From wizards to mortals

Efficiency rather than flair is the watchword of modern day Brazilian football

From wizards to mortals

“The Brazilians play football as if it were a dance…for they tend to reduce everything to dance, work and play alike.”

Gilberto Freyre 

Few other nations have managed to give us joy on a football field like the Brazilians, for few others have managed to make it look as natural as these Latin Americans. So where does that charm comes from? Football in Brazil is a mirror image of the attitude of their soceity -- casual, contended and even playful. That intrinsic relationship gives Brazilian football a nowhere-else-to-be-seen appeal. 

Over the years, their approach has also been fiercely individualsitic and improvisational, giving it a rare flair. But the beginning was different. Introduced to the game in 1894 by two Britishmen -- Charles Miller and Oscar Cox -- Brazilians played football the English way in the early stages -- rigid and with meticulous tactical planning. In that era, football was a game of the elite too, mostly played by the scions of the colonial masters. But fortunately, it didn’t last long and the sport underwent a radical democratisation in the country. 

Clubs like Fluminese and Flamengo that once allowed only Europeans opened its doors to the natives, and new clubs such as Vasco da Gama, Corinthians and Santos were born, also sparking the emergence of a large playing group comprising black and white working class.

It had a massive effect on Brazilian football -- the British way of football was completely overshadowed, and a style emerged with its axis on rhythm, ball possession and intricate passing system. It was all stunningly simple when the Brazilians played it, and fans across the globe saw shades of Samba music, force of the Amazon wilderness and the grace and flexibility of jiu-jitsu, the Brazilian martial art. 

The world first saw the real Brazilian football in the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay. They were knocked out early but players like Teophilo, Preguinho and Russinho made lasting impressions on the fans with their flowing style. But little did they know then that some of the finest brand of football and footballers were yet to come from Brazil. In 1958, the football world saw the convergence of a set of imperiously talented players, and a 17-year-old Pele was the brightest among them.

 Then they also had Garrincha, Nilton Santos, Didi, Vava, Dida and Mario Zagallo, who helped Brazil grab the first of their five World Cups, defeating Sweden in the final. They went on to defend that title four years later in Chile.  Deploying a unique version of 4-2-4 system, Brazil lorded over their opponents, fusing together the aggressive brilliance of bow-footed Garrincha, Zagallo and Vava with the genius of Pele, and they were ably supported from the deep by Zito and Didi. Football world till then had not seen such a brand of football, and Italian journalist Thomaz Mazzoni wrote in awe: “Well played, Brazilian football is like an extremely hot jazz band.” 

But those who thought Brazil had reached the zenith of creativity had to correct themselves in 1970. ‘Selecao’ dazzled the world again under the scorching Mexican sun, displaying superb innovative and improvisational skills. Brazil modified the 4-2-4 system into even more flexible 4-2-3-1 method, and then gave it physical structure through Pele, Rivellino and Jairzinho with sufficient help from that defensive colossous Carlos Alberto, who captained the side. It became the new footballing culture, not just in Brazil but the world over. 

On the flip side, it’s always difficult to attain that kind of creative perfection year after year. They still managed to put together a set of fine talents in 1982 and 1986 as Socrates, Falcao, Zico and Edinho thrilled fans, but by then Eurpoean football -- robust, muscular and counter-attacking -- had gained in strength. In that changed atmosphere, Brazil found it hard to play their individualistic football. The world saw a modern Brazil in 1994. They looked functional and even flat compared to their illustrious predecessors, but that bunch brought the Cup back to Brazil after a gap of 24 years. 

They had very fine goal-poachers -- Romario and Bebeto but the game plan was more defensive and centered around defenders Cafu, Dunga and Branco. Even their midfielders, who were usually used in an aggressive role in the past, became essentially defensive and the likes of Gilberto Silva, Mauro Silva became a common sight in Brazil team. Their approach remained rather similar in 2002 as well when they clinched the much-celebrated ‘Penta’. Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo had to share space with their colleagues in the deep, marking a complete turnaround in Brazil’s footballing philosophy. 

Luiz Felipe Scolari has not tinkered much with that practical approach, and in this edition of the World Cup too we may see a pragmatic Brazil despite having players like Neymar, Hulk, Fred and Oscar. The football romantics will certainly be disenchanted, but the sight of Thiago Silva lifting the title at Maracana on July 13 could be a massive compensation. 

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