Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Can Brazil rekindle their magic?
Spain's Euro 2012 triumph - their third consecutive international title - has prompted many to reach for comparisons with Brazilian sides of old in the quest to answer the bar-room question: Which is the world's best-ever international team?
Fun stuff, but given the difficulties of comparing teams from different eras, it may be more worthwhile to peer in the other direction, looking forward rather than backward when making Brazil/Spain comparisons.
The specific question is this: What impact might the success of Spain have on future Brazil sides?
It already has the pundits thinking. Andre Kfouri, one of Brazil's best, devoted the back cover of Lance!, Brazil's sports daily, after the Euros to the definitive reappearance of the smaller, thinking central midfielder.
"There was a time when they seemed doomed to extinction," he wrote. "Their territory had been occupied by modern gladiators, in armour of muscles and warlike concepts. With a destructive mentality, they were the ones with the task of winning the battle that determines the result of most football matches. They transformed the centre of the field into giant walls. Bricks, cement and barbed wire. It has taken a long time, but the wall has fallen."
In Brazil, the wall has fallen from a greater height than elsewhere. The likes of Spain's Xavi and Andres Iniesta, plus Andrea Pirlo of Italy, for that matter, have proved their worth once more. But where are the Brazilian equivalents? It is worth recalling that in the previous World Cup, Brazil's central midfield was made up of the ugly tandem of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo - giant, combative and anything but thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing - and this in the zone of the pitch where Brazil used to field the best passers of the ball.
How could this be? Because in football, first comes the idea. And Brazilian football in recent years has been dominated by the idea that everything has been changed by the physical development of the game. The seeds were planted after the defeat to Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup. Used to time on the ball, Brazil's midfield were undone by the high-energy pressing of the Dutch.
If this was to be the future, in Brazil's collective mind anyway, then conclusions could be drawn. One was that Brazil's players needed to bulk up. Less space on the field resulted in more physical contact, meaning that the players - especially in the heat of the battle in central midfield - had to be bigger. In the absence of any European physical advantage, it was felt, superior individual ability would tip the balance Brazil's way.
The other conclusion was that possession football was dead. There was no longer enough space on the field to work the elaborate midfield moves of old. The way forward was to block the opposition and launch lightning counter attacks down the flanks. Brazil became a team of Silva and Maicon, a converted centre-back, providing a block in midfield and a skilful athletic runner to burst forward from right back, respectively. Throw in some strikers with unquestionable genius - the likes of Romario in 1994 and Ronaldo thereafter - and for a while it worked very nicely.
But it has not worked so well of late, and even when it was winning titles - Brazil's fifth, and last, World Cup came in 2002 - the new model left older fans pining for the more exuberant days of the past. This, said the technocrats of the Brazilian game, was nothing but dewy-eyed nostalgia. There could be no turning back. Only hopeless romantics could deceive themselves into thinking that the winning formula in today's game could involve little midfielders playing a possession-based game.
Obviously, no one told Spain. Not knowing it was impossible, La Roja went and did it anyway. Their three consecutive major titles rank with anything in the history of the world game. A by-product of their achievement is that it has left those Brazilian technocrats wearing the emperor's new clothes.
And so Brazil now seeks to change direction. Taking over after the last World Cup, national team coach Mano Menezes stated right off that he was aiming to wean the team off an excessive dependence on the counter attack. Events at Euro 2012 have merely confirmed his view. He commented that the best teams were looking to elaborate more in midfield and that Brazil had to make improvements in this area, especially in terms of being more patient when in possession.
First comes the idea; then come the players to carry it out. But they do not come at once, even in a country that produces as much talent as Brazil. Those players have to be nurtured, brought up with a philosophy of play as Barcelona does with their youngsters and as Spain have done with their youth sides.
Brazil can always count on extraordinary individual talent, but how quickly can they groom midfielders with the technical ability and tactical intelligence of a Xavi, an Iniesta, a Pirlo, a Bastian Schweinsteiger? Can Brazil do this in time for the 2014 World Cup on its home soil? The clock is ticking.