The plan is bold, and at the time it was hatched, it made sense. Carlo Ancelotti, hugely decorated doyen of club football, adaptable enough to have won championships in all five of Europe’s top-ranked leagues, earmarked to become the manager of Brazil, the most successful nation in World Cup history. What could go wrong?
So enthused by the idea is Ednaldo Rodrigues, the president of the Brazil Football Confederation, that two months ago he announced the deal was all but done. Ancelotti would see out one more season at Real Madrid, where he is in the third year of a second stint, and join Brazil’s Selecao as manager next summer in time for June’s Copa America.
Yet Rodrigues had been jumping ahead. The Italian Ancelotti is interested, talks have taken place but both parties could still step back from the arrangement.
There are hitches, too. The South Americans have not had a foreign manager for almost six decades, and there are those who think the national team so important to the country’s sense of sovereignty that it should always be managed by a Brazilian.
More pragmatically, there is an argument that, for all his wisdom, and his long-held enthusiasm for taking on a national team role, it is a hard ask of Ancelotti that he should fly across the Atlantic in June and go briskly into a major tournament within less than three weeks of the end of a club season he is intensively involved with at Madrid.
Which is where Fernando Diniz, Brazil’s interim manager, fits in. He is temporarily in the job, in charge for the season’s World Cup qualifiers, starting against Bolivia on Saturday, with a view to assisting Ancelotti as of next summer. Might that work? Ancelotti will not answer the question. He has declared he will not address publicly any issues around a possible future with Brazil for the next eight months.
The Ancelotti-in-waiting plan has also become more complicated than it was, because elite football’s centre of gravity has shifted significantly in the last two months. Being a coach based in Europe, watching plenty of Uefa Champions League football, provides an excellent view of the leading South American players.
Ancelotti has that and, better, he works daily with Vinicius Junior, Eder Militao and Rodrygo, leading Selecao players employed by Madrid.
But others who are key to Brazil’s plans have moved this summer, out of Europe, not back to South America but to Saudi Arabian clubs. Come the Copa America, it is not implausible to imagine the spine of Diniz’s – or Ancelotti’s – starting XI being at clubs in the big-spending Pro League.
For Saturday’s qualifier against Bolivia, Roger Ibanez, of Al Ahli, has been picked among the central defenders; Fabinho, who has joined Al Ittihad from Liverpool, remains on the Selecao’s radar for central midfield. And there’s Neymar, now of Al Hilal, who hopes to be fit enough to break Pele’s record of international goals for Brazil – he has 77, equal with the late legend – this week or next.
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Neymar headed out from Riyadh for the international pause in the calendar having giving an interview to O Globo in which he was careful to praise both Diniz – “Brazil’s ideal coach right now” – and Ancelotti – “if he comes, he’ll be welcomed and I’d enjoy working with him” – as well as looking regretfully back on some of his time at Paris Saint-Germain, the club he left last month. “Both I and Lionel Messi lived through hell at PSG,” he said of how some PSG fans had turned against Neymar and Messi.
Messi, 36, is now at Inter Miami, still captain of Argentina’s reigning world champions and by no means alone for combining club football outside Europe with the highest international ambitions. He is one of three players employed in America’s MLS in the Argentina squad to take on Ecuador this week.
Major European national teams are also suddenly obliged to scan more widely to monitor their players’ club form. Portugal, led by Al Nassr’s Ronaldo, have summoned his club colleague Otavio and Ruben Neves of Al Hilal for their Euro 2024 qualifiers.
Spain, the Uefa Nations League holders, have Al Nassr’s Aymeric Laporte with them this week and Al Ahli’s new signing, the prospect Gabri Veiga, 21, in their medium-term plans.
Italy, under a new coach because Roberto Mancini left to take charge of the Saudi Arabian national team, may soon be calling up their midfield governor Marco Verratti from a Gulf club, with his exit from PSG likely, and the transfer window still open in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
As for the champions of Africa, Senegal won last year’s Afcon with a team dominated by footballers based at European clubs. It is now built around a spine of Pro League stars, with Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly, Habib Diallo and goalkeeper Edu Mendy all calling Saudi Arabia their home.