Substance and style

Posted by Tim Vickery

Luiz Felipe Scolari Brazil celeb 2002 World CupPA PhotosSpain's successful model built on possession, which was previously Brazil's forte, is now being embraced again by the five-time world champions.

I brought some presents with me when I flew back from Rio for my annual visit to London.

One of my friends is seeing a lady from Hungary. He got a 1954 Ferenc Puskas shirt. Another friend is married to a Dutch woman. He received a 1974 Johan Cruyff shirt. The 1982 Brazil shirt I kept for myself.

These came from a series offered by Lance!, Brazil's sports daily. The shirts are from three of the best sides that failed to win the World Cup. Claiming these shirts entailed a doggedly impressive performance of cutting tokens out of the newspaper every day, something which my (adult) stepdaughters found worthy of endless ridicule. But it was a price worth paying. Both of my friends are very happy with their gifts, and I could hardly be more content with my 1982 shirt.

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Indeed, that Brazil team almost certainly inspired the idea to offer these three historical shirts. There has been an interesting change in attitudes toward the side in Brazil over the last couple of years.

In the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, a British journalist made the trip to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. It is the city where Ronaldinho grew up and first made his mark as a footballer. He was the best player in the world at the time, was expected to be a star man at Germany '06, and so it was only natural that the international press were showing an interest in his background. A local journalist, a colleague of mine on Brazilian TV shows, showed him around and did some translating for him. And then came a request that astonished him. The British journalist also wanted to do something with Falcao, another Porto Alegre resident. The Brazilian was baffled. What was the interest? The Briton explained -- Falcao had been the midfield heartbeat of the 1982 team.

There was similar shock in Brazil nearly two years ago when Socrates, another member of that team, passed away. The Brazilian press were amazed by the way the story played so strongly in the international press. After all, for them, Socrates was mainly a domestic story. From the local perspective, his crowning glory had come with Corinthians, not only with the way he played on the field, but also his role in spearheading a pro-democracy movement that sought to subvert the military dictatorship which ruled Brazil at the time. What could the rest of the world know of such things? Very little, in fact, but it hardly mattered. The Socrates that the world was honouring was the carefree spirit who had graced Brazil's 1982 side.

Football is never about just what you do. It is always about the way that you do it, and there could be no better example of this than Brazil '82. In the case of Hungary of 1964 and Netherlands of 1974, the teams had at least reached the final of the World Cup before going down to a defeat that many saw as unjust. In 1982, Brazil did not even make the last four. No matter, they are remembered all over the world for the way they played their football, the sheer joyful exuberance with which they expressed themselves.

But they were very seldom recalled with the same fondness back in Brazil. Here, the myth could hardly be wider of the mark. Some like to portray Brazilian football as a kind of Carnaval in boots, everyone looking to show off their skills and more concerned with enjoying themselves than with winning. The reality could hardly be more different. The aim of the exercise is to win. That is why Brazil developed the back four, or led the field in physical preparation.

The 1982 side had demonstrably not won, and therefore they could only be classified as failures. The team was roundly criticised when they flew home after the tournament. Some of the players were jeered when they next took to the field –- notably Toninho Cerezo, a magnificent midfielder who had, in an unfortunate moment, given a goal away in the decisive game against Italy. He also had produced numerous moments of brilliance in that game and throughout the tournament, but all these were forgotten. Only the negative remained. Dunga, 1994 World Cup winning captain and coach of the 2010 side, once described the 1982 team as "specialists in losing."

The late Socrates is congratulated on his goal against Italy
GettyImagesThe late Socrates is congratulated on his goal against Italy in 1982.

The early elimination of 1982 hastened a rethinking of Brazilian football, a process which had already started when the 1974 side were outdone by the dynamism of the Dutch. The question remained the same –- how to win. But the answer changed. Before it was based on possession, on passing, on finding a balance between attack and defence and then letting the talent free. Now there was an obsession with the physical development of the game. Two conclusions were drawn. One, that less space on the field meant more physical contact, so the central midfielders needed to be 6-footers to cope. Two, that there was no longer the room to play elaborate passing moves. The way forward was to counterattack, with quick thrusts down the flanks.

Brazil were successful with these methods. Between 1994 and 2002 they reached three consecutive World Cup finals, winning two of them. They played much fine football along the way, with moments of magic from Romario and Bebeto, from Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, and with superb displays from their attacking full backs.

But even at the moment of triumph, some of their fans around the globe were left unsatisfied. The football never seemed to flow as much as it had in days gone by, when Didi and Zito, or Gerson and Clodoaldo weaved their patterns in the centre of the field –- as Falcao and Cerezo did in 1982. But Brazil could play the pragmatic card. That type of football was all very well then, but it could no longer win tournaments in the modern age.

And then along came the Spain/Barcelona model –- a possession based game with lots of little players winning title after title. So it was not impossible after all!

A key moment came after the final of the 2011 World Club Cup. Without breaking sweat, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona thrashed Santos of Brazil, beating them much more decisively than even the 4-0 scoreline could convey. After the game Guardiola rammed home the stiletto. His team, he said, passed the ball around in the manner that his grandparents told him Brazil used to do.

The pragmatic argument was over. Santos coach Muricy Ramalho had coined a phrase –- "If you want to see a spectacle then go to a theatre" -- but seeing his side torn apart with such humiliating ease was a spectacle and a half. Time for a rethink.

This process is still in its early stages, but one of the consequences has been a rehabilitation of the 1982 side. Suddenly Brazil needed a fresh perspective on them. The country's position as spiritual guardians of the beautiful game was no longer tenable. They had to find something in the past to compete with the romantic challenge coming from Catalonia. This need was fulfilled by recalling the quixotic charm of coach Tele Santana's 1982 team –- hence the fact that, by cutting out a few tokens, I have become a proud owner of the shirt.


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