TThe question about dancing came after 35 minutes. And to be fair, it wasn’t as random as it sounds. Earlier this week, Raphinha announced that Brazil’s team had prepared and practiced 10 different dance routines to be unveiled every time they score in this World Cup. So a Brazilian journalist asked Tite: “What is the importance of this cultural phenomenon? How important is dancing? What is the message we can convey to the world by dancing?”
“Naturalness,” the Brazil coach immediately replied. “Respect for the culture, respect for who we are. It is happiness, it is joy. Yes, it is a moment for us to be focused and serious. But there are moments when we can have fun, when we can vibrate. Everyone has their own way. Our way is to dance.” Perhaps this gives a small idea of why Brazil’s shrewd and cantankerous head coach can be such fascinating company. There is an easily worn intellect there, a love of words, an attention to detail, a dignity and an ease, as well as the basic decency to give a sincere question a sincere answer.
Phrases such as “paradigm shift”, “potentializing the virtues of the players” and “learning may be theoretical but it is fundamentally practical” are not the main content of your usual Friday morning audience with – say – Steve Evans.
They call him “Professor Tite” in the Brazil camp, and there is certainly something of the didactic for him: a man who sees football not just as a game of limbs and gumping, but as an opportunity to open minds. On the eve of the opening match against Serbia, Tite knows exactly what is expected of him by the Brazilian crowd. But he also knows that this expectation is born of part of an emotional legacy far beyond his control: the widespread feeling that this World Cup is somehow Brazil’s destiny, part of their DNA, theirs to reclaim as a piece of lost property.
“I’m not responsible for the last 20 years, just four,” Tite said with a smile, and in this he was half right. Tite didn’t create this baggage, but it’s his to carry now, and perhaps that’s why he seemed so keen to emphasize the scale of the challenge ahead, the sheer volume of things that must go right for Brazil to win its sixth World Cup . .
“There is pressure,” he admitted, “but also the calmness of knowing the opportunities that arise in life. Dreaming is part of life. We dream of having a great cup and becoming champion. And in case we can’t, to make the best of it, because there’s only one winner. We are aware that there are other great teams playing at the same level as Brazil.
Implicit in all this was perhaps a tacit rejection of the exceptionalism that has supported and ultimately bound many Brazilian pages of the past. The most striking example of this was at home in 2014, when a hysterical Brazilian crowd discovered in the most crushing way that magic, fate and emotional fervor are no substitute for attention to detail and a vaguely functioning offside trap.
Tite knows this, of course. He is a detail man at heart: a thorough analyst of the game who likes to consider a problem from every angle, cover every contingency. Along with his trusted assistant Cleber Xavier, he has put together a balanced European-style side with less of the traditional Brazilian emphasis on marauding full-backs and totemic No.9s. Instead, an experienced defense will be shielded by Casemiro and two energetic wingers (probably Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior).
“I don’t believe in filling the side with strikers or defenders,” said Tite. “The balance point is the middle ground.” Then Tite runs into the other part of Brazilian self-mythology: style. It is interesting to note that the last team to break a drought, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 1994 team, is also the least valued of Brazil’s five World Cup winning teams. Partly this is because of the absence of a popular figurehead like Pelé or Ronaldo, partly because of the way they did it: gritty, pragmatic tournament football played with smarts and snarl. “There are moments when the play must be sacrificed,” Johan Cruyff wrote of that team, and even Romário has admitted that Brazil’s tactics in the US were not entirely to his liking.
And the strangely unloved status of that team encapsulates the delicate balancing act Tite faces here. In short: how far can he reconcile the two largely divergent goals of ending the drought and do so in a way that feels authentically Brazilian? How much risk does he want to take against an extremely dangerous Serbia team and their front two Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic? Can they defend and dance at the same time? These are the pressing questions. You can guarantee that Tite has used his considerable intellect to find out the answers.