Tostão was named the best player at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and was a key member of the best soccer team in history. The Belo Horizonte native was a skilled forward and midfielder with a great vision for the game, but an eye injury forced him to hang up his boots at the age of just 26. Today, at 67, he is a soccer commentator and columnist for São Paulo’s Folha newspaper.
Question. What’s going on with Brazil? Does the team lack talent?
Answer. There were unrealistic expectations in Brazil. These expectations started after their victory at the Fifa Confederations Cup and their big win against Spain the last time they played them. We started to think we had an exceptional team and that it was possible to win the World Cup. But that’s not the case. Brazil has its virtues and its flaws, like all the other good teams here.
Q. Except for Neymar, the Brazilian players look stiff. Is the responsibility weighing on them?
A. If the World Cup were not in Brazil, if it were taking place in Europe, Brazil would probably have been eliminated already. The fact that the tournament is taking place here increases their chances. In Brazil, people think that the team’s problem, the reason why it is not playing well or winning people over, is the emotional pressure the players feel. I think it’s the other way around. Brazil has a shot at the title because it is playing at home, because of the torcida [associations of soccer fans]. The team is committed and they are fighting tooth and nail. But the individual players lack certain qualities.
Q. What qualities are they lacking?
We have no midfield. We might need a Xavi or Alonso in his prime”
A. We are weak in midfield. Oscar and Hulk play on the wings, Luiz Gustavo is practically just another defender and that leaves one player [Fernandinho] to move the ball and start the play. It’s sad to see the national team playing like this. It makes up for those big flaws because it has Neymar and even though Chile was marking him heavily, his momentum was exceptional. We also have two of the best defenders in the world [Thiago Silva and David Luiz]. And Hulk has enormous power in attack, even when he does not play well. Marcelo is an excellent player when he crosses midfield. And Luiz Gustavo is impeccable as a defensive winger. We have qualities but I don’t see a midfielder who passes, organizes and distributes. They mark a lot but they don’t play forward.
Q. Do you think they needed another player on the roster? Kaká?
A. The main problem is tactical: there is no midfield, no organization. They play on the wings and they put their faith in Neymar up front. What they may need is a player like Xavi or Xabi Alonso in his prime, a Schweinsteiger, a Pirlo, a Kroos... We don’t have a great midfield player. They are combative. They run a lot, mark a lot. Kaká is more of an attacker or second forward like Oscar or Neymar. He is the bridge to the goal.
Q. The other problem is in the forward group.
A. Of course. I did not mention that. We don’t have a great number 9. We have had so many spectacular ones … However, we have a player who is a great striker, who knows how to secure a play but he does not participate a lot. He spends the entire match hiding between the defenders. We don’t have a Romario or Ronaldo. Since Hulk and Neymar are such aggressive forwards, I think Brazil could play perfectly well without Fred, without a number 9, because it has two other goal-scoring players on the field. It would better if the third attacker were more skilled and more creative, more agile, instead of a forward who is standing still waiting for the play to get to him.
Q. Who are you thinking of? Willian?
Thiago Alcántara’s injury was very significant for Spain. He’s going to grow a lot”
A. Neymar would become a forward like Hulk and Oscar or Willian could take over that job further back. If Kaká were in shape, it would be even better. Before Scolari came, when Manu Menezes was still coach, Brazil’s forwards were Hulk, Neymar and Kaká and at that time everyone thought Brazil had a great attack even when they played without a center forward.
Q. Like Del Bosque’s Spanish team …
A. Exactly. But Menezes left and Felipão likes number 9s like Fred. I personally like the triangle formed by Hulk, Neymar with Kaká as attacking midfielder. Kaká could score too, but he was not in shape. Anyway, with just three games left, Scolari is probably not going to change things now. What he could do – like at the Fifa Confederations Cup – is put three players in midfield, a real trio, crowd the middle of the field, and keep Fred, Hulk and Neymar in front. Don’t let Luiz Gustavo fall behind. Get him two wingers to keep him company. Three midfielders like the Netherlands, Chile, Spain or Germany … Brazil is theoretically playing with two midfielders but in reality it’s only playing with one because Luiz Gustavo is almost playing sweeper.
Q. Do you think Scolari made a mistake with Diego Costa?
A. Diego Costa would be better than Fred. There is no doubt. The problem is that when Scolari called on Costa to play for 20 or 30 minutes, he had not yet achieved the success he has now playing for Atlético. And, he thought he had other players who were just as good; he did not foresee Costa’s potential and growth. When he wanted to bring him back, Costa was already a star in Spain and he wanted to play with Spain. It makes sense. He had been there for years ... Del Bosque called him and he felt he had been given much more recognition over there than here.
Q. Do you have a favorite team you hope will win this World Cup?
Countries with a soccer tradition seem to carry an imaginary code that, in the end, propels them forward”
A. No … Because I see many teams that are equal. Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Brazil all have the same chances. Four of those five teams will end up in the semifinals. It’s more likely to be Germany rather than France. The only one missing is Spain. It should have been in that group. In the end, tradition and history have a lot of weight in soccer. Quality is not the only thing. That’s what happened, for example, with the Netherlands and Mexico. The Netherlands threw itself into attack with full force. You could see that goal coming a while before they actually tied the score. Just like we humans are programmed by our genes – as if we were computers – that influence our behavior, countries with a soccer tradition seem to carry an imaginary code that, in the end, propels them forward.
Q. Are we seeing a great World Cup?
A. It’s very good, even though there is no team so marvelous as to dazzle us. All the matches are good. And there are many goals … I’m most surprised by how fast they are playing despite the heat. There is good technique, skill and above all energy and speed. In the 90th minute of its round of 16 game, the Netherlands was still sprinting in that heat. The only one missing is Spain.
Q. It was a difficult moment for the team that brought Spain such great victories ...
I’m most surprised by how fast they are playing despite the heat”
A. I marvelled at their skill for years and that of Barça and Real Madrid. I love them. It’s a shame. But it’s good to remember that they didn’t lose to just anybody ... If they had had an easier group in the first phase, they could have grown throughout the competition. I remember the 1966 World Cup in which I played. I was 19 years old. Brazil, then the reigning champion, was eliminated in the first round. One of the reasons was that we lost to two very strong teams: Hungary, which was truly powerful, and Eusebio’s Portugal. We were also a tired team, with several players at the end of their careers. Thiago Alcântara’s injury was significant. He is going to grow a lot in the next few years. Barcelona has lost a great substitute for Xavi.
Q. Do you think Spain will recover from this failure soon?
A. Spain will renew its squad and it will return as an elite team in the World Cup. They already have the foundation. Spain was twice champion of Europe and world champion without a great forward. Their midfield was so fabulous, so impressive, that even without an exceptional forward, Spain was still the best team on the planet. Of course Torres, Villa – and before that Raúl and others – are great players but they haven’t had a Romario, Ronaldo, Messi or Cristiano. All the forwards in La Liga are foreigners. They can’t seem to produce an exceptional forward. They have an amazing midfield but no forwards. They have won two Uefa European Championships and a World Cup without a great forward. Iniesta, Alonso, Busquets and company are so good that they could achieve that.
Translation: Dyane Jean François