Brazil’s head coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, once said, at length and with passion, he felt he had been blessed with a most fortunate genealogy for his profession: the upper branches of his family tree stretch to Veneto, and he takes holidays in the region of Italy his great grandparents came from.
When Scolari won the World Cup with Brazil, in 2002, in his first stint in charge of the most successful country in international football, he would also travel to Italy frequently for his work. Scolari is now less attentive to Serie A than he was a decade or so ago. In fact, he is less concerned with the Brazilians playing in Italy’s top flight than any Brazil head coach preparing for a World Cup has been for nearly 20 years.
The number of Italy-based footballers in Scolari’s party for the matches – key ones for the hosts of a World Cup that is only 15 months away – against Italy and Russia in the next six days? Just one. He is Hernanes, the Lazio attacking midfielder, who, if he gains a little more consistency, may find himself allotted some heavy responsibility for Brazil’s playmaking come next June. Scolari has concerns over that role, and has found himself reaching back into history for inspiration. Ronaldinho, the winner of the 2005 Ballon d’Or who turns 33 next week, was called up for the last round of friendlies. Kaka, the 2007 Ballon d’Or winner who turns 31 next month, is in the current squad.
Both are former AC Milan players. Neither are the dominant figures they used to be. Kaka, now marginal at Real Madrid, inspired Milan to a Uefa Champions League triumph at his peak; Ronaldinho in 2009 lured tens of thousands to San Siro just to see him introduced. That sort of star quality is harder to find in today’s Serie A, as are great Brazilians. This is partly because of Italian clubs’ lower spending power, but also, as Scolari would concede, because the fruitful production line that meant he could take all three of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka to the 2002 World Cup has run a little dry.
He has the gifted Neymar, but will still envy his opposite number, Cesare Prandelli, some of the men Italy include in their line up on Thursday.