Brazil 2006 | Football's Greatest Disappointment?

It's amazing to think that the 2006 World Cup is already 17 years old. An outstanding tournament, many believe that the qualified nations represented the strongest selection ever to compete in football's greatest competition. Although eventually won by an excellent Italian side following a breath-taking final with a Zinedine Zidane inspired France, neither were predicted as potential champions before the World Cup began in Germany. Indeed, that role was filled by Brazil. In 2006, the South American nation had built an impressive squad full of world-class talent and were seen by most as unstoppable. However, as aforementioned, it would be Italy who lifted the trophy in what happened?

Brazil's entry into the finals in Germany was unique. It was the first time in football history that the World Cup's defending champions had been required to enter into a qualification campaign. That said, the Selecao would make light work of their South American rivals, topping the CONMEBOL table and losing just two games. Star striker Ronaldo had notched an impressive 10 goals and had continued his fine international form, further building on his golden boot at the 2002 World Cup. Alongside O Fenomeno was a young Adriano, a fearsome forward with one of the game's hardest strikes.

Likewise, it wasn't just in attack that Brazil were strong. Although at time unpopular back in Brazil, their defence offered a level of experience few other nations could compete with. Despite their combined age of 69, Cafu and Roberto Carlos had been the game's finest full-backs for almost a decade with Lucio and Juan completing a strong, at least on paper, back four. It was in midfield that Brazil were seemingly unstoppable. Match of the Day's Guide to the World Cup would describe the number of quality players as 'absurd'. Emerson and Ze Roberto offered further defensive stability, but it was in the formidable talents of Kaka and Ronaldinho for why many placed their faith in ranking Brazil as favourites. Ronaldinho entered the tournament as the world's best player, winning the 2005 Ballon d'Or whereas Kaka had enjoyed his finest goalscoring season with Italian giants, AC Milan.

FourFourTwo's preview of the tournament certainly saw Brazil as favourites. Citing the praise heaped on the side by legends Franz Beckenbauer, Michel Platini and Pele, they would question whether it was even 'worth the other teams turning up'. Such was the might of the Selecao, the New York Times confidently ran with the headline, 'There's Brazil and 31 other teams'Match of the Day would echo these words citing that they found it difficult to think of any other Brazilian squad from their trophy-laden history that had such formidable quality and depth. 

Such strength in depth would naturally see supporters fully expectant of a 'stylish and convincing victory in Germany'. However, such expectation and over-confidence had been the Selecao's downfall in the past. Whether it be the 1950 Maracanazo, defeat to a Paolo Rossi inspired Italy in 1982 or Ronaldo's final misfortune in '98, the warning signs were there for all to see. Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who had led Brazil to victory at the World Cup in 1994 was aware of his nation's past and was quick to quell any presumptions. 

"I know the strengths of my squad, but I also know the perils and traps of a World Cup"

The potential for perils and traps in the group stage would be found in the forms of Croatia, Australia and Japan. Although in 2023 such a pool of nations would seem fairly strong, in 2006 none was expected to seriously challenge or lay a glove on Parreira's side. Prior to the opening match against Croatia it would be the fitness of Ronaldo that created the most anxiety amongst supporters. Fit to start from the off, the former World Player of the Year was subdued in an underwhelming Brazilian performance. Although taking 3 points following a phenomenal Kaka strike, questions were being asked about Brazil's pragmatic, rather than punchy, style of play.

Described as 'laboured' by the BBC and 'uninspiring' by Eurosport, Parreira's approach had been criticised by many in Brazil. Most felt that his conservative tactics were at odds with the samba principles of joga bonito. For Parreira, his style of play had been successful. The 1994 World Cup victory was Brazil's first since 1970 and even if cautious and negative, it achieved positive results. After all, European football had been dominated by the intensely pragmatic methods of José Mourinho at Chelsea and with money being pumped into the game at a staggering rate - results became more important than ever, no matter how they were achieved. However, Croatia had pushed favourites Brazil all the way on match day 1 leaving The Telegraph to perhaps sum it up best,

"No one will be thinking the world champs are invincible anymore."

A nervy opening 45 minutes would follow against Australia in Munich before goals from Adriano and Fred saw off Guus Hiddink's resolute and inspired side. Again, critics would argue that the Selecao had failed to convince, but victory saw them book their place in the last 16. Perhaps Brazil's biggest worry at this stage of what had already been a fantastic tournament overall was Ronaldinho's lack of form. For a player who had lit up the Camp Nou and recently won the Champions League with Barcelona, he was notably quiet in his nation's opening two matches. The BBC match report failed to mention his name even once with many believing that Brazil's artistry had been stifled by Parreira. Ronaldinho himself had admitted to feeling the strain of a long season in which he had already played 45 games for his club.

It would come as little surprise to see Brazil comfortably see off Japan in the final group game. Despite falling a goal behind, Parreira's side would score 4 goals in the second half to register a convincing win. With each game, a pattern appeared to be emerging. The usual restraint placed on the side would see the Selecao almost playing not to lose during the first half with the shackles being removed in the second 45. Perhaps the game's most positive moment, at least from a Brazilian perspective, came from two goals scored by their number 9, Ronaldo. With 14 goals, the forward was now just one strike away from becoming the tournament's all-time top goalscorer, a record held by German Gerd Muller since 1974.

The end of the group stage would see pundits and analysts from around the world debating the prospects of the final 16 teams. South American expert Tim Vickery disagreed with Brazilian criticism of Ronaldinho. Noticing that the forward was playing '30 yards deeper' than he did for Barcelona, Vickery noted that Ronaldinho's role for his country was more a show of selflessness for the good of the team. Such an idea would certainly appear to be the case during Brazil's comfortable 3-0 victory over Ghana in the last 16. The victory was all the more impressive given Ghana's excellent performances in the tournament's 'Group of Death'.

Despite being described as 'fat and unfit', it would be O Fenomeno, Ronaldo who once more stole the headlines. His excellently taken goal, in which he had rounded the 'keeper with a typically Brazilian stepover, showed a more relaxed Selecao with signs of the old flair returning to the squad. Cementing his status as the World Cup's all-time top scorer with 15 goals, it seemed that Parreira's side were hitting form at the right time.

"The defending champions are slowly but surely clicking into gear at this World Cup finals."

It would be France, Brazil's conquerors in '98, who would meet them in the quarter-finals. Despite most writing Les Bleus off before the tournament began, citing their play as predictable and too Zidane-centric, Raymond Domenech's side would upset the odds to see off a youthful and exciting Spain. Even with what many saw as an aging squad, French experience had been evident for all to see with captain and talisman, Zinedine Zidane (who was set to retire after the World Cup) playing some of his best ever football.

The quarter-final saw both sides playing out a cagey encounter. If there was one major criticism of the World Cup in 2006, it was that the goals and attacking flair seemed to dry up as soon as the knockout rounds began. Brazil's football was lacklustre and uninspired with the French offering the game's attacking edge. For the first time in the tournament, Parreira had not started all members of the 'Fab Four' (Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Adriano), preferring to deploy Lyon's Juninho in place of Adriano. Unfortunately for the Selecao, Zidane would produce perhaps his greatest ever performance, at times making a mockery of Brazil's supposedly 'invincible' side. An excellent Thierry Henry volley from a Zidane free-kick would be the difference as the French progressed and the Brazilians failed to rid themselves of the demons of '98.

Reactions to the defeat were predictably intense. Most criticism was heaped onto Parreria who would also take blame for his nation's earlier-than-expected exit. Brazilian newspaper O Globo would comment that their country's manager had been a 'total disaster' and losing with 'no sense of honour'. Leonardo, a pundit on the BBC and a World Cup winner under Parreira in 1994, was heavily critical of Brazil's attitude before the tournament had even begun, describing them as 'globetrotters' and playing as individuals rather than a team. Continuing to criticise, he would later comment that the squad showed little spirit and were even void of feeling upon defeat to the French. The Guardian, like many other newspapers, would take aim at Ronaldinho, describing his ineffective performances as the tournament's biggest disappointment.

Individuals over teamwork, negative tactics and an unwillingness to play with freedom - Kaká would sum it up best,

"Sorry, we were not the real Brazilian national team, the one with creativity and classy touches"

So is Brazil's 2006 World Cup squad football greatest disappointment? A squad with world class players in every direction and arguably holding the tournament's two best sides within it, it's hard not to question 'what if?' However, with Parreira at the helm and pragmatism overcoming principles, you could argue that even if Brazil had won the 2006 World Cup, most would have been uninspired by the hypothetical achievement. When we think of Brazil, we think of Joga Bonito, the beautiful game. Perhaps this is why most historians and fans of football nostalgia still revere their 1982 side, and not the 2006 selection, as the best side to never win the World Cup. Leonardo's words summed it up well, this was a side in which individual talents outweighed any notions of team spirit and togetherness. It was a team that if coached well and suitably prepared could have been the game's greatest of all-time. With many of the side retiring from international duty soon after Fabio Cannavaro lifted the World Cup trophy above his head in Berlin, the Brazilian dream was well and truly over.

This piece was written by Ben Jones - you can follow him on Twitter/X (@TFHBs) 

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