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Saturday, 23 July 2011

Brazil - Myth, Legend or the real deal?

The Copa America - it's not going on Mano Menezes sideboard
Brazil are good. Really good. That's pretty obvious from the five World Cup stars on the shirt and the fact that they are the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game.

Here's my question, do Brazil still deserve their position as the unassailable yardstick by which all other teams are mentioned? I never saw the Brazil of Garincha and Pele play in the 60s and 70s and anything I've seen on video since is strongly influenced by their pre-existing reputation and fair enough, the Brazil team of the period looked pretty damned awesome and was a huge part of the development of the game from the 2-3-5 formations into the more modern formations of back fours and more interchangeable midfielder sand forwards. This is all well and good. but since then what has Brazil done in their role as keepers of Joga Bonito?

Obviously in the last 40 years they've won the World Cup twice and been to another final which is admirable. Italy, Argentina and Germany have also won it twice in that period and Germany have been to a total of five finals (including West Germany pre-1990). Since 1970 the game has been redefined to a greater or lesser extent by the Dutch in the 70s, Maradona's Argentina of the mid 80s and now arguably by the Spaniards of the late 2000s. The only defining contribution made by the Brazilians in that time was the side of 1982 which, while fluid and fondly remember by many including myself, never actually won anything and in many ways was responsible for the shape of the Brazilian sides to come.

Let's look at it World Cup by World Cup. In 1974 Brazil were ultimately defeated by Cruyff's Dutch side and earlier in the tournament faced the indignity of almost being beaten by Scotland and would have been had Billy Bremner been able to kick a ball into an empty net. Brazil based journalist and football sage, Tim Vickery says that the loss to the Dutch in 74 and the dominance of total football through the decade led to soul searching within the Brazilian game and led to the more scientific and statistical pragmatism shown by the Selecao from the 1990s onwards. In 78 the Brazilians again made hard work of the first group stage before eventually being dealt a coup de grace by Poland, who were a good side at the time in fairness. '82 saw the romantically remembered side of Socrates, Eder, Falcao and Junior. Ultimately even this last stand of the artistic soul of the Selecao fell to the Italians and largely the same ageing side were seen off on penalties by Platini's France at the quarter final stage in Mexico in 1986. In Mexico the Brazilians had the potent Careca playing up front and may feel had he been fit in 1982 they would have won the World Cup. 1990's Brazil was functional and like the tournament in general, disappointing. The lost in the round of 16 to the streetfighting Argentinians. 1994 saw Brazil win the World Cup for the first time in 24 years. The 1994 Brazil side was a more pragmatic, European influence side bolstered by the uncompromising Dunga in midfield and many more large, mobile midfielders. Largely gone was the artistry and fluidity of the true Brazil. Only the mercurial genius of Romario and finishing of Careca were traces of the the real Selecao. In 1998 the mantle of the leader of the Brazil was carried by Ronaldo. Ronaldo at this time was an awesome, almost elemental force, all pace and power and skill. The young Ronaldo in full flow is as close to unstoppable as I have seen. Had he not been mysteriously ill on the night of the final and a shadow of his true self perhaps Brazil could have turned back the blue tide but it seems churlish to grudge Zinedine Zidane's victory with France 98 side. 2002 in the Far East saw Ronaldo's redemption to an extent as he, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo led Brazil to their fifth World Cup. No mean achievement. 2006 saw Brazil struggle to fit Adriano, Kaka, Ronaldinho and a now slowly fading Ronaldo into a "Magic Square" and ultimately fail as the fell to Raymond Domenech's France, again at the quarter final stage. South Africa in 2010 progress was stately but faltered yet again at the quarter finals to the pantomime villains Netherlands, now a physically aggressive shadow of the total footballing heritage of the 1970s.

Following the loss to the Dutch in 2010 there was yet more soul searching by the Brazilians and Mano Menezes was appointed to take over from Dunga as coach, find Brazil's footballing identity again and, most importantly, win the World Cup on hoe soil in 2014. To this end he's brought in a lot of young talented players like Ganso and Neymar who will be the standard bearers in 2014. whether he is successful or not remains to be seen. The battle he faces is to get Brazil winning and dominant while retaining some sort of the Samba soul not really seen since 1970. Where is the soul to be found? For me it's in central midfield. Brazil's midfield over the last 25 years has been full of players like Dunga, Gilberto Silva, Mazinho, Cesar Sampaio and Felipe Melo. All fine players in their own way they reflect the change in the way Brazilian central midfield was utilised. Now the centre of the park was not used for a Socrates or Rivelino to stride forward and act as playmaker but merely to shield the central defence while the full backs charged upfield. Two defensive midfielders might win the odd tight qualifying game in Quito or Belo Horizonte but it doesn't win the hearts and minds of the masses. Tim Vickery describes this mindset during this period as the tyranny of the full back. In fairness Brazil produced many fine full backs in this period such as Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Branco but their supremacy came at the cost of the creative passing midfielder.

The jury is out on Menezes' project with Brazil having fallen to Paraguay at the Copa America as the Paraguayans try to emulate Greece of 2004 and win a tournament by playing practically no football. Menezes' squad was a mix of battle hardened veterans and raw youngsters and was clearly part of a bigger plan building towards the 2014 World Cup on home soil. The Copa was hugely forgettable for Brazil bar 45 decent minutes against Ecuador but it wont matter a jot if they lift the World Cup in three years time. 

So that's where Brazil are. Undoubtedly a fine side, in the top four or five in the world but what has the last two or three generations done to make Brazil special? The country has undoubtedly produced more ridiculously gifted players then any other but surely in the last 40 years players like Cruyff, Maradona or Zidane have done as much to light up World Cups as much as any Brazilian.

I'm not saying I expect individual players to beat five or six opponents before rounding the keeper and scoring every five minutes. The football pitch is a much smaller place now due the increase in players' size, pace and fitness but all the more reason that the little flicker of genius here and there could make the difference in what is rapidly becoming a globalised and stylistically homogeneous game. It's a tricky formula to find but if Menezes looks somewhere between the cynicism and technocracy of the last 20 years and the gallant but naive tactic of '82 he'll find a way to win, the right to claim the beautiful game and along with it the soul of Brazil.