Despite being a five-time championship-winning manager, Brazilian national team coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has always made it clear that he couldn’t do without a traditional number 9 on his side.
Of course, after having coached a number 9 like Ronaldo in the 2002 World Cup, you’d be hard-pressed to convince him otherwise. Felipão’s (‘Big Phil’) heroic striker carried the team to their fifth – and last – world title that year, but he arrived at the host countries of South Korea and Japan under fire. He was labelled the villain following a defeat at the hands of the host team in the 1998 World Cup final in France – a match which saw ‘the Phenomenon’ completely lost on the pitch after suffering convulsions a few hours before the game – and his round of knee injuries and two-year absence from the team only added to the concerns over whether Ronaldo would be able to match his previous form.
Nonetheless, Scolari called up the oft-criticised striker, and his performance on the pitch left no room for doubt: he scored eight times in the 2002 World Cup – twice in the final against Germany – and went on to become the World Cup’s most prolific all-time scorer in 2006.
Back at the helm of the national side after a decade away, Felipão has once again found exactly what he treasures in his number 9 – this time, in the Fluminense striker Fred. Firmly entrenched as a first-team regular, Fred is brilliant at placing himself in the area and plays a fundamental tactical role in Felipão’s Brazilian attack.
A look at his recent history proves that he makes a difference. In 2009, he was fundamental to Rio’s Fluminense, which found itself perilously close to relegation to the second division of the Campeonato Brasileiro prior to his arrival, but subsequently managed to keep itself afloat. And in Brazil’s victorious Confederations Cup campaign, considered a test for the World Cup, Fred proved equally effective as the team’s main striker.
But similar to his phenomenal predecessor, the player’s constant injuries have become a concern. He was unfit to play for Fluminense in the final stage of the 2013 Brasileirão, which was one of the main causes of the team’s temporary relegation (it was later overturned by a Supreme Court decision). Still sidelined due to a thigh injury, Fred is now causing similar worries for Felipão and, as a result, has exposed Brazil’s lack of a substitute.
Jô, his subsitute in the Confederations Cup, has been convincing at times, but if Fred is ruled out, there aren’t many other options. Diego Costa has the same characteristics that Scolari covets, but he has chosen to play for the Spanish team. Leandro Damião and Pato have also shown promise, but have yet to earn a spot on the team. The situation is dire enough that players like Flamengo’s Hernane and Palmeiras’s Alan Kardec have arisen as possible solutions, despite never having been called up by Felipão.
The search for a sub – or even for the actual wearer of the number 9 shirt should Fred not heal in time – is but one of the worries for a manager who already bears the immense pressure of meeting the all-or-nothing demands for a sixth championship win at home. But if history repeats itself, Felipão’s ideal striker will emerge from injury to save the day once again, and put the whole of Brazil on cloud nine.