Olympians bring back soccer with a smile, Brazilian soccer

By Paul Gardner

Watching Brazil toy with Denmark was quite like old times. Not so old, of course -- let’s say just 30 years ago. Admittedly, this was the Brazilian Olympic team, one of those bizarre combinations of young and old and whoever might be available.

But Brazil is Brazil. Well, that’s what we would have said 30 years ago. We haven’t been saying it much lately. Because Brazil has most definitely not been Brazil. The sparkle, the excitement, the attacking brio has vanished. And with them has gone the Beautiful Game.

For the past 30 years we’ve been watching a bogus Brazil, a Europeanized Brazil. Good enough to win two World Cups, in 1994 and 2002 ... but no one is going to remember those winners as great teams. Not to be mentioned in the same breath as the dazzling Pele-led winners of 1970, nor Tele Santana’s wonderful teams of 1982 and 1986. Which, delighted everyone but, you will be reminded by the naysayers, didn’t win anything.

And so the rot set in with a vengeance in 1990. The poisonous European influence was clear to all. New coach Sebastiao Lazaroni announced that his team formation would include a sweeper, a European defensive position Brazilians had never used. The spokesman for the new Brazil was Dunga, who aggressively informed the world: “No more jogo bonito, this is the Brazil of sweat and sacrifice.”

When Brazil took the field in the crucial knockout game against old enemy Argentina, nine of the starters were players employed by European clubs. Sweat and sacrifice did not suffice. Brazil lost that game, but the trend away from the beautiful game continued. Carlos Alberto Parreira coached Brazil to victory in 1994, a much more regimented team than usual. Even so, it was Parreira’s reluctant recall (responding to clamorous fan opinion) of the highly un-regimentable Romario, that gave his team its key player.

Many would disagree with that, pointing to Dunga instead, now the captain. Dunga, who had been the hard-working, hard-tackling midfielder in 1990, was now seen as Brazil’s playmaker. Change, indeed. The ‘94 final was a tactical triumph for both teams, Brazil and Italy, which thoroughly neutralized each other and produced a goalless overtime bore of a game, that Brazil, unable to score (Brazil! -- unable to score!!) won in a shootout.

In 1998, there seemed to be a more Brazilian approach under Mario Zagalo, the man who had coached that wonderful 1970 team. To some extent, the approach was unavoidable if the massive talents of the new superstar, the goal-scoring Ronaldo, were to be exploited. Things went well enough until the day of the final and the strange incident when Ronaldo was rushed to hospital that morning. He was left off the starting lineup. Yet he turned up at the stadium shortly before the kickoff and was quickly inserted into the team. Whatever it was that had happened to him, he was clearly not fit. France, often referred to as “the Brazilians of Europe,” dominated the game and took the title with a crushing 3-0 victory.

Four years later, Ronaldo had his moment, when his two goals led Brazil to victory over Germany in the final. But this was an average German team, and it could now be clearly seen that Brazil, coached by Felipe Scolari, was playing a very attenuated version of jogo bonito.

By 2006, the no-frills Brazil was what we were getting. The team, unspectacular to put it mildly, was knocked out at the quarterfinal stage in both 2006 and 2010. In 2014, Scolari, who had won the World Cup in 2002, was back as the coach. He it was who presided over the blow-out in Belo Horizonte, the humiliating 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany.

After what was surely the most devastating loss ever suffered by a major soccer power on its home turf, Scolari quit. Surprisingly, he got off lightly, without serious harassment or death threats. Almost as though the volatile Brazilian fans had been waiting, half expecting, something like this to befall their team.

Maybe there was logic in the choice for his replacement. If so it was a military, disciplinary type of logic. The team was in total disarray, so it needed a strong man to impose order. In came Dunga, Mr. Sweat and Sacrifice himself. Forget the beautiful game, then.

This was Dunga’s second go round -- he had coached the unsuccessful 2010 World Cup team in South Africa. We saw Dunga’s new Brazil this summer, in the Copa America. A sorry, very ordinary team, that failed to advance out of the first round. In three games, Brazil scored seven goals, not bad, except that all seven of them came against lowly Haiti. Brazilian patience ran out, Dunga was fired and replaced by Tite -- who, in his playing days, had been ... a defensive midfielder.

Dunga’s team was a sad shadow of the mighty Brazil of the past. Perhaps the saddest thing of the recent Brazilian teams has been the absence of a dynamic goal-scorer. A pure goal-scorer like Vava or Romario or Ronaldo or Pele, or a goal-scoring playmaker like Rivelino or Zico or Socrates. Players whose genius made Brazil the most-admired -- and the most feared -- team in the world.

When the Olympic games began a week or so ago, it looked as though we were in for more of the same. Brazil opened with tepid 0-0 ties against South Africa and Iraq. Another new coach was in charge, Rogerio Micale, but this looked like a Dunga’s Copa America team. Light years away from the Beautiful Game and doomed to an early exit. The fans jeered, still yearning for what used to be, not willing to accept this impostor of a team. Hell, this was not Brazil.

But on Wednesday night, suddenly and magically, this definitely was Brazil. Needing to beat Denmark, Brazil returned to their traditional attacking ways, and never relaxed for 90 minutes. Watching this team come to life, was like greeting a favorite friend come back from the dead.

A joyous return, full of the life that has been missing for so long, the confidence, the assurance, yes the swagger, of a team playing with style and skill, great individuals playing with vigor and artistry, at last, Brazilians playing Brazilian soccer. Inevitably, the goals came, four of them, good goals with neat build-up and emphatic finishing.

Invigorating to watch, unless you were the Danish players, I guess, who gamely chased shadows for 90 minutes. It was all there, the players who wanted to take on opponents, who chose to dribble, that smooth ability to control the ball instantly, the brilliance of the staccato short-passing, and -- not the least of the wonders of true Brazilian soccer -- that uplifting atmosphere created by the artistry of players who are enjoying themselves. This was soccer with a smile, Brazilian soccer.

Well, OK, we know that one swallow does not a summer make. So  Aristotle told us. He had a point. I should drop off my cloud of euphoria and descend to hard reality. I’m excited because I have missed Brazil, I want the Brazilian  jogo bonito to return. But there is a bit more to it than that.

The sport itself needs a powerful Brazilian presence -- provided that presence represents the true Brazilian game. As long as Brazil was a force in soccer, the idea of skillful -- and successful -- soccer was alive and well. But with Brazil seemingly ready to abdicate that position, the sport would be left to the vapid banalities of those who seem to prefer soccer without artistry, soccer as an adventure in stamina, strength and speed.

The notion that the sort of skills Brazilians have always reveled in are somehow unsuited to the sport, are merely unnecessary flourishes and curlicues that get in the way of the vigorous physical activities are always with us. At its worst, that attitude sees Brazilian-style soccer as a betrayal of what should be a rugged game. The attitude was there recently, when Sam Allardyce, the new coach of England, spoke to the press. He spoke of the soccer he wants his team to play, and couldn’t resist a belittling reference to what he called “tippy-tappy” play.

That Allardyce slur can be effectively countered today by reference to Barcelona. But the days when a mere mention of Brazil would silence such comments are, for the moment, no longer with us.

The hope -- certainly my hope -- is that the performance of Brazil’s Olympic team against Denmark can be built on, that it marks the first step of a retreat from European influence, the first step on the climb back to a style that can be relied upon to make soccer safe for skill and artistry.
15 comments about "Olympians bring back soccer with a smile, Brazilian soccer".
  1. Allan Lindh, August 11, 2016 at 5:13 p.m.

    Sorry Paul, lots of rubbish. All countries go through ups and downs, the Brazilians don't win much any more because they are not as good. One or two brilliant players do not make a team.

  2. K Hakim, August 11, 2016 at 5:28 p.m.

    Paul, 100% agree with you mate. Here at Futsal America we play the beautiful game where kids can express themselves with the ball. The ball is the toy. We have placed over 200 players in to college and further to pro soccer using methods of dribbling and wall passing as the foundation of youth development. The boring way so many Anglo American and English coaches play has destroyed the game worldwide as they try to exact their ideas on the game. Your decades long writing to show people another way is what the game needs. Creative minds. Brazil has strayed so long from their true soccer culture from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. That is all due to the Eurocentric coaches and coaching. America has always suffered this as England has. Imagine though, Frank Rijkaard coaching England, Tigana or Wenger coaching France, and Zico or Rivaling coaching Brazil. The popularity of the game would explode with more kids trying things with the ball like never before. It is these dull Anglo minded soccer people that are killing the sport and we need Brazil to come back and show us. Luan, Gabriel Barbosa, Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa, Coutinho, Neymar, Willian, Danielzinho, Valdivia, Lima, Marcelo, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Walace, Marquinhos, etc can all lead Brazil back to the Jogo Bonito and Ginga we crave. I am just not sure Tite is the right coach for it though just as Allardyce will continue to wreck England's talented generation.

  3. D Jervey, August 11, 2016 at 5:36 p.m.

    Amen Paul. Bring back the beautiful game.

  4. Gonzalo Munevar, August 11, 2016 at 5:56 p.m.

    Great article! Exactly right.

  5. uffe gustafsson, August 11, 2016 at 6:08 p.m.

    Yes on the style of play.
    I watched my Swedish team at the euros and it looked like 70th soccer.
    Play not to loose, long balls to a lonely striker.
    It made me cringe to watch it.
    Compare the euros to copa America and you saw the opposite in how to play.
    Thank you chile in how to play attacking soccer and a winning attitude.
    The Olympics is no different. Same thing play not to loose or play to win.
    Think the coaches we see are from that time of play not to loose, hopefully we see some young national coaches coming up that will say no to that thought, but play to win.
    And the teams that adopted this new way of playing with wing backs part of the attack will be successful, hopefully we see more of that attacking soccer. USA women been doing it for years and still the top team to beat.
    Wish men's team would take a page of that style of play.

  6. Richard Brown, August 11, 2016 at 6:23 p.m.

    I'm think futsal was not invented by Brazil. It was invented by Uruguay. But what the Brazilians do that is very hard to teach is the way they pass. Receivers read the foot position from the passers foot to know where to go to receive the pass.

    I can't teach it I tried I forget what it is called in Portuguese. In English it translates to footreads something like that.

    Carlos Perrerria almost did not take the great Romario to that team. Him and Bebeto was the difference. I still watch Romario half volley against the Dutch beautiful goal announced in an equally great language by shamus Malin.

  7. Kent James, August 11, 2016 at 8:49 p.m.

    Paul, maybe you do it strategically, because you fear we have gone too far the other way, but I wish you would not belittle defense and discipline. I agree, the skill and the traditional creativity of the Brazilian jogo bonito is absolutely vital (though Barcelona's (even though it's European) tiki-taka is also important). But skill and creativity are not the opposite of discipline, the game needs both. When those skillful players take risks and attack, someone has to have the discipline to cover if they lose the ball. So yes, continue your campaign against thuggery, violence, thumping the ball down the field, etc, I'm with you. But just once, I'd like you to recognize that without good defense, skillful teams lose, and games become meaningless exercises. And good defense (as opposed to thuggery) requires teamwork, tactical awareness and skill. These things complement the Brazilian artistry you rightly admire, they are not in opposition to it. Besides, good defense forces offensive players to be spectacular to score.

  8. Bob Ashpole replied, August 12, 2016 at 12:44 a.m.

    Kent, he was describing attacking play, not defending. Great attacking play doesn't prevent great defensive play. In fact if you view the game like Johan Cruyff, excellent defending begins with how you attack. That is a part of classic Dutch soccer and Barca's adaption of it that most people miss.

  9. Kent James replied, August 12, 2016 at 3:08 p.m.

    All American, I'm not prioritizing defense over offense, I'm just saying that I wish PG would not ignore (or even denigrate) good defending, as if it had no place in the game. It is possible for players to be creative on offense AND disciplined on defense, they don't need to be opposites. And it is even okay for teams to have some people who play more defense and cover for those more creative, offensive players. Good defense means reading the game, anticipating the opponent's attack, and cutting it off (and ideally, starting the offense by turning that interception into a 1-touch pass that starts the counterattack. A team that is incredibly creative and offensive, but totally lacking in discipline will lose to inferior teams because they give up easy counterattacking goals. Offensive flair is important, but not the entirety of the game.

  10. Kent James replied, August 12, 2016 at 3:12 p.m.

    Bob, PG is talking about offense because he NEVER writes about defense (unless it is to denigrate it). I agree with your point; it is total soccer that is important (and Barcelona's defense is greatly underrated; as soon as they lose the ball, they are all over their opponents, and usually get it back quickly; they have a skillful defense, in addition to their attacking prowess). A good defense gives the offense time and space to be creative.

  11. Richard Brown, August 11, 2016 at 9:41 p.m.

    I think all practices should have a dual theme. So you actually work on attacking and defending in the same practice.

    You intercept a pass you try to counter from it. You have three passes to try to start your counter before the opponent can get into their defensive shape. If you can't do it by then you go onto your short passing possession game.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, August 12, 2016 at 12:38 a.m.

    Good point.

  13. ROBERT BOND, August 12, 2016 at 7:59 a.m.

    Brasil? that's how they spell it..7-1 will never happen again.....attack & defense mentality 2 entirely different things....

  14. Richard Brown, August 13, 2016 at 2 p.m.

    When and if Brazil plays Gernany again they might not be smiling at the end of that game.

  15. Richard Brown, August 13, 2016 at 6:10 p.m.

    Well we will wait and see won't we :) I know it's not the same Germany that won the World Cup. But if you think they can't play your crazy.

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