Barca solidifies claim as world's best
It was the moment when reality bit contemporary Brazilian football on the backside. Barcelona's 4-0 win over Santos -- I dread to think how many the Blaugrana could have scored -- did not only win the Club World Cup. It was also the moment when not even the most fervent Brazilian nationalist could doubt that the mantle has changed hands. Once Brazil was the spiritual home of the beautiful game. Beyond all question, that honor has crossed the Atlantic to Catalonia.
The Club World Cup final was never truly a matter of being Lionel Messi against Neymar. Before the game, Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas revealed how the Spanish champions would protect themselves against Neymar -- ensuring that, as in all its games, the opposition hardly has possession of the ball. True to his word, Barcelona went out and imposed its collective philosophy on the game, something to which Santos had no answer.
If in Neymar the South American champions could count on their own version of Messi, Santos had no one of the quality of a Xavi or an Andres Iniesta. This is no coincidence. First in football comes the idea. And the dominant strain in Brazilian football over recent years has been thinking on the following lines: The physical development of the game and the reduction of space on the field mean that the central midfielders should be 6-foot, and that if the move contains seven or more passes, the chances of a goal are reduced.
In this context, it is no surprise that Brazil has not been producing Xavis and Iniestas. It has not been looking for them. It has been searching for big, defensively inclined central midfielders to block the middle of the field (think Gilberto Silva) and flying athletic attacking fullbacks to launch counterattacks down the flanks.
The high priest of this kind of thinking is Santos coach Muricy Ramalho, who guided Sao Paulo to three straight Brazilian championships (2006-08) and led Fluminense to the title last year. His teams have traditionally been based on counterattacks and set pieces. "If you want to see a spectacle," he likes to say, "then go to the theater."
Or go to watch his team surgically taken apart by Barcelona. Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas ran midfield rings around Santos, toying with the Brazilian side as if in a training exercise. The first half was every bit as one-sided as Barcelona's midweek stroll against Asian champion Al Sadd -- with the difference that the size of its ambition and the scale of its dreams left Santos looking sadder. Pep Guardiola's men proved, as they do week after week, that Brazilian football needs to have a rethink. Especially at this moment, when money is abundant.
In recent years, the South American champions have won the Copa Libertadores in the middle of the year and arrived weakened at the Club World Cup because key players had been sold leading up to the year-end competition. This was not the case of Santos. In comparison with the team that beat Penarol of Uruguay in June, the side arguably arrived in Japan stronger. Neymar has been retained, striker Borges and midfielders Henrique and Ibson acquired.
Sunday's match was not decided by a financial imbalance. It was the imposition of one footballing philosophy over another, a victory for the skillful little guys with the low center of gravity, a triumph for the spectacle and self-expression of the pass-and-move approach -- a win like many that South American football has enjoyed in its glorious history.
Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.
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