Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Brazil given Spanish wake-up call
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 they 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 honour has crossed the Atlantic to Catalonia.
It was never truly a matter of Messi against Neymar. Before the game Barcelona's Cesc Fabregas revealed how his team would protect themselves against Neymar - ensuring that, as in all their games, the opposition hardly have possession of the ball. True to his word, Barcelona went out and imposed their 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 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 - that the physical development of the game and the reduction of space on the field mean that the central midfielders should be six foot tall, 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 full backs to launch counter attacks down the flanks.
High priest of this kind of thinking is Muricy Ramalho, now in charge of Santos, but a Brazilian champion three years running with Sao Paulo (2006-2008) and last year with Fluminense. His teams have traditionally been based on counter attacks and set pieces. "If you want to see a spectacle," he likes to say, "then go to the theatre."
Or go to watch his team surgically taken apart by Barcelona. Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas ran midfield rings round Santos, toying with them as if in a training exercise. The first half was every bit as one-sided as Barcelona's midweek stroll against Asian champions Al Sadd, with the difference that the size of their ambition and the scale of their 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 have been sold. This was not the case of Santos. In comparison with the team that beat Penarol of Uruguay in June, they 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 skilful little guys with the low centre of gravity, a triumph for the spectacle and self-expression of pass and move - a win like many that South American football has enjoyed in its glorious history.
The value of defeat is always in the lessons that it can teach. Perhaps the big lesson that Barcelona have taught in Yokohama is this: if Brazilian football wants to keep on winning not only titles but also hearts then it would be well advised to get back in touch with elements of its own tradition. There is an argument against the view that possession football is outdated and that the central midfielders should be unimaginative giants. Its case was made loud and clear in Japan this Sunday.