For 55 months following their 2002 FIFA World Cup™ triumph, Brazil sat proudly atop of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a seemingly immovable force. Not even a quarter-final exit at the 2006 FIFA World Cup could unseat the Seleção, whose swift return to form under new coach Dunga preserved their exceptional reign.
That was until February 2007, when a 2-0 defeat to Portugal left them in the unfamiliar position of looking upwards: at world champions Italy. Worse was to come. In March, Brazil slipped to third behind the Azzurri and new leaders Argentina, before the top two exchanged slots the ensuing month.
The Seleção did briefly reassume second spot, but by June they were back in third having been outstripped by France. Worryingly, with points accumulated in somewhat of purple patch exiting the pockets of the pentacampeões, teams appeared to be queuing up to plunge them further down the ladder. Germany were within breathing space of their Korea/Japan 2002 conquerors, with Argentina not far behind and even Portugal, under the command of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man with whom Brazil embarked upon that period of ascendancy in July 2002, jostling for places in the upper echelons of the Ranking.
Victory in Venezuela
The Copa America Venezuela 2007 nonetheless provided Dunga with a chance to claim Brazil a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009, and to crown his maiden year in coaching with a title. It was an opportunity that the former FIFA World Cup-winning captain grasped firmly. After an emphatic 6-1 reverse of Chile in the last eight, the Seleção sneaked into the final by overcoming Uruguay on a penalty shootout, but then left nothing to chance in the decider, beating heavily-fancied arch-rivals Argentina 3-0.
As euphoria swept across the nation, their coach was given an additional cause to celebrate his maiden year in office this coming Tuesday. Indeed, after a five-month hiatus from the coveted summit, Brazil were restored to the top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, marginally above the Albiceleste, when the latest table was released on Wednesday.
It was not the first time that Dunga's impelling leadership had been the catalyst behind his country regaining pole position. In his previous national team function, the midfield enforcer skippered Brazil to glory at USA 1994, scoring what ultimately proved to be the title-clinching penalty in their shootout victory over Italy. This success immediately promoted the South Americans to the head of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, which was a position they retained for an unprecedented six years and ten months.
During this period, until his international retirement in 1998, Dunga was a cornerstone of the side. His influence was never more apparent than at France 1998, when his intuitive orchestration of play and vociferous presence propelled the Seleção to the final. Although they lost out to the hosts, Brazil's podium finish undoubtedly contributed towards them remaining in first place on the Ranking for just short of another three years.
Settling into the dugout
Given his characteristics as a player, Dunga was tipped to make the transition into coaching with ease. In fact, when Vanderlei Luxemburgo vacated the Brazil hot-seat in 2000, the FIFA U-20 World Cup Mexico 1983 winner was among the CBF's favourites to replace him. In spite of his repuation, however, he chose not pursue a managerial role initially, but when the chance to succeed his one-time boss Carlos Alberto Parreira was presented to him following Brazil's elimination from Germany 2006, it was an offer he found too tempting to refuse.
Although a surprise choice to many, Dunga has certainly vindicated his appointment thus far. With spirits low following their ill-fated FIFA World Cup camapign, he swiftly invigorated the side and masterminded an emphatic 3-0 defeat of Argentina in London in his second match in charge, before overseeing ensuing away wins over Wales, Ecuador and Switzerland.
Moreover, his unmistakable barking of intructions from the sidelines has appealed to the passionate Brazilian fans, while his refusal to pick players based on their repuations alone has been refreshing. Long-standing automatics Emerson, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano have all been dropped over the last 12 months. Upon his return to the side, Kaka delivered some outstanding performances and Ronaldinho has also flickered the genius that was inconspicuous on German soil, although the pair missed the recent Copa America after their requests for a recess were granted.
Along with the likes of Ronaldo, the pair must now strive to fight their way back into a squad which clinched Brazil an eighth continental crown in Venezuela. It is a squad brimming with players at top of their game, something which must, in part, be attributed to Dunga's ability to evoke the best from his charges. Three cases in point are Juan, Elano and Robinho, who have excelled under the 43-year-old's tenure.
Dunga has had his sceptics of late, a circumstance of Brazilians' insatiable desire to witness breathtaking football every time their team take to the field. Nevertheless, their defence of the Copa America title underlined the impressive progress the Seleção have made under his command. Consequently, when he completes his first year in the international game's most demanding job next week, he can pass a rewarding glance at the first name on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking: Brazil.