Brazil's 'death' greatly exaggerated
With the schedule for the 2014 World Cup now announced, host Brazil knows it will kick off the tournament at 5 p.m. local time June 12 in Sao Paulo. This much is certain. Of more interest is where the team will be at 4 p.m. July 13 -- contesting the final in Rio's Maracana stadium or drowning its sorrows elsewhere.
At this point, there is no lack of pundits predicting the latter. Brazil has slipped behind the likes of Spain and Germany, and some believe even home advantage will not be enough to help the five-time world champion recapture its missing mojo. Earlier this year, British football magazine Four Four Two even proclaimed the "death of Brazil," pointing out as part of its argument that the country's outstanding players now are often defenders.
The argument is a stretch -- right back Dani Alves is more attacker than defender, for example. It also is based on a fundamental misconception of the Brazilian game, that it is some kind of Carnaval in boots, everyone more concerned with self-expression than with the result, no one worried about conceding seven goals in the belief they will score eight. Even intelligent people are sometimes seduced by this nonsense.
The truth, of course, is that many of Brazil's best players have always been defenders, from classy center back Domingos da Guia in the 1930s and '40s to successor Orlando Pecanha and left back Nilton Santos in the subsequent decades. The country's first World Cup-winning team in 1958 was the most stereotypically "Brazilian" of all, but it didn't concede a goal until the semifinal.
Part of the explanation is that Brazil pioneered the back four, dropping an extra defender to the heart of the defense. Plus, in Mario Zagallo, it had a left winger years ahead of his time, proficient at funneling back and helping out the midfield. Brazil got full value for its inspirational flair precisely because it had solved the tactician's most urgent dilemma: how to achieve a balance between attack and defense.
But there is something else in the "Brazil is dead" stuff. It is the sound of a backlash. Especially since Nike got involved some 15 years ago, Brazil has been marketed on a global basis as the spiritual guardian of the beautiful game, the team against whose aesthetic beauty all the others are held up and found wanting.
In classic ad speak, it is a case of overselling the product. Even in victory, Brazil has not hit the standards expected. Triumphs such as the 2002 World Cup featured moments of individual greatness, but the team's lack of collective flow caused many to comment on a lack of "traditional virtues." Some blame this on the exodus of players to Europe, "de-nationalizing" them in the process. In truth, it has more to do with a domestic dynamic, first planted after a shock-heavy defeat to Belgium in 1965, given huge momentum following the loss to the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup and made irreversible by the failure of the old-fashioned Brazil sides of 1982 and '86. The question was this: With the rise of northern European football and the physical evolution of the game, how can we continue to be successful?
Part of the answer was to bulk up, match the Europeans in physical terms, said Brazil's footballing technocrats, and their players' technique will tip the balance. But there also were changes in the way the game was approached. Previously it was full of intricate moves through midfield. In the future, there will be no space for such things, said the technocrats. If a move has more than seven passes, the chances of a goal are reduced, they claimed. The future lies in the counterattack, in quick breaks down the flanks. And that is how Brazil evolved. The central midfielders, once the best passers of the ball around the world, became auxiliary defenders, holding the fort while the fullbacks made their forward bursts.
When critics pointed out this would never produce the flow and the brio of old, the technocrats said the physical evolution of the game could not be turned back. There was no alternative.
And then along came Barcelona/Spain. Brazilian football had become dominated by the idea that the central midfielders should stand 6 feet tall. But here were little Xavi and Andres Iniesta running rings round all comers. And the counterattack stuff and the idea that passing was a problem were refuted by Barcelona on a weekly basis.
Current Brazil boss Mano Menezes is living the aftermath of this bombshell, his position made more difficult by the fact that his team is hosting the next World Cup.
The side taken by predecessor Dunga to South Africa was the maximum point Brazil had reached in terms of dependence on the set piece and the counterattack. This was tolerated while results were good, but a bad 45 minutes (the second half against the Netherlands in the quarterfinal) was enough for the public to turn against the project.
As soon as he took over, Menezes made it clear that Brazil would have to come up with something more expansive and eye-catching in 2014. First, because very few teams will push forward against the host and give it the chance to launch the counter. Second, because gaining full value from home advantage means giving the public what it wants -- something, as Menezes said, more in harmony with the traditional values of Brazilian football.
So there has been an attempt at a change of direction, but without the raw material to put it into practice with immediate success. One of the lessons of the 18 months of the Menezes reign is that Brazil cannot conjure up a Xavi and an Iniesta from nowhere. It takes time for changes to work through.
Huge hopes were placed on Santos playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso -- prematurely as we saw during the Copa America. If he can shrug off his injuries, Ganso has time on his side and a great deal of talent. But also plenty to learn about when to attempt the killer ball and when to retain possession. The Brazilian media did him no favors by building him up as the finished article.
Last time out, in one of the most impressive displays under Menezes, Brazil came from behind to beat Mexico. Ronaldinho, in a deeper role than usual, did a fine job of orchestrating possession. But will he still be able to do something similar in nearly three years?
This, then, is a fascinating moment to follow Brazil, to observe how it copes with a transitional period. It certainly has a lot of work ahead, but there are hopeful signs in the current Brazilian Championship. And plenty of time for new faces to push through.
Dismissing Brazil's 2014 chances would seem reckless in the extreme.
Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.