South American trio count down to World Cup
Four years ago, in the build-up to the World Cup in Germany in 2006, there was a real buzz about South America's big two.
Brazil could boast a dazzling collection of individual talent. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira had such riches at his disposal that, as he later confessed, he felt obliged to go against his own principles and select a team that was almost a throwback to 4-2-4.
Argentina, meanwhile, brought a team built around the sumptuous passing skills of Juan Roman Riquelme. In qualification they had already shown hints of great quality - with switches of play, changes of rhythm, continuous formation of attacking triangles. In the World Cup they topped it all with an awe-inspiring defeat of Serbia. But they could not quite hit that standard again, and fell on penalties to the hosts in the quarter-final.
Brazil crashed out at the same stage but without ever coming close to living up to the expectations.
Four years later, it is impossible for Brazil to disappoint in the same way - for the very good reason that in aesthetic terms, much less is expected from them. They top the Fifa rankings, and after an excellent run of results go to this summer's World Cup finals in South Africa as justified favourites.
But, as Dunga's squad selection has confirmed, the 2010 Brazil is principally a pragmatic side - deadly on the counter-attack, with a superb array of set-pieces but without the pretension of capturing hearts and minds a la 1958, 1970 or 1982.
Argentina, after their problems in qualifying, would also seem to offer the purists less to get excited about. Selecting a back line made up of four centre-backs gives the team obvious limitations in possession. Argentina, too, look set to base their play on the counter-attack.
Argentina coach Diego Maradona will managing at a World Cup finals for the first time. Photo: AP.
From an idealistic point of view, the most interesting South American team in South Africa will be Chile.
In qualification the Reds scored more goals away from home than anyone else . It is no coincidence. Coach Marcelo Bielsa is obsessed with attack. If the game is played home, away, up a mountain or into a force 10 gale, it makes no difference - Bielsa wants the action to take place in the opposing team's half of the field. His trademark 3-3-1-3 formation is designed to apply constant pressure. He seeks to create two against one situations down the flanks, and while getting his wingers behind the defence.
Tricky right-winger Alexis Sanchez is the side's big hope, a potential superstar full of changes of direction and bursts of pace. Centre-forward Humberto Suazo was South America's top scorer in qualification. Just behind him Mati Fernandez has yet to show his best in European club football - for the national team, however, he carries something of the thrust of the youthful Kaka and if he is off form, Jorge Valdivia is a delightful twinkle-toed alternative.
Chile are basically a four and six side - the three in the back line plus the holding midfielder are primarily defensive with everyone else looking to push forward. Such an approach can leave them open to their opponents' counter-attack, and they struggle to defend in the air. One of the most fascinating questions of the World Cup will be whether Chile will get away with such a bold gameplan at the highest level.
The weight of history is not on Chile's side. They came third when they hosted the World Cup in 1962. Other than that, though, their last victory in the tournament was way back in 1950 when they beat the United States. They played in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1998 without managing a single win.
And the weight of history also presses down on Bielsa. He needs to overcome the World Cup ghost of 2002, when he was in charge of his native Argentina. His team sailed through qualification in a blaze of goals, turned up in the Far East as favourites and promptly crashed out in the group stage.
In part, he was undone by the calendar - with the tournament held earlier than usual to avoid the rainy season, his players had not had enough time to recover from the rigours of the European season. Perhaps, too, it was a problem Bielsa did not administer well with some of the team complaining that they were being worked too hard in training.
These are vital issues for any side but especially for one of Bielsa's. Sitting back in defence is less tiring but to play Bielsa's high-tempo, high-pressure football the players must be in top condition.
Questions on all of these issues - the tactical formation, the physical preparation, the team's mental and emotional strength - will begin to be answered in just under a month's time. Chile kick off their campaign against Honduras on 16 June. This is no easy baptism. The pressure is right on from the start. With Spain in the same group, the opening clash is vital. Chile badly need to win their first World Cup match on foreign soil for 60 years. Fans of brave, attacking football will be in their corner.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Other questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I will pick out a couple for next week.
A quick note of apology - I have got so much on at the moment that I do not have time to get back individually to all the questions, so I am very sorry if you have not had a reply. But please keep sending them in - they all get read and considered and they all help in formulating themes for future columns.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I've always wondered why Brazil have never been able to produce marauding box-to-box midfielders like Steven Gerrard, or Michael Ballack? Players who score and defend, are everywhere in the middle of the park. The midfield seems to produce attacking players like Kaka or defensive ones like Gilberto Silva.
A) I would not say never! For me the golden age of Brazilian football, certainly as a spectacle, happened not necessarily with 4-2-4 but with midfielders who had grown up in a culture of 4-2-4. The pair in the middle had so much space to cover that they were obliged to do everything . Take 1970 - Gerson and Clodoaldo were interchangeable. In the semi-final against Uruguay, Gerson was being marked tightly, so he sat back and sent Clodoaldo forward to score the vital equaliser. You can still see this influence in the development of Falcao and Toninho Cerezo in the 70s and 80s.
What has happened since is that Brazilian football has become a hostage to attacking full-backs. Many of them have forgotten how to defend - Cicinho at Roma was appalled at being expected to mark the opposing winger. So if the full-backs do not defend, someone else has to - and thus the purely defensive midfielder was born and this separation of midfield functions became the norm.
Q) Just wondering what you made of the inclusion in the Argentina squad of Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez. I'm a Newcastle fan and both players have been impressive this season in the Championship. Is this enough though? In particular, seeing Coloccini in there instead of Gabriel Milito of Barca?
A) I cannot for the life of me explain why Coloccini is in, especially as he has hardy featured under Maradona - only one game at right-back against Spain last year. It is entirely possible that he will not make the cut - but Gutierrez is likely to be in the team and for all his limitations, I can understand it.
Maradona has heaped importance on Juan Sebastian Veron - indeed the big hole in the squad is the lack of cover for him, unless you see Marco Bolatti as a potential replacement. Anyway, Veron is now 35 and you do not want him taking on too much defensive responsibility. If he tries it he now has a tendency to arrive late for the tackle and pick up cards. So I don't think Maradona is too concerned by the weakness of Gutierrez in providing end product - he is a strong, unselfish character who is there to run and cover and take the defensive strain off Veron. Maradona even said he would pick Gutierrez if Newcastle were in the third division!