The Brazil federation has been confused about its priority—winning or playing beautiful football.
When Rishi found out that Vinicius Junior was not going to be part of the Under-17 World Cup in India, he nearly had a heart attack. No, he was not one of the thousands of Brazilian fans in football-crazy Kerala, and his knowledge of the beautiful game was limited.
He makes a living selling football merchandise outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, and his instincts told him the sale would dip following the no show of the teen superstar.
Rishi need not have worried. He made brisk sales on October 7, when Brazil played their opening match against Spain in Kochi. High in demand were yellow jersies carrying the name of Vinicius Junior. “People did not care whose name was on the back,” said Rishi. “They just wanted a Brazil jersey.”
Egged on by loud supporters, Brazil topped their group, despite lacking the fluid moves of the teams of the past. Brazil stillbrings a lot of emotions on to the field, even though their brand of football has changed with the times. The English may have invented football, but the Brazilians made it their own. They elevated dribbling to an art, employing a myriad of tricks and feints to glide past baffled opponents.
In the process, they also became the most successful national team in the world. Five World Cups, on four continents. The first country to win the World Cup outside its home continent. The only national team to have qualified for all the World Cups so far without needing play-offs. A staggering 67 per cent wins in World Cup matches. The statistics speak their own tale. But the glory of the seleção seems to have diminished of late. They are no longer the force they used to be.
As much was evident in Brazil’s last two matches in the U-17 World Cup. In the semifinal against England, Brazil lost focus after going 2-1 down in the 41st minute. They hardly gave the English defenders any problems in the second half. The third-place game was even worse, though the team beat Mali 2-0. Mali had 27 shots, while a lethargic, uninspired Brazil managed only eight.
“We had the worst match of the tournament,” said coach Carlos Amadeu. “We prepared for two years and this was our worst show. We were very lucky. Mali was the better team. We wanted to show the Brazil style of football but we failed.”
Brazilian football has always been different. It has never been just a game. Football had a vital role in promoting social inclusion in the country. Brazil was one of the last countries in the world to formally abolish slavery in 1888. In the years immediately after the abolition of slavery, the elite class launched a movement called branquemento, meaning ‘whitening’ in Portuguese. (It included inviting white immigrants to Brazil.) Afro-Brazilian history and culture were expunged from school books. An ethnic group was being systematically sidelined.
Unknown to the suffering former slaves, their redemption was sailing across the Atlantic aboard the S.S. Magdalena. Charles William Miller was returning to the home of his parents (British expatriates) in São Paulo, after completing his education in England. In his trunk were two deflated leather footballs and a football rulebook.
He disembarked at the port of Santos in October 1894, taught people the rules of football and helped form Brazil’s first league. Initially played among the elites, the game slowly spread to the streets. By the early 1900s, football had become popular among the masses. Arthur Friedenreich, son of a German expatriate and an Afro-Brazilian woman, was the first sporting superstar of African descent in Brazil. Friedenreich’s goal-scoring prowess helped Brazil win two South American Championships in 1919 and 1922. But Brazilian society was not yet ready to accept a black player and, in desperation, Friedenreich started applying rice powder on his skin in the hope of gaining more acceptance.
The racial divisions truly began to break down in the 1930s during the populist regime of dictator Getúlio Dornelles Vargas. Hoping to get the support of the masses, he promoted Samba—a dance form then associated with the poor—and endorsed Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. Eventually, these two cultural elements contributed immensely to the skill, ingenuity and spontaneity of Brazilian footballers. Under Vargas, football became inclusive.
The mixed-race national team impressed at the 1938 World Cup, finishing third. Brazilian journalist Gilberto Freyre wrote that the flair the Afro-Brazilian players brought to the team was the reason European sides struggled to defend against Brazil. A majority of Brazilians now wanted the best to play for their national team, not the whitest.
In 1958, Brazil went to Sweden and swept aside all opposition to win their first World Cup, thanks to the exploits of Afro-Brazilian players such as midfielder Didi, who was chosen as the tournament’s best player, winger Garrincha, who was nicknamed alegria do povo—joy of the people—and a 17-year-old Pele. The world took note of the Brazilian way of playing football and it came to be called o jogo bonito (the beautiful game).
Brazil continued to mesmerise the football world for decades. Even when they failed to win tournaments, they won the hearts of fans the world over. A perfect example was in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Led by Sócrates, and featuring Serginho, Zico and Falcão, the team was praised for playing the game the right way against Italy’s famed catenaccio (the chain) defensive tactic in the last match of the second round (the format had two group stages instead of a round of 16 and quarterfinal). They needed only a draw to progress to the semifinal, but even as the game approached its last quarter at 2-2, Brazil continued to press for a winning goal. Wave after wave of Brazilian attack crashed against the Italian defensive line and one such attack led to an opening for Italy on the counter-attack. Paolo Rossi promptly tucked away his third goal of the game to settle the contest and eliminate Brazil.
Brazil did win, in 1994 and 2002. However amid the celebrations, there were also traces of discontent. The defensive tactics used by the two World Cup-winning coaches Carlos Alberto Parreira and Luiz Felipe Scolari were crticised by some. For any other team, mixed reactions to bringing a World Cup home would have been unimaginable. But this was Brazil. And fans world over expected Brazil to not only win, but also to entertain.
Now, under new coach Tite, Brazil is playing a more entertaining brand of football. The team sailed through the qualifiers to become the first team other than hosts Russia to book their place at the 2018 World Cup.
According to Novy Kapadia, India’s leading football journalist and author of The Football Fanatic’s Essential Guide, the perpetual problem in Brazil is that people keep comparing the current players with the legendary teams of 1970 or 1982. “Those were dream teams which are probably never going to come back. So it is very unfair. The teams are under so much pressure.”
Moreover, the Brazil federation has been confused about its priority—winning or playing beautiful football. Parreira, Dunga and Scolari—defensive coaches—all have had more than one stint with the national team. “There is constant debate about whether they should play attractive football or focus on winning,” said Kapadia. “And the federation’s differing philosophies led to an identity crisis.”
Brazilians are in denial about the decline of their national team. Journalist Richard Souza of TV Globo, who covered the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India, was incensed by the suggestion that the seleção was not what they used to be. “We have Neymar,” he said defiantly. Yes, but other than Neymar, which world class player do they have? “Dani Alves, Marcelo, Thiago Silva...,” he rattled off in his thick Portuguese accent. But they are all defensive players. Where are Brazil’s famed attackers? Every year there is talk of a new star coming through the ranks. But only Neymar has lived up to the billing in the past decade.
One of the major reasons being cited for this lack of quality attackers is the relatively recent phenomenon of young Brazilian strikers moving abroad. “Earlier a lot of players used to develop in Brazil, now they are moving too early,” said Kapadia. This leads to their game being developed outside the Brazilian culture.
Asked about the influence of the global football market on the Brazilian game, Amadeu said that the effect of players getting a taste of other football cultures was not entirely negative. “Everything affects everything,” he told THE WEEK. “We are affecting them and they are affecting us. But it can be positive for us. We are learning another way of playing. Another tactical organisation.” But he admitted that it would be better if the players stayed in Brazil until they are 25 or 26. “But we have to understand the world is changing because of globalisation,” said Amadeu. “It is a market, and Europe has the money.”
The average salary of a football player in the top flight in England is around £50,000 (about Rs 42 lakh) a week. In other major European leagues this is about ¤25,000 (about Rs 19 lakh). In China, while the average is lower, clubs have made headlines with the millions they have offered to foreign players. In comparison, top flight players in Brazil earn an average wage of less than $3,000 a week (about Rs 2 lakh).
Another important factor affecting Brazilian football could be the “loss of the streets” as Amadeu put it. Street football, which shaped many a Brazilian legend, contributes immensely to the spontaneity of footballers. While their counterparts in Europe were playing on even grounds, the boys in Brazil were dribbling up steep slopes, navigating obstacles along the way.
“Brazilian players are suffering as a consequence of all the things happening in our country,” said Amadeu. “Some years ago, we had freedom to play on the streets. To play an independent style of football. But now there is drugs and violence on the streets.”
Asked whether this is leading to a lack in the traditional Brazilian flair, Amadeu said: “We still have it. We have continued [the traditions] Samba, Brazilian culture, carnival....” But the flair is lower than earlier, he said, because of the violence and also because of virtual games. “We have many virtual games now,” said Amadeu. “People are more inside [their] homes, than outside. But it [the flair] is something that, if you stimulate, you still have for Brazil, more than in other countries.”
And as a coach, how do you stimulate that flair? “When we coach them, we try to show them that they have some characteristics different from other players in the world [because they are Brazilians],” Amadeu said. “Particularly in attack. We try to teach them to think above the game. To analyse opponents. To be cleverer on the pitch.”
Another challenge in training Brazilians is their temperament. “We Brazilians are really emotional,” he said. “When we win, when things are going good, we are really happy. And when we lose or when things are not as we thought they were going to be, we become sad and we cry.” So what we are trying to tell this team, said Amadeu, is to have a balanced mind. “They have to be grounded. Never think that they are more than they are or less than they are.”
There was considerable pressure on the U-17 team that came to India. Said defensive midfielder Victor Bobsin as the team trained on October 9: “[If we win the U-17 World Cup] it will make a difference. Because here are some of the future players from the national squad. It will make the Brazilian public more confident about the future. And who knows, the future could be the consequence of what we do here.” Ominous, considering what transpired.
“They [the current Brazil team] are not the skilful players of the 1970s or 1980s,” said Kapadia. “But we have to understand that football has changed. Everything is standardised now.” The current Brazil team, he said, is doing well. “It is much better than it was in 2014. The new coach has brought through exciting new players like Gabriel Jesus and has given them the freedom to play. This team has promise.”
Souza also said that he was impressed with the national team’s performance. “The record is similar to what we had in 2010 under Dunga. But that was boring. The current team is playing good football.”
WITH REUBEN JOE JOSEPH/Kolkata