The transfer of Brazilian Dunga and Pisa is a tale of a player trying to make his name in Europe alongside a team fighting for a consistent place in Serie A.
Dunga was a combative holding midfielder. His stocky stature and work rate meant he was a different style of player compared to his compatriots. In addition, his short and stocked physique earned him the un-endearing nickname ‘Dopey’ (in reference to a character from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).
In the 1980s, the Brazil national team had tonnes of flair. The likes of Zico, Sócrates, and Falcão produced attacking magic at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.
However, while the Seleção creators were gaining the plaudits, Dunga was plying his trade in Brazil’s Série A. In the 1980s, Dunga broke onto the scene for Internacional before representing Corinthians, Santos, and Vasco da Gama.
By the summer of 1987, the midfielder had represented the Brazil national team at the under-20s 1983 World Cup and the 1984 Olympics. But the time had come for Dunga to move to Europe so he could establish himself as a regular Seleção.
Dunga’s need for regular first-team football in Europe coincided perfectly with a budding Pisa side in desperate need of the midfielder’s expertise.
Dunga and Pisa: Desperate to Establish Themselves
Pisa spent much of the 1980s bouncing between Serie A and Serie B. The side struggled to remain in the top flight for consecutive seasons and they experienced some calamitous spells in Serie A. Their 1983/84 season ended in relegation after just three wins across the entire campaign.
Pisa moved up and down from Serie A to Serie B again for the next three seasons. But the club planned ahead for the 1987/88 season with smarter recruitment and foreign reinforcements.
Dunga topped the list for manager Giuseppe Materazzi (the father of future Azzurri World Champion Marco). The midfielder’s defensive approach and work rate in the heart of the midfield were key qualities. As a result, he was well-suited for Pisa’s quest to avoid relegation for a third time during the 1980s.
Later in his career, Dunga would be scolded by Brazilian journalists for the less than attractive “Dunga Era”, referencing the move from the free-flowing football of Seleção in the 80s to the more counter-attacking combative approach led by Dunga in the 90s. But Pisa needed these skills in abundance.
Pisa finalized the transfer in July 1987. Dunga then moved away from Brazil for the first time in his career. In hindsight, it was an essential move that enhanced his profile on the international stage.
An Unsettling First Season of Ups and Downs
Early in the 1987/88 campaign, expectations were low for Pisa and Dunga. The Nerazzurri lost their first four games of the campaign and another relegation loomed.
Unsurprisingly, Materazzi threw Dunga straight into midfield, but the Brazilian struggled to find form. He was even subbed off in a 3-1 opening-day loss against Milan. Then he was left out of the squad in a 2-0 loss against Napoli three games into the season.
Ultimately, Dunga’s omission from the team motivated him, and the Brazilian returned in top form. Between October and early January, Dunga was a key figure in a crucial 11-match spell, where Pisa won three and drew five.
During this run, Dunga started every game to boost the Nerazzurri’s survival chances. In addition, he produced one of his most memorable moments in a Pisa shirt. Inter visited Arena Garibaldi after Pisa had secured their first win of the season at Empoli. Pisa led in the first half and Dunga spectacularly sealed the points with a stunning long-range strike that proved decisive in an eventual 2-1 victory.
It was clear that Dunga was well-suited to the defensive nature of Serie A in the 80s. However, after a promising spell, another dip in form followed.
Dunga was sent off during a 1-0 loss against Milan to cap a six-match winless run. Inevitably, he was suspended and then struggled to get back into the starting lineup. His injury during a 1-1 draw with Roma further impacted his 1987/88 season.
Pisa lacked the midfielder’s leadership and grit in the following spell. The Nerazzurri took just four points from their next six. Luckily, Dunga was fit enough to play the final five matches of the campaign. Sensationally, Pisa avoided relegation by winning twice and drawing four of their remaining matches.
Opposite Paths: The End of Dunga and Pisa
Despite Dunga’s ups and downs in his first season of Italian football, he showed enough promise to draw interest from the league’s bigger teams. Fiorentina were a team on the up under Sven-Göran Eriksson and the Viola decided to take a chance on the budding Dunga.
It was a decisive move and Dunga propelled his domestic and international career after the transfer. The Brazilian eventually featured over 150 times for Fiorentina and had a stellar career for the Brazil national team, despite his lack of flair.
Throughout his career, Dunga won the World Cup in 1994, the Copa America twice, and the Confederations Cup. He is also one of just two players ever to play in a World Cup final, an Olympic final, a Confederations Cup final, and a continental championship final.
While Dunga went on to achieve incredible things at the international level, Pisa’s future took an opposing route. The Brazilian’s departure in 1988 was critical for the Nerazzurri, who could not replace Dunga’s determination and defensive solidity. In the following campaign, Pisa were relegated once again to Serie B after finishing six points inside the relegation places.
Other than one more promotion back to the top flight in 1990, Pisa’s subsequent future has been tainted by more relegation and heartbreak. The club has not played in Serie A since 1991 and has been stuck in Italy’s lower leagues ever since.
Dunga’s departure may not have been the deciding factor in Pisa’s fall down the divisions. But his one-season impact on the club in 1987/88 was monumental in securing rare Serie A safety.