Twenty-eight years ago, they were crying in the streets of Barcelona, Brazilian fans tearfully acknowledging their team’s exit from the tournament, knocked out by Italy. I was there, in
Barcelona -- not weeping, but I certainly felt the sadness. It felt as though the sunshine had gone from the tournament. We were left with a banal final between Italy and Germany -- because the team
that played the real soccer had failed.
I doubt whether there will be many tears today, certainly not from the neutrals. Brazil is out, courtesy of the excellent Dutch. But the sad truth is that we shall not miss Brazil. This was not the joyous, goal-scoring, spirit-lifting Brazil of 1982. This was the new pragmatic, effective Brazil of coach Dunga.
Everything that Tele Santana’s 1982 Brazil stood for has been abandoned -- worse, it has been trashed. Dunga himself, while still a player back in 1990, announced a new Brazil, the Brazil of sweat and toil -- “No more jogo bonito” was his war cry.
That approach failed in 1990. It was a Europeanized approach, marking the reality that -- from that time onwards -- virtually all of Brazil’s top players would be playing their club soccer with European clubs.
Faithful to his perception of the game, Dunga the coach has repeatedly made it clear that he has no time for “pretty” soccer, that winning is all that matters. And those who live by the sword of winning deserve to die by it when they fail.
Brazil failed today because it wasn’t Brazil. Who were these guys in blue? -- significantly, not wearing the magical yellow that has meant so much to the game in the past. This was a Brazil that, following the Dunga method, had jettisoned its traditional attacking values. A quick flashback to the baking Barcelona sunshine calls up Brazil sweeping forward, always sweeping forward, flowing forward, majestically, with thrilling passing movements, moments of dribbling magic and exceptional skill. And another thing: one doesn’t so much remember this as feel it -- surely there were smiles on the faces of the Brazilians as they wove their soccer spells? Smiling, sunshine soccer.
That has been banished by Dunga -- not killed off, but relegated to the occasional short flash. But one flash doth not a Brazil make. Brazil, to be Brazil, needs to play with style and brio ... all the time.
But the Brazil that is going home early, the Dunga whom one trusts will quickly fall on his sword, found another way. A non-Brazilian way, a much more European way, of putting defense first. That, we were told by Dunga, was modern soccer -- if you didn’t do that. You stood no chance of success.
It meant, of course, the end of the skill-punctuated flowing beauty of the Brazilian game. A stylistic change as big as that inevitably entails changes in the type of players on the field. This team had no place for the fantasista Ronaldinho. Instead, it had plenty of workmanlike midfielders . . . and it was precisely one of those, the unfortunate Felipe Melo, who let his team down so badly against the Dutch.
Kaka, wearing the hallowed #10 shirt, was evidently expected to single-handedly turn Brazil into Brazil whenever the occasion demanded. As things started to slip away from the Brazilians in the second half, as the Dutch gained confidence, this was the time for Kaka to step up. But he has not been in good form -- and anyway, a player of his skills -- essentially Brazilian skills -- needs similarly Brazilian-skilled players around him. Dunga had surrounded him with too many Euro-skilled players. Luis Fabiano was no help at all, shackled by the Dutch defenders. Only the free-lancing Robinho ever looked like galvanizing Brazil into the attacking force of old.
But that was never really on. To play like the traditional Brazil, you have to deeply believe in the attacking game, in the game of skill and risk-taking. Dunga’s mindset is quite the opposite. He preferred to do it the way the Europeans do -- with defensive tactical cleverness, and a minimum of goal-scoring.
Dunga will go -- but will his “effective soccer” philosophy depart with him? It should do, because it has proved a calamitous failure. Brazil did not have a difficult path to the quarter-final - there is nothing at all to prove that Brazil would not have reached that stage anyway by playing a more Brazilian, attacking game.
Dunga’s failure came when he ran into a European team with plenty of skill that was willing to take more risks than Brazil. Yes, this was to some extent forced on them by the early Robinho goal, but the Dutch have always been a team with attacking ideas, if not attacking flair. Today, they took the risks, and they got a deserved victory.
Perhaps the saddest experience was to watch Brazil during the last 10 minutes or so, trying with futile desperation, to do what has always been second-nature to Brazil’s players: to hold the ball, to string together passes, to penetrate an opposing defense. It didn’t work because Dunga has performed some sort of skillectomy surgery on this team.
The question for Brazil -- and for the world game -- is can Brazil get back to being Brazil? Given the way that the modern game is now played, is that possible? Should Brazil even try to play in its old style? If the decision goes against those arguments -- and it may do, for typically Dunga-like pragmatic reasons -- so much the worse for the world’s game.