Mano Menezes had been controversially sacked, and Scolari was quickly brought in as a replacement, with special haste needed to stop a fascinating rival candidate from building momentum.
That, of course, was Pep Guardiola, who declared himself interested, leading Brazil’s sports daily ‘Lance!’ to organise a big campaign in his favour.
The prospect of a foreign coach in charge of the national team appeared to both terrify and horrify the old order. As Scolari was presented, CBF President Jose Maria Marin made an impassioned, if not always coherent, argument in favour of the need to give value to Brazilian coaches – who had, after all, presided over all five of Brazil’s World Cup wins.
I wonder if Marin is aware that the coach for the first of those victorious campaigns, back in 1958, was very nearly a Paraguayan.
Brisk, efficient and ambitious, Joao Havelange had taken charge of the CBD, forerunner of the CBF. His candidate to coach the national team was one of the legendary names of South American football of the time, Fleitas Solich. An international midfielder for Paraguay, Solich had coached in the land of his birth and in Argentina (and was later to have a season in charge of the great Real Madrid) when he landed in Rio in 1953 to become the boss of Flamengo. He won the Rio State Championship, in those days a competition of great prestige, three times in a row.
Havelange, whose power base was Rio, was impressed, and wanted to make Solich the coach of Brazil.
But Havelange needed to put together a coalition, especially with Sao Paulo. And his great ally there was Paulo Machado de Carvalho, a media mogul and football director with links to Sao Paulo FC. Machado was to be the head of Brazil’s delegation in the World Cups of 1958 and 62.
He listened to Havelange’s proposal, but had an alternative candidate – Vicente Feola, a coach he knew well from Sao Paulo. Havelange gave way, and so the man who led Brazil to their first World Cup win was a squat son of Italian immigrants – but it could have been the elegant Paraguayan, and at the time, no one would have thought of this as being especially incongruous.
But once Brazil had started winning world titles, the idea of a foreign-born coach immediately began to look completely unrealistic – an idea to be grabbed at for the purposes of speculation when times were desperate, such as the moment when Brazil were struggling desperately to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, or when Menezes was sacked.
This was not the only thing that changed. It also seemed that history was rewritten. Now that it ended in so many triumphs, the story of Brazilian football was reinterpreted, told in isolation, removed from the continental context in which it had grown.
Because the striking thing in the early years is the extent to which the growth of the game was a collective South American phenomenon – or to be more precise, one based in the south cone, especially in the cities of Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Rio and Sao Paulo, with Asuncion and Santiago also involved.
Remarkably in a continent still deficient in terms of economic integration, the Copa America was held 12 times between 1916 and 29, when the Wall Street crash set off turbulent political waves and interrupted the process. These years were of massive growth in the popularity and the quality of the South American game, with Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil testing and learning from each other.
It is hardly surprising that Uruguay were the quickest out of the blocks.
At the time they were not at so much of a disadvantage in terms of population size. Now when Uruguay take on Brazil it is a nation of 3 million against one of 200. Then it was Montevideo against Rio and Buenos Aires. And Uruguay’s early lead came from the fact that, quicker than the others, they were drawing on talent from all sectors of society.
Football in South America started with the elite; it spread downwards quickly, but in Uruguay it was quicker than anywhere else. The little country was full of progressive social legislation. It was the pioneer of the modern welfare state, and such ideas of social inclusion were reflected in the composition of the national team.
Uruguay won the inaugural Copa America in 1916, and supplied the top goalscorer as well – Isabelino Gradin, a black striker from a poor background. It was very unlikely that someone with such a humble upbringing could have represented Brazil at the time.
Brazil won the trophy on home ground in 1919. But just as important as the triumph was the presence of Gradin in the Uruguayan team. Poor black Brazilians could recognise themselves in him more than they could in Brazil’s hero, Artur Friedenreich, son of a local black woman and a German immigrant, whose skin might have been dark but was from an impeccable middle class background.
Gradin’s participation in the 1919 Copa is an important moment in the development of the Brazilian game. ‘If he can do it,’ thought the locals, ‘then so can we.’
Thirteen years later it was evident that this lesson had been well absorbed. In December 1932 Brazil went to play Uruguay, by now world and double Olympic champions, in Montevideo’s newly built Centenario stadium. Brazil won 2-1, and the best players were two young blacks from poor backgrounds, defender Domingos da Guia and centre forward Leonidas da Silva.
Uruguayan football had just turned professional. The Brazilian game, ridden with aristocratic amateur values, was reluctant to take the same step. So Uruguay’s big two clubs swooped. Penarol signed Leonidas and Nacional snapped up Domingos.
This was a significant external shock to Brazilian football, which, sensing the danger, soon accepted professionalism – definitely consolidating the position of the player from a poor background. Without professionalism, there is no Pele. The fact that there was Pele – the fact that today Luiz Felipe Scolari has so many fine players to choose from – is the outcome of these moments, of Brazilian football finding its own path, but in a clear South American context.