By Paul Gardner
Brazil, of course, will qualify for the World Cup in South Africa. Of course -- for a whole bunch of reasons: because it's Brazil, because it has been present at every World Cup so far played (and no other country can match that), and because a World Cup without Brazil is simply unthinkable, it wouldn't be a World Cup at all. And then, Brazil will be there on merit, because Brazil has more of the world's great players and plays the sort of soccer that everyone loves to watch.
Because, because ... but hold on. That last reason -- is that true any more? Does Brazil still play the best, or at least, the most attractive, soccer?
Is the current Brazil team, under Coach Dunga, an example of Brazil at its best? Is it giving us real Braziliansoccer?
Not for my money, it isn't. I've just finished watching Brazil beat Paraguay, 2-1. A victory, but a rather labored one. Paraguay knows a thing or two about playing a tight defense and Brazil, playing at home, never looked comfortable in this game.
Now, I did not see Brazil's previous game, a 4-0 rout of Uruguay. But I'm told that Brazil played a brilliant counterattacking game. That's pretty shocking, for a start. Brazil has never been a counterattacking team. You can talk all you like about that being the sensible way to play on the road, but it has never been Brazil's way.
Attack -- not the counterfeit substitute of counterattack -- has always been the hallmark of the great Brazilian teams. Are we, then, saying goodbye to the brightest and most beautiful star in the soccer firmament?
Possibly we are. Dunga has made no secret of the fact that he wants a more workmanlike Brazil, a more organized Brazil -- he uses those sort of phrases, which do not sound Brazilian. They sound European. They areEuropean. So Brazil is to be Europeanized. This is not new -- other coaches have tried it -- Coutinho in 1978 (a disaster), Sebastiao Lazaroni in 1990 (another disaster), Carlos Alberto Parreira in 1994 (saved from disaster by Romario, reluctantly recalled to the team at the last minute by Parreira).
But as Brazil's top players -- not just some of them, but allof them -- nowadays inevitably end up playing in Europe, the switch to a Euro-Brazil has gained momentum. And now we have a coach, Dunga, who played in Europe, in Italy, the home of defensive soccer.
There were some lightning Brazilian counterattacks to be seen against Paraguay -- led by Kaka. No goals came from these moves, and somehow that seemed right and proper because, dammit, Brazil should not be playing counterattack soccer in front of its own fans.
It should be playing the Beautiful Game, the sweeping attacking moves, the intricate passing, the one-on-one skills, the quick movement and trickery in the goalmouth. Brazil is supposed to be breathtaking, and there was absolutely nothing breathtaking about this performance.
And of course there's not meant to be. That is the saddest comment. It's not that Brazil doesn't still have the great ball artists, it's that they're being required to play Euro-style, to pay more attention to tactics and rein in their exuberance.
Brazilian soccer without exuberance? Dunga has seen what he believes is the key to success, he has opted for the realpolitikof putting defense first -- something that Brazil has never done in the past.
A myth needs to be dispelled here. That fact that Brazil has never emphasized defense does not mean that Brazil has been weak defensively. You don't win five World Cups and a whole bunch of other world titles by playing defenseless, irresponsible, soccer.
But the sport itself has been getting increasingly more defensive, thanks almost entirely to the European mentality. A mentality that for decades now has been squeezing skill out of the European game. With the result that so many of the stars in Europe are South American or African.
But what really allows the European mentality to dominate is the pathetic response of the game's guardians -- FIFA, IFAB (the rule-making body), and ultimately the referees. There is a heavy European bias within all those sectors, and over the past three or four decades they have allowed soccer to become a sport dominated by rough-house defenders and ranting coaches. So maybe Dunga's response makes sense. If you can't beat them -- and can the Beautiful Game come out on top? -- then join them.
But the spirit of soccer, the realspirit of the game, the skillful, artistic spirit, has a habit of surviving these bleak crises. If Dunga has abandoned beauty, then there is hope elsewhere ... in Europe of all places. Not in northern Europe, nor anywhere near Switzerland where the arid FIFA functionaries reign. But in Spain.
Spain, in Euro 08, and Barcelona in this year's Champions League, have done more than keep the flame of the true game alive. They have illumined the soccer world with a dazzling reminder of what we're missing.
It is too simple to say that Spain and Barcelona play like Brazil. Spain and Barca have their own styles -- but they are based on attacking play. They are teams that are primarily looking to score goals rather than to avoid conceding them. That is the way Brazil has always played. But not, I fear, with Dunga in charge.