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No leaders and an uncontrollable Neymar: Brazil's captaincy problem

When Tite took charge of the Brazilian national team for the first time in September 2016, a difficult decision needed to be made. Neymar, who had been the captain under previous manager Dunga, renounced the role immediately after leading the Selecao to Olympic gold that August.

There was no stand-out candidate to take the armband, no name that leapt off the page as a natural leader of the group, so the new head coach opted for a different model. He would not appoint a permanent captain, but rather rotate the responsibility amongst his players.

It was something he had already done before taking the reins of the Selecao, with Corinthians, the Brazilian side he led to Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup glory in 2012.

Originally, the idea to give the captaincy to a different player in each game was forced upon him by necessity. All three of his potential skippers for the Sao Paulo-based outfit had been sold and sharing the burden of leadership among the remaining players seemed the only acceptable response.

The policy turned out to be a success, making use of the different characteristics of each individual and avoiding too much blame falling at the feet of one player if the team was going through a rough patch.

Given the circumstances, implementing the same strategy with Brazil seemed the sensible thing to do.

This was a team that suffered from a chronic lack of leadership at their home World Cup in 2014. First, Thiago Silva wept uncontrollably during the penalty shootout with Chile and then David Luiz, when given the armband during the infamous 7-1 semi-final defeat, played with the composure of a bull at a rodeo.

Neymar is also a difficult character to control, and had a new permanent captain questioned his behaviour, it could have caused a rift in the group.

“I want to give the opportunity for all the players to have this experience [of being captain]”, Tite said in 2017, “I believe it to be an honour… It is a co-responsibility, that is the message I want to send.”

Including that first outing against Ecuador, his team recorded 17 wins in 21 games before travelling to Russia, the only defeat coming to Argentina in a meaningless friendly played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, using 16 different captains in the process.

In light of such numbers, the decision seems to have been justified. As well as the results, there was a visible improvement in the collective spirit. Each of the players he chose as captain responded positively and the group seems far more cohesive now than at any point under Dunga or Luiz Felipe Scolari.

As the World Cup drew nearer, however, media speculation about Tite appointing one captain for the entire tournament grew and questions started to be asked. Would the rotation do more harm than good once the team were in Russia? And who would lift the trophy were Brazil to win the long-anticipated hexacampeonato?

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Ex-Real Madrid and Flamengo player Dejan Petkovic, now a pundit on Brazilian television, told viewers that from a player’s point of view he was opposed to the idea because: “You need to have leadership. You need to know who the captain is and who the vice-captain is.”

Perhaps Petkovic was correct, maybe the rotation policy had served its initial purpose of uniting the group and this was the time for decisiveness.

The World Cup is another level of pressure from the qualifiers and the games come thick and fast. Having one person who everybody can look to for guidance during the month in Russia might have been a positive.

The prime candidate for the role was unfortunately out of contention. Dani Alves, the squad’s most experienced player with over 100 caps to his name, was sidelined as a result of the knee injury he suffered in the final of the Coupe de France.

Alves had already taken the armband four times under Tite’s command, more than any other individual, and his loss was a big psychological blow to the group. He is also the only player that can exert any level of control over Neymar.

The importance of that last point was perfectly illustrated in Brazil’s first game against Switzerland. Brazil’s number 10 was being targeted by the Swiss players and became increasingly selfish throughout the game, leading to more fouls and eventually to the challenge that caused him to worryingly limp out of Brazil’s training session on Tuesday.

Had Alves been there to have a quiet word in his PSG team-mate’s ear, to tell him to release the ball quicker and stop trying to go it alone, he may have avoided the knock that is worrying a nation. Marcelo, the man given the armband in Alves’ absence, was not capable of such influence.

It is not too late for Tite to act. Even with Alves watching from the sofa at home, Tite has a fine leader in Miranda. The Inter Milan centre-back is a calming, steady presence who could assuage some of the jitters that Brazil showed in that 1-1 draw.

With the hopes and expectations of 200 million people resting on their shoulders, a little stability and certainty might just help to calm Brazilian nerves and get the team firing on all cylinders once more.

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