical form around the third or fourth match.
When Luiz Felipe Scolari was presented as Brazil coach towards the end of 2012, the first thing he did was announce that Paixao would be working with him once more. The duo had teamed up, to good effect, in the triumphant 2002 World Cup campaign.
That team, with the R squad of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho all hitting together, is often seen as a symbol of the individual genius of the Brazilian player. And there is some truth in this – these were magnificently talented players. But the view of the Brazil team as a collection of ‘samba stars’ is hopelessly simplistic. True, the triumphs have invariably featured superbly skilled players using inspired moments of improvisation to tip the balance.
But, as I have often argued in this space, this took and takes place in a well defined context. One of the golden rules of football is that the individual shines most brightly when the collective aspect is well organised. This applies both to the tactical side of the game – remember that Brazil’s defensive record is and always has been far superior to that of Germany – and to the physical. Pele was years ahead of his time in terms of the importance he placed on physical preparation. And if he is an individual example, then the Brazil national side are a collective one. As far back as 1958 they had a full back up staff of doctors, a dentist, physical preparation specialists and even a (premature as it turned out) experiment with a sports psychologist. By way of comparison, England travelled to the 1962 World Cup in Chile without so much as a doctor.
Among the various explanations for failure in the 1966 World Cup, one of them is that the physical preparation specialist was from a background of judo, rather than football. Four years later no such mistakes were made. Brazil spent months preparing for the conditions of Mexico. It was a competition played in extreme heat. Rivelino once told me that he could not remember once coming to the touchline to drink water, a tribute to the conditioning work that had taken place.
More progress was made in the early 90s. Brazil’s economy began to open up, permitting the import of sophisticated machines from the United States. Brazil’s physical preparation specialists now had access to a world of data, and what they could measure they could manage.
Their role was especially important because of the cluttered calendar of Brazil’s domestic game and the economic situation of the clubs. Squads were not as deep as in Europe, but games were more frequent. How to keep the players fit? Brazil’s physical preparation specialists had to learn to work at the limit. This was perfect training for the 2002 World Cup.
Asia’s first World Cup, 2002 was staged a couple of weeks earlier than usual to dodge the rainy season in Japan and South Korea. There was, therefore, less time to shake off the wearying effects of the European club season – which had just got longer with the extension of the Champions League.
This helps explain why 2002 was such a strange tournament, full of surprise results, high on drama but low on quality. Those who had played through the season were out of gas.
But not those wearing the yellow of Brazil. Cafu and Roberto Carlos were still scampering up and down the flanks. Rivaldo, who Barcelona had said would not be fit enough to play in the competition, showed his best international form. And there is the case of Ronaldo, the great striker struck down by knee injuries. Many had written him off. Inter Milan could not seem to get him fit. But Paulo Paixao did – him and all the others.
He was justifiably proud of his achievement when I caught up with him a couple of weeks after the World Cup. “I said before the World Cup that the team who had the physical and sports medicine aspect best organised would have the biggest chance of winning,” he told me, “and that’s what happened.” He was anxious to stress, though, that this was much more than a personal triumph. “Brazil has a number of physical trainers who could have been in my place,” he said, emphasising the collective culture that the country had developed, with specialists in different field all working together. “In terms of methodology of work, Europe is way behind Brazil,” he affirmed twelve years ago.
Europe, then, has had twelve years to catch up. Paulo Paixao’s task is the same. Is Oscar jaded after years of non-stop football? How has Neymar held up to his first European season? Does Paulinho still have it in him to produce those bursts into the opposing penalty box? Brazil’s physical training supremo will test, evaluate, draw up a programme to correct or re-enforce – and over the next few days, Paulo Paixao is the most important re-enforcement in Brazil’s quest for World Cup glory.