Brazil recall for in-form Fred would be bizarre for long-term World Cup plans
Almost three years have passed since that surreal afternoon in Belo Horizonte when Brazil collapsed in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup. Germany were five goals up at the interval. The home crowd had plenty of time to try to deal with the extraordinary event and as the second half painfully unfolded, they chose their scapegoat.
The crowd in the Mineirao stadium turned on striker Fred, playing in his home state. He was taken off in the second half. As the camera picked out his image on the bench and broadcast it over the giant screen, the ground erupted in boos and jeers.
The hero of the Confederations Cup triumph 12 months previously, Fred had never found form during the World Cup and had been singled out for criticism by many in the international media. Nevertheless, it was strange indeed that the crowd appointed him as their villain on that particular afternoon. What could be more bizarre than blaming the centre-forward for a 7-1 defeat?
The question is not rhetorical. There is an answer. It may be seen as even more bizarre that nearly three years later, some are asking for Fred to be recalled to the Brazil side. And this is now being earnestly debated as a real possibility.
There are two main explanations. One is the player's own form and virtues. Fred was never as limited as he appeared during the World Cup, when the matches seemed to pass him by. Not the quickest or most mobile of strikers, perhaps the edge had been taken off his game by a lengthy injury layoff a few months before the tournament. Maybe a slight change in the positioning of Neymar did not help. During the Confederations Cup, Neymar had cut in on the diagonal from wide on the left, looking to link up with the centre-forward. In the World Cup, Brazil's star was often used in a more central role, which perhaps made it easier for the opposition to stop him from combining with Fred. And there is the undoubted fact that form has its own mysteries, occasionally deserting players when they need it most.
Fred has reacted well to the biggest disappointment of his career, shrugging it off and getting on with the business of scoring goals. Last week in the Copa Libertadores, his Atletico Mineiro were within 20 minutes of a historic humiliation. They were losing 2-1 at home to little Sport Boys Warnes, a humble club from Bolivia who are taking part in the competition for the first time.
The final scoreline -- 5-2 to Atletico -- makes it look like a comfortable home win. But that was all down to Fred, who scored four quick goals. His own form, then, is keeping him in international contention. As is the problems that Brazil are having in his position.
Centre-forward has been something of a headache for a while. In 2012, coach Mano Menezes was having interesting results with a formation that had no room for a conventional No. 9. But then he was sacked and replacement Luiz Felipe Scolari immediately reintroduced the target man, which soon became Fred.
After the World Cup, Dunga had a look at a number of options: a more mobile figure like Diego Tardelli or Roberto Firmino, a physical presence like Luis Adriano or Hulk, a veteran in Ricardo Oliveira or a rookie in Gabriel Barbosa. Current boss Tite gambled on teenager Gabriel Jesus and it paid off, with the Manchester City striker scoring five goals in six games. But his recent injury has rekindled the debate. He was replaced by Firmino, who is eyed with suspicion by some for never having played for a major club in Brazil. And so with Fred in good form, some have been floating his name for a recall.
But it would surely make little sense. Brazil, after all, have no short-term needs. With four rounds to spare, they can already afford to focus on the 2018 World Cup. They do not need someone who is enjoying a good moment now, but rather someone who is able to make a contribution vs. the world's best in Russia some 14 months from now -- when Fred will be approaching 35.
On Wednesday night, though, he has another chance to make his case. Atletico Mineiro visit Libertad of Paraguay in the Libertadores. All Fred can do is keep playing his football, scoring his goals and hoping for a recall that would be no less bizarre than one of the previous chapters of his career.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.