* Menezes sacked as Brazil look for fresh start
* New coach to be chosen in early January
* Scolari, Ramalho and Braga among favourites (re-casts)
By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Brazil fired Mano Menezes on Friday, little more than 18 months before the country hosts the 2014 World Cup and just as the coach seemed close to finding his ideal team after two years of experimenting.
The five-times world champions have won six of their last eight games, scoring 26 goals in the process, and the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) said the surprise decision had little to do with results.
“I don’t think it was for negative results, if that was the case he could have been fired last year,” national teams director Andres Sanchez told a news conference in Sao Paulo. “It was that the president (Jose Maria Marin) wants to change the way things are done.”
Sanchez, who hired Menezes and is a close friend, himself disagreed with the decision.
“I don’t think we should be changing tack at this time, but I was overruled,” he said.
Menezes had been facing almost continual speculation about his future for the last year, but recent performances appeared to have lifted the pressure.
His last match was a friendly away to Argentina on Wednesday when they lost 2-1 in a match featuring only home-based players.
A new coach will be chosen in early January, Sanchez added, with Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to their fifth world title in 2002, among the favourites to take over.
Menezes replaced Dunga shortly after Brazil’s quarter-final exit at the 2010 World Cup and immediately began a complete overhaul of the team, which included moving them away from their physical and counter-attacking style.
In 40 games, Menezes’s side won 27, lost seven and drew six, according to his official website (www.manomenezes.com.br).
Although some performances were unconvincing, Menezes’s extensive experimenting appeared to be bearing fruit in the last few weeks, as they clocked up a 6-0 win over Iraq, a 4-0 demolition of in-form Japan and a 3-0 win over Sweden.
The pairing of Paulinho and Ramires in front of the defence has brought creativity to roles which were purely destructive under Dunga, while the attacking combination of Oscar, Neymar and Hulk is one of the best in the world.
With Thiago Silva in commanding form at the centre of defence and Kaka back to provide some experience, the team was starting to look more robust and dangerous.
Many felt that Menezes was in an impossible situation as many of the friendlies arranged by the CBF were against lightweight opponents such as South Africa, China, Gabon and Iraq, where his team had nothing to win.
But they fared badly against established sides, losing to Germany, Argentina and Mexico.
Brazil also performed poorly at last year’s Copa America, losing on penalties to Paraguay in the quarter-finals, and in the Olympics, when his under-23 team were beaten by Mexico in the final in London.
Although he brought a quiet elegance to the team set up off the field, the former Corinthians boss was not universally popular and was even booed by his own fans in recent months.
When they struggled to a 1-0 win at home to South Africa in Sao Paulo in September, fans jeered Menezes and striker Neymar. Some of them celebrated Menezes’s demise on Friday.
“This is a good day for Brazilians. Now we can win,” said psychologist Sergio Gomes, giving a thumbs-up sign of approval at a bar in the capital Brasilia.
Former Brazil great Romario also lauded the decision, calling it “overdue” and “a historic day in which Brazil should be letting off fireworks and partying.”
Menezes made a brief statement on Twitter thanking the players and staff and wishing the squad the best of luck.
“I wish every success to the Brazilian national side in fulfilling the fans’ dream of winning the World Cup for a sixth time in 2014,” he said.
Among those mentioned to take over include Scolari, Tite, who took Corinthians to the Copa Libertadores title earlier this year, Muricy Ramalho, who turned down the job before Menezes and is now Santos coach and Abel Braga, who recently led Fluminense to the Brazilian championship title.
Although Sanchez said he was opposed to a foreign coach, some commentators have suggested that Brazil should attempt to hire former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola.
Whoever takes the helm in January will face intense pressure. One previous manager famously said Brazil is a country where every man, woman and child thinks they can do a better job coaching the national team than the coach.
The new coach’s first game will come against England at Wembley on Feb. 6.
Four months later Brazil host the Confederations Cup, the team’s only competitive matches before they open the World Cup in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014. (Additional reporting by Tatiana Ramil, Pedro Fonseca, Anthony Boadle and Asher Levine; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)