THE ROOTS OF BRAZILIAN SOCCER’S IMPLOSION

Luiz

Brazilians like to distinguish between futebol arte and futebol resultados, soccer of art and soccer of results, but for the last 32 years the people running Brazilian soccer have maintained that it is no longer possible to play the beautiful game. Perhaps Carlos Alberto, who managed Brazil to their 1994 World Cup triumph, after a dreadful 0-0 draw with Italy in the final, expressed the prevailing orthodoxy most succinctly: “Magic and dreams are finished in football.”

The point, Parreira argued, is that Brazil cannot afford the luxury of playing artistically when the rest of the world is satisfied with just grinding out results: “History doesn’t talk about the beautiful game but about champions. Why do we have to play beautiful football and the others don’t?  If we can play the beautiful game we will do that but we want to be the champions.”

The assumption underlying Parreira’s claim is that Brazil had a choice, between art and pragmatism, one that other countries would or could not entertain. Brazil had to turn its back on being stylish because the rest of the world was so mundane.

Brazil continued to win, and Brazilians and the rest of the world largely clung to a myth–that Brazil was a cut above everyone else–until Tuesday. Brazil did not lose 7-1 to Germany because their artistic aspirations were exposed as naive. Germany, the nation most associated with efficiency and instrumental rationality, had better passers, subtler movement, more creativity–vastly superior attacking players. Brazil didn’t have Neymar, and without him they were bankrupt, bereft of ideas.

The fact that a nation with a population approaching 200m, that is obsessed with soccer, that has produced more talented attacking players than any other, has exactly one player who can invent the game is not an accident. It is the result of 40 years of corruption, arrogance, neglect, and a horribly misguided philosophical turn.

The face of Brazil’s rise to soccer prominence in the late 1950s was Pelé, a free spirit named Garrincha, who appeared to be more concerned with having fun than winning, and a samba-like attacking rhythm. But the reality was more complex. Their tactics were revolutionary and their preparation was incredibly professional. Opponents were thoroughly scouted; the planning of their trip to Sweden for the ’58 World Cup was detailed to a fault; the medical needs of the players were attended to for the first time in many of their lives; and the selectors even employed a team psychologist.

The battle lines were effectively drawn then. The psychologist João Carvalhais did not think the manager Vicente Feola should select either Pelé or Garrincha: The tests Carvalhais administered, which he honed on bus drivers, led him to conclude that the 17-year-old Pele was ‘obviously infantile’ and that Garrincha, who could not even fill out the forms correctly, had ‘zero aggression’ and was not fit to be a bus driver.

Feola decided Pelé was sufficiently mature and that Garrincha was fit to be a soccer player, Brazil won two World Cups, and became the global symbol of the idea that soccer could still be a game and make everyone who wasn’t Argentinean smile.

Carvalhais may have been rebuffed and for a time Brazil seemed to strike the perfect balance between work and play, fitness and skill, organization and spontaneity. But the professional back room staff kept advancing their agenda. The fear expressed was always the same: small Brazilian players, however skillful and creative, are not going to be able to compete with bigger, stronger, faster, fitter, more tactically organized, cautious, and disciplined Europeans.

The result was a search for a new kind of player. Certainly, there was no place for a Garrincha, who was ‘impervious to instruction’ and ‘just does whatever is going through his head at the time’. The deep-lying creative midfielders also vanished, replaced by robust men who could carry pianos and take games and opponents by the scruff of the neck.

At the same time, the Brazilian national league descended into corruption and incompetence. Teams scheduled 90 games a year, nearly double the number played by European clubs, and transferred players at an astonishing rate. By the late 90s more than 50 fouls were committed in the average match. Winning now required players who were incredibly fit and could withstand constant physical challenges. Games were won by the teams that were well organized, played directly, took advantage of set pieces, and were pragmatic to the point of being cynical.

Up until recently Brazil was still producing more than its share of creative players, but most of them were attackers, not deep-lying midfielders. And the emphasis was now on controlling games and waiting patiently for opportunities to counter-attack.

Eventually, even the Brazilian well was bound to run dry.

Whenever the idealists asked why paradise was lost, the realists reminded us that futebol arte was no longer possible. Even when evidence to the contrary was clearly on offer. Spain had won the 2008 European championships but the prevailing view in Brazil was that they could not possibly win the 2010 World Cup because of their reliance on 5′ 7″, 150 pound, ball-playing midfielders.

The fact that Spain won in South Africa and added the 2012 European championships did not change anyone’s mind. Brazil assumed it was superior, appointed a management team that stuck with the tried and true emphasis on physical everything, and refused to even consider the idea that there was another way of interpreting the way the sport had evolved.

The irony is that the two most successful teams in Europe have moved in the opposite direction. The Spanish changed, abandoning fury for tiki-taka; the bull came to see the wisdom of becoming the bull fighter. And the Germans went through an even more dramatic transformation. They completely overhauled a system, from the youth level to the national team, that had been in place for 40-plus years and placed an unprecedented emphasis on producing skillful players.

The good news is that Brazil can also overhaul their system and way of thinking. But they will have to overcome organizational barriers, such as reducing the number of domestic matches by shortening or eliminating state competitions. They will have to overhaul the youth academies, which have fallen well behind the ones in Europe. And they will have to open the door to the possibility that getting results and playing artistically can still be reconciled.

In other words, Brazil needs to learn, or relearn, what it taught the world in 1958.

–Ken Pendleton