Brazil: Top Dogs

Historically, Brazil are the top dogs of the game of football.  They are the only team to have participated in every World Cup.  They have won it five times, finished second twice, and made the semi-finals three times.  The World Cup is Brazil’s ‘thing’—the entire country is obsessed with it and Brazilian players care about it more than their club football or any other personal or team honor.  Since the 1960’s, the nation has come to define itself and gain its global pride from football.

The passion that Brazilians have for the game is something else.  I can’t claim to have watched live football everywhere in the world, but I’ve watched it in several places and I know that nothing at all can compare to the electrifying atmosphere of the Maracana, the world’s greatest stadium.  I’ve been to the Maracana five times in my life; three times to watch domestic Rio de Janeiro matches (including the Rio derby of Flamnego vs Fluminense) and twice to watch the Brazilian national team in the 1989 Copa America.  For as long as I live I will never forget the feeling I felt the moment I entered the Maracana for the first time. The gorgeous pitch surrounded by thousands of colorful fans and the deafening noise made my heart skip a beat.  I was hooked on the game from that moment.

Brazil’s first World Cup win only came in 1958.  They were favorites in 1938, but were eliminated in the semi-final after foolishly resting their best player the tournament’s top scorer Leonidas.  In 1950, it was considered a done deal that they would clinch the cup in the newly inaugurated Maracana, only for the Uruguayans to shock them in one of football’s biggest upsets (which you can read about in my Uruguay preview).

But in 1958 Brazil had a young kid join the team who was a bit special.  17-year-old Pele had barely been a footballer for a couple of years when he was picked for the World Cup, but he did not disappoint, scoring six goals, including two in the final against Sweden.  He did not look out of place alongside an already great team that contained Bellini, Mario Zagallo, Didi, Vava and the mesmerizing winger Garrincha.  Garrincha, of course, is another of the greats of Brazilian football.  He was born to a dirt-poor family in Rio, and had severe physical problems at birth.  Physically and mentally he couldn’t develop healthily.  Initially, doctors suspected he would not be able to walk, and as a full-grown adult, one of his feet was a full six inches taller than the other.  One would think that would be a hindrance to a footballer, but Garrincha succeeded in turning it into a blessing, building his entire gameplay around his deceiving turns of pace and tricky running.  He remains a unique enigma—a man of genius and superb physical achievement on the pitch, despite physical and mental deformities that were to destroy his life off the pitch.

With Garrincha and Pele in top form, the Brazilians finally exorcised their Uruguayan ghosts, and became, to this day, the only team from South America or Europe to win a World Cup in the other continent.

Brazil were to repeat their success four years later in Chile, with Garincha this time being the superstar of the cup after Pele was injured early on.

Brazil disappointed in 1966, getting eliminated in the first round after a thoroughly violent kicking from the Portuguese team. But the Brazilians would be back in 1970 with one of the best teams in the history of the World Cup.  Coached by Mario Zagallo (who was a player in the 1958 and 1962 victories) the team was built around Pele and contained an amazing array of talent all across.  It was this team more than any other that has given Brazil their magical billing as the wizards of football.  In attack, Brazil had the clinical Jairzinho, who remains the only player to ever score in all his World Cup matches up to the final, alongside the great Rivelino, Tostao, and Pele.

The Brazilians marched to the final in emphatic style, where they came up against an Italian team composed of some of the best players in Europe.  The weather and altitude may have helped the Brazilians, but there was no denying the comprehensive victory which Brazil achieved by winning 4-1. Having won it three times, Brazil got to keep the Jules Rimet trophy forever.  The team became synonymous with footballing perfection.

But after 1970 Brazilian football went into the doldrums.  Their 1974 team was defeated solidly by the magnificent Dutch of Johan Cruyff.  In 1978, Brazil claim (rather persuasively) to have been cheated out of a World Cup final place by the Argentine hosts and their generous Peruvian opponents. The second round at that time was a group round where the top team for each group qualifies for the final.  Brazil had almost sealed their spot in the final, unless Argentina were to beat Peru by more than 4 goals in their last gial.  The Peruvians seem to have been excessively helpful to the Argentines, particularly their Argentine-born goalkeeper who did not seem very interested in stopping the Argentines from scoring.  The role of the Argentine military junta in the 1978 World Cup remains one that arouses plenty of suspicion.

But then in 1982 the Brazilians gave the world another great side, one that is rated by many as the greatest team ever.  With the incredible talents of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Julio Cesar, and Eder Brazil were expected to walk the World Cup.  They dazzled the world with their intricate passing game and preposterous skill, giving the worldwide TV audience further reason to adore Brazilian football.  And as if people needed more reason to hate Italian football, the Italian team, which on paper seemed no match for the Brazilians, somehow managed to defeat Brazil in the second-round thanks to a hat-trick by Paolo Rossi—fresh out of jail for match-fixing.  The good Doctor Socrates and his teammates trudged back home in one of the greatest disappointments in football history—good had demolished evil; ugliness had battered beauty.

But beauty was back in 1986, adamant on getting revenge, but again it was thwarted, this time by the French European champions of Michel Platini—on penalties in a memorable quarter-final regarded as one of the classic matches of the World Cup.  This was the end of the third great Brazilian generation, and they had failed to win the World Cup.  It was a bitter blow that continues to haunt the likes of Zico to this day.

The 1990 team was not as spectacular as the ‘82 and ’86 ones, but was still something special.  It had the remnants of the ’86 generation in it (Careca, Alemao) as well as some young blood which would be back in 1994 (Dunga, Jorginho, Branco).  They won their three matches in the first round convincingly, but because of the wretched form of Argentina in the first round (barely sneaking through as one of the third-place ranked teams) they were drawn against them in the second round.  Brazil went into the game on fire.  They laid siege to the Argentine goal, looked set to hit a dozen goals, and they hit the woodwork on several occasions.  And yet, somehow, the Argentines survived all the pressure.  And somehow, Diego Maradona managed to run with the ball in one of his rare ventures into the Brazilian half.  He ran and drew five Brazilian players to him, and then slid the ball to Claudio Caniggia who slotted it home. Brazil continued to bombard the Argentines, but to no avail.  Somehow an awful Argentine side had managed to defeat the excellent Brazilians.  If there was ever an unjust game in football, this was it.

Brazil’s excellent left-back, Branco, was sick and helpless during the match, and several players reported not feeling too well.  For years, there had been suspicion that the Argentines had spiked water bottles and gave them to Brazilian players to drink from them.  A few years ago, when he got his own TV show, Diego Maradona hosted Pele for a frank discussion, during which Pele asked Maradona about this incident.  Maradona openly admitted that in fact the Argentines did spike the Brazilians’ water.

And so Brazil went from disappointment to disappointment, for twenty-four years failing to win the World Cup.  It’s worth noting here that even through this supposedly bad period of Brazilian football, Brazil were probably cheated out of two World Cups, and were twice very unlucky to lose out when they should have done better. Not too bad for a disastrous era, if you think of it, and only goes to underscore the greatness of Brazilian football.

But this was to all change with the emergence of the great Romario, who led the team to victory in 1994.  Brazil were coached by Carlos Albero Parreira, who was widely criticized as the man who killed the beautiful Brazilian game for the sake of a pragmatic defensively solid game.  Parreira was widely hated in Brazil, and everyone expected that the Brazilians couldn’t win while playing like Europeans.  But that was unfair.  With the excellent Mauro Silva and Dunga calling the shots in the center of midfield, and the substitute central defenders of Aldair and Marcio Santos playing like Italians, Brazil had the platform to allow Romario, Bebeto, Rai, Mazinho, Zinho and the full-backs Leonardo, Branco and Jorginho to dazzle.  Even the goalkeeper Taffarel played well—a first for a Brazilian goalkeeper! Brazil had modernized, they had not become ugly.

Brazil was finally back.  After 24 years dominated by Germany and Argentina, Brazil returned and won the cup for an unprecedented fourth time. This marked the beginning of the current Brazilian epoch where everyone thinks of Brazil as the indomitable force of football, while marketing executive treat the team as a cross between the Harlem Globetrotters and Britney Spears.

One particular sportswear company (whose real name I will not mention since they have too many lawyers and are unafraid to use them… let’s just call them Mike) became the practical owner of the Brazilian team in the mid-1990’s.  Mario Zagallo (yes, the same one), who was assistant coach in 1994, returned to take charge of the team, and seemed quite happy to outsource half his job to the hyper commercialized bandwagon of Mike.

Picking players stopped being a matter of building a proper balanced team, but rather an exercise in promoting young players for sale in Europe and hawking Mike boots.  In the year leading up to the 1998 World Cup, the Brazilian national team was a global circus pitching up in every corner of the world to play lucrative promotional matches for Mike.  Stadiums everywhere from Thailand to Kuwait to Guatemala were added to the players’ itineraries. This took its toll on the players’ fitness, and was causing them burn out.  The great young emerging talent of Ronaldo, who was excelling with Barcelona and Inter, was the center-piece of Brazil’s marketing image, and was dragged all over the world for these charades on top of his already heavy European league schedule.

The sad and inevitable result was that the players arrived at the 1998 World Cup burned out physically and mentally.  The Brazilian team was a shadow of the 1994 side.  They had Ronaldo upfront who could score goals at will, but had hardly any other functioning parts in the side.  Romario, who had been on terrific form leading to the World Cup, was excluded after suffering a small injury.  The incident continues to cause acrimony in Brazilian football circles.  It was Zagallo’s assistant, Zico, who had lobbied to eliminate Romario, causing Romario to immortalize the two with a wonderful toilet decoration job in his Rio de Janeiro restaurant that featured Zico holding toilet paper, ready to use it, while Zagallo sat on the toilet.

Now, I am personally completely and utterly biased to Romario, so take this with a giant dollop of salt.  The best way to understand what happened is that it was Zico’s jealousy of Romario that motivated him to pressure Zagallo, who was already old and losing it, to drop Romario.  Zico comes from the great generation that blew three chances of winning the World Cup in ’78, ’82 and ’86.  And just after Zico retired, Romario dragged Brazil to a World Cup win almost single-handedly.  Doing it again would’ve been unbearable to Zico. It would’ve been far better to drop him so Zico could hog more of the limelight for himself, and possibly replace Zagallo as national team coach afterwards.

On a personal note, it was at this point that I stopped being a Brazil fan.  The Mike circus and butchering of the team was already unbearable, but dropping my man Romario was a step too far.

Brazil badly missed Romario in the World Cup, particularly in the final. Before that match, the circus finally got to Ronaldo, and he suffered from a seizure in the hotel.  He was initially dropped from the starting line-up for the final, but then reinstated 40 minutes before the game. The exact details of the story remain unclear, but the overall picture is: the pressure of the tournament weighed too heavily on Ronaldo’s shoulders and he could not take it and had a seizure on the day of the game.  He was then pressured into taking the pitch, and many suggest that Mike were behind this.  With Ronaldo in a daze and out of the game, Brazil were exposed by France for the weak incoherent team they were.  Their defense was shambolic, and their midfield utterly dominated by the French who had Zidane and Petit in magnificent form.

It was a day of infamy in Brazilian football.  Ronaldo’s plight was heart-wrenching. He was the victim of Mike who had butchered the Brazilian team’s goose that lay the golden trophies for the sake of a few more boots sold.  Romario would never forgive Zico and Zagallo, and the acrimony in Brazil led to parliamentary investigations and massive outrage.

But with the image of the team tarnished, the Mike bandwagon slowed down a bit and the team could prepare properly for the 2002 World Cup, which was to be very different after Luis Felip Scolari took over the team.  If there was one man who embodied the opposite of the traditional image of Brazilian football, it was Scolari.  His tactics were dirty, pragmatic and defensive.  He believed in winning at all costs and encouraged his players to play-act, waste time and fool referees.  But it worked.  In a forgettable World Cup, Brazil were the only team that impressed and took home the trophy.

There was a very short period of rest between the end of the European season and the beginning of the World Cup. Most of the best players in Europe were too tired to play, and then had to travel half-way around the world to Korea and Japan, and acclimatize to the hot weather. Pre-tournament favorites Argentina and France crashed out in the first round.  Third and fourth favorites Italy and Spain crashed out in the second round and quarter-finals to Korea (and, many would say, a team of referees, as well.)

Most of Brazil’s players, however, did not have this problem. Ronaldo had just returned from an injury that ruled him out for most of the season, and was fresh and rested.  Rivaldo and Ronaldinho had fall-outs with their coaches in AC Milan and PSG and had not played much in the later part of the season.  The players based in Brazil don’t have the same demanding schedule of the Europe-based opponents.

This was certainly the least glorious of all Brazil triumphs in the World Cup.  They needed the help of the referee to disallow a perfectly legitimate Belgium goal in the second round, and had Rivaldo engage in a shameful bit of play-acting that helped eliminate Turkey in the semi-final.  But the real glory belonged to the wonderful Ronaldo, who erased the memories of 1998 by scoring 8 goals, including two in the final, and being the player of the tournament.  Since 1978, not a single player had managed to score more than 6 goals in a World Cup.  This was just rewards for him, winning the World Cup and writing his name as one of the all-time greats of the game.

Just like the triumph of 1994 fueled the marketing bandwagon in 1998, the triumph of 2002 did the same for 2006. The team was, in many ways, reminiscent of the 1998 shambles.  Under Carlos Alberto Parreira, the team entered the World Cup with a sense of entitlement and overconfidence that would not bode well for them.  Their defense looked dodgy and the insistence on playing all the major superstars meant that there was no balance in midfield, with Kaka and Ronaldinho both playing out of their favored positions.  In their first round games against Croatia and Australia, there was a clear sense that they only won thanks to their opponents not having proper finishers.  In the second-round, Ghana’s woeful finishing also let Brazil off the hook and a clearly offside goal by Adriano clinched victory.  But at the quarter-final Brazil were to meet the French, who had the magnificent Thierry Henry in fine form.  The winning French goal came from a moment that typified the problem with that Brazilian team: As a free-kick was swung in, Roberto Carlos was too distracted adjusting his socks to bother mark Henry, who ran unto the cross and finished emphatically.  Roberto Carlos had at this stage become a parody of the great footballer he once was, and played with a sense of entitlement that suggested he thought no one could dare score against Brazil.

And so the cyclical game of expectations continues this year, as the failure of 2006 has diminished expectations for 2010 and muted the marketing bandwagons that are the harbingers of doom.

Today’s Brazil team

Dunga: Not an idiot

The great Dunga, who had played in the ’90, ’94, and ’98 World Cups had now taken over the reins of the national team. From his days as a player Dunga had always been a polarizing figure in Brazilian football—some think he’s a genius, while others view him as an incompetent unskilled oaf. This has roots in his childhood days stretches back to his childhood days—his nickname Dunga literally means ‘the dumb one’.  And this continues to this day in his capacity as coach.

On Dunga the player, I certainly side with the view that he is a genius.  A central midfielder with a great vision of the field, he always had the skill to dictate an entire game.  Watching him in the Maracana, I will never forget his unbelievable ability to play long passes from one corner of the pitch to the other that would land precisely where he wanted them—right on the chest of Branco, Romario or Bebeto.  Dunga the player was a bit like Xavi Hernandez.  But this is not the most popular mold of midfielders in Brazil, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where midfielders were expected to dribble, pass, score and dazzle. His modern game was new, but it surely was effective and decisive in 1994.

Dunga the coach, however, remains a bit of a mystery, and today’s game against Holland will go a long way towards assessing his merits.  Since taking over he has ruled the team with a strong dogged determination and self-conviction.  He has built a solid team that plays well together, but did so at the expense of eliminating some of the best players available for selection.

Dunga has so far won everything in which he was competed.  He won the Copa America in 2008, as well as the Confederations Cup in 2009.  He finished top of the marathon-like and very difficult South American qualifying group—a hugely respectable achievement.  But these successes have not assuaged his critics or convinced them that he is the right man for the job.  He has not achieved these wins with the type of panache expected of Brazil teams.  He has had far too many unconvincing matches and disappointing results.  In the world of Brazilian football, only constantly winning in impeccable style will assuage the 180 million football critics.

The biggest criticism of Dunga is about his perceived defensive and cautious style.  Like in 1994 and 2002, there are loud protests that Dunga has betrayed the beautiful Brazilian game for the sake of ugly European pragmatism.  The second biggest criticism concerns his elimination of some creative names for the sake of workhorse unspectacular players.  The biggest fuss concerned the elimination of the great Ronaldinho, who has recovered some of his form and could bring Brazil some magic if needed.  But the AC Milan midfielder is still a shadow of his former self.  His fitness is down, he can no longer manipulate defenses like he used to, and most importantly for Dunga he has never shown an ability to be disciplined.  Dunga will have none of that in his team.

But the most unjustified of Dunga’s decisions, for me, is his elimination of the wonderful Alexander Pato.  The AC Milan striker, only 20, is a joy to watch and a true world star in the making.  He is powerful, fast, and a clinical finisher.  He left Brazil at 17 years of age to join the Italian giants, and whereas many older and more established Brazilians struggle to make it on the big European stage, Pato has looked like a seasoned accomplished veteran who’s been doing this all his life.   He would be an excellent player to have in the World Cup, even if just to bring off the bench.

There have also been protests at Dunga’s elimination of the great Ronaldo, still banging in goals at 33 after an 18 year career, and Adriano.

But these decisions serve to highlight the nature of Dunga’s regime and why they can be viewed again as one of the favorites.  Dunga is not interested in continuing to look for the best 11 players to play in his team.  He rather wants to build the best regular consistent and reliable team.  Whereas most national teams arrive at the World Cup unclear about their starters and formation, Dunga has settled on the basic formation and selection for years. The players have had plenty of time to get to play together and get used to one another and have developed a strong sense of camaraderie among them, which one can see during their goal celebrations.

Let’s remember that the players omitted from the team matter not one bit for the World Cup—what matters are the players on the pitch, and Brazil have a good cast of players molded into an excellent team.

In Julio Cesar, Brazil have one of the world’s best goalkeepers.  In Lucio, they have one of the best central defenders, and in Maicon, they have the world’s undeniably best right-back.  These three are fresh from leading Internazionale to winning the Italian league and Cup and the Champions League.  Along with the excellent Juan in central midfield and the decent Michael Bastos in left-back, Brazil have without a doubt the best defensive line in the World Cup.  This is of course very unusual historically.  Brazil have never been famed for producing excellent defenders of goalkeepers, but rather strikers and midfielders.  This year the pattern is reversed.

In midfield, Brazil are relying on a cast of players that on paper is not as impressive as some of their opponents.  Gilberto Silva, a holding midfielder, is well past his best, and at his best he was a mediocre players at Arsenal.  Ramires is good but not great, Elano can be impressive at times but is hardly one of the world’s best.  The mercurial Robinho remains a bit of mystery.  There is no doubting his precocious talents, which led Real Madrid and Manchester City to spend big money on him.  But he has continuously failed to live up to his potential—the joke in Brazil is that Robinho has for the past 5 years been calling himself next year’s best player in the world.

But Brazil’s most important player is Kaka—the Real Madrid genius was world player of the year in 2007 and is one of the best players of his generation.  He has an incredible vision of the pitch and is the sort of number 10 that teams can only dream about having.  I will never forget the pass he played to Hernan Crespo in the Champions League final in 2005—possibly one of the best through passes ever.  But Kaka has had a mediocre season with Real Madrid this year after a move from AC Milan.  There are questions about his fitness and the weight of expectations hangs heavily on his shoulders.

Upfront Brazil have the prolific Luis Fabiano.  Everyone keeps emphasizing that Fabiano is no Romario or Ronaldo, but then again, nobody is.  He is still a good striker who can notch in a decent haul of goals.

On paper, the midfield and attack are not the world’s best and could struggle.  In the absence of Ronaldinho and other creative midfielders, the team could be too reliant on Kaka to perform well.  With his current lack of fitness and loss of form, this could spell trouble, and Dunga may yet come to regret some of his omissions.

But this, let us not forget, is Brazil.  They live for the World Cup.  It is their country’s bread and butter and the most important thing for all their footballers.  If you want to understand the importance of the World Cup for Brazilians, just look at the face of Maicon as it turned into that of a child crying with excitement after scoring in the first round against North Korea.  This is one of the world’s best players who has just won a historic treble playing for Internazionale—yet he was still crying for scoring in a first round game against an abject North Korea.

Brazilian footballers live for the World Cup, they only have club careers to pay the bills and stay fit.  This is why seemingly mediocre and underperforming players like Robinho, Elano and Gilberto Silva turn into world beaters in the World Cup.  The level of focus and dedication for these four weeks every four years is unmatched everywhere.  Compare and contrast that to the pathetic superstar prima donnas of England.  People like Lampard, Terry and Rooney live for their club careers and really care about winning the Champions League and the domestic league.  Sure, they’d like to win the World Cup, but they want it nowhere near as much as the Brazilians.  If you asked someone like Lampard if he’d rather win the Champions League or the World Cup, he’d reply with some vacuous PR-agent tailored stream of inanities about “pride in wearing the England shirt”, “remaining focused”, and “giving it 110%”.  Ask Maicon, Robinho or Elano if they would give up their entire club football career for a World Cup winners’ medal, and they will not hesitate to say yes.

And this is what makes the difference for the Brazilians.  No matter the tactics, the formation, the personnel and the opponents, when the Seleccao takes the pitch in a World Cup game, they are a different animal from the other teams.

This year, with their exceptional defense, they should be hard to score against, and with the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano hungry to succeed, they will certainly cause a lot of trouble for their opponents.

This may not be a beautiful Brazilian team in the mold of the 1982 side and may resemble more the 1994 and 2002 sides.  But remember that the 1994 and 2002 sides won the World Cup, while the 1982 side won the consolation of producing one of the best highlight reels of history.  Brazil may not produce a highlights reel to match that of Zico and Socrates, but they are more likely to win it this year.

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About saifedean

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