Derby date for new-look Brazil
I'm flying to back to Rio and feeling a bit jealous of people who live in the Midlands - not a sentence you're likely to come across every day.
The reason? Next Monday, Brazil come to Derby to face Ukraine, giving fans at Pride Park the chance to have a close look at a fascinating moment in the development of the five-times world champions.
This will be Brazil's third full international since losing to eventual runners-up the Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals some three months ago. The second is coming up this Thursday against Iran. The first was a 2-0 win away to the USA in August - an impressive result against experienced opposition.
But more important than the scoreline was the way in which the victory against the States was achieved. The debut game of coach Mano Menezes raised hopes Brazil might get back to playing the type of football that has made them so popular all over the world.
"Maybe," wrote local journalist Andre Kfouri after that USA match "we had become so accustomed to the counter-attack that a team which plays 600 passes in a game has opened our eyes. Perhaps we had become so used to strength and speed that we have been surprised by talent and creativity."
It was quite a contrast after the four years of Dunga, during which Brazil's attacking threat came almost exclusively via the counter-attack or the set-piece. Many felt that the team's pragmatic approach was all the fault of the coach. Some blamed the fact that almost all the players were based in Europe. Both accusations were wide of the mark.
The Dunga team may have been an extreme version but its characteristics had been present in Brazil teams for some time - and result from a domestic dynamic.
First, coaches in Brazilian football operate with very limited job security. The current national championship is now 27 rounds old. Of the 20 teams in the first division, only three have retained the same coach. The quest to cling on to a job inevitably produces a cautious mindset.
Second, Brazilian football has a well developed culture of physical preparation, which, as I have commented before, was given a boost by the experience of losing 2-0 to the Dutch in the second round of the 1974 World Cup.
The pressure that Holland exerted on the ball led Brazilian coaches to think in terms of a game with more physical contact and less space in the middle of the field. Increasingly, the attack was carried by quick-breaking full-backs - and as they took on more responsibilities going forward the central midfielders became more defensive to provide balance. The conclusion was Gilberto Silva - a converted centre-back with limited passing skills - spending a decade in the middle of midfield.
The team were capable of breathtaking individual moments - such as right-back Maicon's goal against North Korea - but they paid a price in the loss of collective fluidity. Against the USA in August, the Menezes side had fluidity in spades. The emphasis has changed.
As so often, defeat has provided an opportunity for a rethink. Bulking up, playing on the break and relying on fantastic individual talent, Brazil had a period of sustained success. Between 1994 and 2002, they reached three consecutive World Cup finals, winning two.
A few years ago, they were world champions at senior, Under-20 and Under-17 levels. They currently hold none of those titles - and, while the Dunga team spent years racking up good results, Brazil's tradition is such that a second consecutive quarter-final elimination was never going to be seen as satisfactory.
Menezes, then, has brought something new to the table. He wants his full-backs to play a more conventional role, appearing in attacking spaces as elements of surprise. The midfield, meanwhile, is looking to form midfield triangles in a philosophy based on possession of the ball.
Against the USA, his team were a joy to behold. But it would clearly be foolish to go overboard on the evidence of one friendly, especially in August. Therein lies the fascination of next Monday's Ukraine meeting. Whatever happens, the Derby public have an intriguing game to watch and a new generation of players to observe.
Dunga took an old squad to the World Cup. Ramires, now of Chelsea, was its youngest member. He is one of only five members of the South Africa 23 to have been called up this time by Menezes. The new man says that the door is not closed to the old guard - but it is the youngsters who have been given the chance to impress. The better they do, the harder it will be for the likes of Kaka to claw their way back.
With Brazil lacking senior competitive games on the road to hosting the next World Cup, the 2012 Olympics takes on extra importance. Providing Brazil qualify - South America only has two places available - the London Games will take on huge importance as part of the build-up to 2014.
Two of Brazil's most promising young stars are missing from the current squad. Playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso is injured, while Santos team-mate and support striker Neymar has been left out on disciplinary grounds. Midfielder Giuliano, the neat and intelligent hero of Internacional's Copa Libertadores win, has been included for the first time, while Inter Milan support striker Philippe Coutinho has made an interesting start to the season.
These are players who will be hoping to shine on English soil in 2012 on their way to achieving immortality by winning the World Cup at home in 2014 - and they will be pushing their claims next Monday at Pride Park.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) Have the rising cash rewards for finding, developing and then selling talent overseas affected the way Brazilian clubs find and treat their potential players? What sort of stories do they tell the kids? What sort of support do they give them and their family? How do they deal with disappointed kids and families?
This is where the money can be made in South American football and the opportunities have attracted all sorts to the arena - sports marketing companies, supermarkets, drink manufacturers. They have all set up junior clubs with the aim of grooming youngsters and selling them at a profit.
Then there are the agents, who often provide much of the support that you refer to. They are an easy target - and there are plenty of unscrupulous types out there. But without the Martins-Pitta pair of representatives, there may not have been a Ronaldo phenomenon. They came into his life at a difficult moment, when his parents had split up, and looked beyond the big sale to a long-term partnership, giving him guidance, structure and financial support. This is such a competitive activity, so many talented kids fall by the wayside. Without Martins and Pitta, it is unlikely that Ronaldo would have become the leading goalscorer in World Cup history.