Dunga's Euro-Brazil Not a Joy to Behold

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 Brazilian soccer?

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 are European. 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 realpolitik of 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 real spirit 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.

4 comments about "Dunga's Euro-Brazil Not a Joy to Behold".
  1. Dragos Axinte, June 11, 2009 at 10:51 a.m.

    Brasil's fans and media have been staunch critics of Dunga's style ever since he became the national team coach. He has been under a lot of pressure to change by allowing his players to be Brasilian, but, as his style expresses, he is one stubborn futébol dictator. He persisted through the previous string of bad results and may believe that he is now enjoying some reprieve.

    But the Brasilian fans are not likely to forgive him. While Argentine and other fans may always find excuses for their team's poor performance (the altitude; the players' tiredness; the ref; etc.), Brasilian fans are always demanding an enchanting performance, and always it must be better than the last. Even if his team qualifies in first place from the South America group, Dunga will face even more pressure between the end of qualifications and the World Cup itself, when typically 200 million Brasilian analyze every move and express every opinion that might help their team take "o jogo bonito" to the tournament.

  2. Eric Brady, June 11, 2009 at 4:08 p.m.

    Amen. Beautiful commentary on the terrible toll that defensive manhandling has taken on the beautiful game. American football and basketball, which both devolved into a wrestling match for a period of time, reinforced rules that allow the offensive player to use skill and technique. Soccer should likewise not let the defenders manhandle the attackers. Let defensive skill battle offensive skill and forget the mudwrestling.

  3. Robert Looyen, June 12, 2009 at 9:37 a.m.

    Spain and Barca have been great recently, and that's a good sign for the game. Sorry about Brazil, they'll be back, I have no doubt. Dunga was a thug as a player and that shows in his coaching style, if you call it style? Lost in all of this is the great underachievers, the Dutch. They are playing some of the best soccer in the world right now and winning doing it. I know that when they go to the world cup they always self destruct, but that's in camp not on the field. The Dutch will be contenders and if they can keep harmony in camp? may just pull it off next year.

  4. , June 15, 2009 at 10:58 a.m.

    Well, after the watching the first half of Brazil-Egypt .. Brazil leads 3-1, but I can see what PG is saying. If they weren't wearing Brazil uniforms I wouldn't be able to tell it's Brazil. There is nothing "Brazilian" about the team I just watched. Egypt actually looks more interesting to me. But they're up 3-1 so I guess Dunga's happy.

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