Is Fluminense the Team of the Future?

The story starts with a message. Everything that has followed and everything that might yet — the glory and the acclaim, the opportunity and the revolution — has unspooled from a simple text. Everyone involved can agree on that. What is not entirely clear, though, is precisely which message was the one that counted.

The official version runs like this. One night in April last year, the soccer coach Fernando Diniz sent a message to Mario Bittencourt, the president of Fluminense, one of the traditional giants of Brazilian soccer. It was not the usual modus operandi for Diniz: In more than a decade as a manager, he had tended to wait for clubs to come to him. It was a point of professional pride.

In this case, though, he was prepared to make an exception. Fluminense had just fired its coach. Diniz had both played for and managed the team already, and he had fond memories of his time working with Bittencourt, a 45-year-old lawyer. In his heart, he said, he felt that “the time was right to return.”

His message — one full of “shyness, reflection and a very pure feeling,” as Diniz put it, which is the vibe of most of my WhatsApps, too — found a receptive audience. “He was the one I wanted, but we hadn’t spoken yet,” Bittencourt told the Brazilian news outlet Globo. He put the coincidence down to an “exchange of energy,” one that was too portentous to ignore. Diniz got the job.

There is, though, another version of the story, based on another message. “It’s funny, because my wife and I hardly discuss work at all,” Bittencourt said. Not just his legal practice, “but Fluminense, too, and she is a passionate fan.” That evening, though, she had sent him a message, too. It read, simply: “Diniz, Diniz, Diniz.”

Given what has happened since, it is easy to see why Bittencourt prefers to believe his decision was defined by some ineffable universal force. In April this year, Diniz led Fluminense to the Rio de Janeiro state championship — ahead of its fierce rival, Flamengo — to claim the first title of his coaching career.

On Saturday, he can cast that into shadow. Fluminense faces Boca Juniors, the Argentine behemoth, in the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club championship. Ten Brazilian teams have conquered the continent at one point or another over the last 60 years. Fluminense is not among them. Not yet.

Despite the fact that more than 100,000 Argentines are expected in Rio de Janeiro for the fixture — Boca fans travel in such numbers that “everywhere we go feels like home,” as the club’s midfielder Valentín Barco put it — Fluminense has home-field advantage: the final will be played at the Maracana. Everything is aligned for Diniz to become the man to end the wait.

His impact, though, may yet extend far beyond the power dynamics of Brazilian domestic soccer. Just as significant as what Fluminense has achieved under his aegis is the way that it has done it, playing a sort of soccer that has come to be seen — both in South America and further afield — as a vision of the future.

As is inevitable, a rich vocabulary has been used to describe the style of play pioneered by Diniz’s team. It varies in usefulness from the merely unwieldy to the actively unhelpful: there is “relationism” and “anti-positional” and, sufficiently evocative to warrant italicization rather than quotation marks, Dinizismo.

What it is all trying to express is this: In the schools of thought that dominate elite soccer, the abiding principle is that the field is defined and dominated by positions. Players occupy specific spaces, both when their team and does not have the ball, in order to manipulate the field of play, stretching and contracting it as suits their interests.

“Diniz sees soccer in a different way,” as Rodrygo, the Real Madrid and Brazil forward, has put it. Rather than players being hidebound by notional placements, over the last 18 months, his Fluminense team has been marked by its fluidity.

Players blend into whatever role the moment demands. Instead of placing the emphasis on a tightly-defined structure, the framework is much looser. Individuals are encouraged to solve problems as they see them, to invent solutions, to cluster around the ball as tightly as possible, even if that runs the risk of leaving other areas of the field undermanned.

It is, according to the Brazil forward Matheus Cunha, a style that it would be “impossible” to see in European soccer. To Diniz, it is an approach that is particularly suited to Brazilian players, who are raised not just on the improvisational style of street soccer but also futsal, the small-sided game that offers many of them their first experiences in the sport. Dinizismo is jogo bonito in the age of analytics.

The reason both Cunha and Rodrygo have opinions on this is testament to the impression Diniz has made. Fluminense finished a creditable third in Brazil’s top flight last season — scoring 63 goals, a total surpassed only by the champion, Palmeiras — and has lagged only a little this year, doubtless distracted just a touch by the prospect of winning the Copa Libertadores.

But Diniz has won so many hearts and minds that earlier this year, he was placed in temporary control of the Brazilian national team, at least in part because the players had lobbied on his behalf. (As early as July last year, Neymar, no less, had anointed Diniz one of the best coaches in the world on Instagram, the official platform for informed debate.)

Initial results, with Brazil, have been mixed: Diniz oversaw a simple win against Bolivia, a narrow one against Peru, a draw at home to Venezuela and a comprehensive loss to Uruguay. A number of players have confessed that, in the brief, hurried intervals that constitute international soccer, it is not especially easy to internalize a whole new concept of how to play soccer.

For Brazil — as noted in this newsletter two weeks ago — the repercussions of those teething troubles are insignificant: It will qualify for the next World Cup anyway. For Diniz, or more particularly for his ideas, they are of rather more consequence.

Soccer will only indulge new ideas for so long before demanding what is, in effect, proof of concept. For something to catch on, to inspire mimicry, it requires evidence that it works. If Diniz is to be considered a pioneer, the father of a school of thought, the author of a revolution, he needs something tangible, something concrete.

That might be the revival of the Brazilian national team. Or, more likely, it might be the first Copa Libertadores trophy in Fluminense’s history. For the club, that would represent the glorious climax to a story. But for the idea that has brought it there, it might just be a gleaming, shimmering start.

There are few subjects in human history that have been covered in quite so much detail as the ongoing malaise of Manchester United, 2013-present.

There are people with no interest in soccer who know full well that the club is wilting under the feckless ownership of the Glazer family. There are hermits in far-flung caves who could tell you that the club’s recruitment policy has been haphazard and ill-considered.

It is possible that, deep below the ocean waves, there are colossal squid using the independent neurons in their tentacles to tell each other that, yes, United has really been held back by the absence of an effective sporting structure.

What is increasingly fascinating about United, though, is the way those problems seem to pass from one generation of players, coaches and executives to the next, a form of toxic cultural transmission that no overhaul of squad or staff can stop. Those players who are signed seem inevitably to succumb to it. Those coaches who are appointed to remedy it find themselves afflicted.

The path from here is a well-trodden one. Perhaps United will fire its current coach, Erik ten Hag. (“We know how it ends,” the former United defender Gary Neville tweeted after another humiliating defeat on Wednesday.) Perhaps it will have to go and spend many hundreds of millions more dollars on players in January, and next summer, and on and on.

United has been here before, too. It has tried all of that, more than once. No style of manager — disciplinarian or entertainer, veteran or fresh face — has worked. It does not appear to be a problem that can be solved with money.

It is something more complex, more deep-rooted than that. Club and team are not synonyms. One can be changed relatively easily, one player substituted in for another. The institution they represent, though, has an ineffable but defining character. That is altered only at glacial pace, and cannot be traded out over the course of a couple of summers. That is what United needs to change. If the last 10 years are any guide, it does not yet know how.

This newsletter has always seen itself as a two-way street: It is, like all the best content these days, designed not to be so much a series of pronouncements as a rolling conversation, broken up only by one or two abrupt changes of subject and the occasional targeted advertisement (often for watches, don’t know why).

The benefit of this, naturally, is that I am able to benefit/profit from your collective wisdom, as amply demonstrated by Ryan Guilmartin. Last week’s edition included an idle aside noting that many of Barcelona’s academy products end up playing for at least a portion of their career at Real Betis. And now, thanks to Ryan, I know why.

Part of it, he said, is the stylistic fit — Betis traditionally plays a similar sort of soccer to the one preached in the hallowed halls of Barcelona’s La Masia academy — but another part is to do with the sheer number of self-described Beticos in Catalunya. “During the Franco years, there was a great northern migration from Andalucía,” he wrote.

“Franco’s goal was to wipe out Catalan and Basque identities, so he had those regions industrialized and encouraged migration from poorer and more ‘Spanish’ regions like Andalucía. If you know any Betis fans, you know how fiercely loyal to the club they are, so even though they moved to Barcelona, they kept and passed down their love for Real Betis.

“As kids of these migrants ended up at La Masia, if they couldn’t quite make the cut at Barca, they were drawn to Betis. Hector Bellerín is a prime example. His father is Betico, and the player himself has said that this was a reason he went to Betis originally.”

In exchange for enlightening me on that subject, I will pass the favor along to Jason Bogdan. Sort of.

“Jude Bellingham is clearly the best player on the planet at the moment,” Jason wrote, in the naïve belief that there is something akin to consensus in soccer. “Has there ever been a time when the head and shoulders above everyone else best player was only 20 years old? Messi and Ronaldo cancel each other out. I am not old enough to have witnessed it myself but perhaps Pelé?”

Just to get this out of the way: This stance is debatable at best, Jason, owing to the existence of Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland, among others. But it is an interesting point: Looking back, you might assume that Pelé was regarded — certainly between 1958 and 1970, his peak years — as quite clearly the best player in the world.

But I’m not sure that’s true, partly because of Garrincha, Alfredo di Stéfano, Eusébio, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Bobby Charlton, and partly because comparing players was infinitely harder. Pelé appeared on most people’s television screens only once every four years. Brazilian domestic soccer was not broadcast outside Brazil. The many, many tour games he played were dismissed as meaningless exhibitions.

At the time, I’m not sure it would have been universally agreed he was the best player on the planet. More to the point, if anyone had thought about it, I’m not sure if there was an especially convincing way to establish precisely who was.