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
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
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
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
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
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
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.