To my generation there are few symbols that more passionately represent the glorious exuberance, the joy, the purity and the natural style of the beautiful game of football than the iconic yellow shirt of the Brazilian national team.
The names just roll off the tongue; Garrincha, Pele, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Zico, Falcao, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. In a mere 18mths Brazil host the FIFA World Cup 2014. There is already a fervent anticipation from an expectant public as football returns to its spiritual home. This carnival of celebration culminates in a Final at Rio de Janiero’s world-famous Maracana soccer citadel. Any failure by Neymar & Co. to reach that glorious conclusion would spark unprecedented scenes of national mourning. But, having been surpassed as the embodiment of footballing perfection to a generation of wide-eyed fans by the tiki-taka genius showcased by Barcelona’s blaugrana and having suffered perhaps the ultimate international humiliation of defeat to England, the once-revered Selecao find themselves at arguably their lowest ebb.
Rather like the English GCSE secondary school qualification FIFA’s World Rankings are not always the most reliable or credible indicator of genuine merit; but to a nation who boast a record five World Cup triumphs and routinely topped those rankings, Brazil’s occupying of an all-time low position of 18th is treated as a national disgrace! But it cannot be altogether surprising to see Brazil languishing around the second-tier of World football. Despite impressing in qualification Brazil were dismal at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa under the ultra-pragmatic Dunga and were, if at all possible, even worse at the 2011 Copa America; winning a solitary game in four against the powerhouses of Ecuador, Venezuela and Paraguay before being unceremoniously dumped out by the latter on penalties! Mano Menezes, who had replaced the hapless Dunga after the South African debacle, somehow escaped unscathed from the wreckage of the Copa America embarrassment…but he could not survive his team’s perceived failure at the London Olympics 2012 in a tournament Brazil saw as the perfect build-up to their World Cup homecoming.
Perhaps in an effort to recreate the last great Brazil side of 2002, the CBF have gone back in time to appoint former-World Cup-winning coach Luis Felipe Scolari to revive their spirits. Scolari boasts an impressive international record with both the Selecao and Portugal – despite being hung out to dry during his brief spell at Chelsea – but his 2002 vintage included the stunning attacking trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, the ‘defence’ contained World-renowned names such as Cafu, Lucio and Roberto Carlos while Arsenal’s industrious Gilberto Silva held the midfield together and AC Milan’s Dida stood between the posts. Does the Class of ’13/14 boast anything like that level of ability and/or experience?
You cannot judge a team by one performance but Brazil were poor against England. So poor in fact that they managed to make England look half-decent at times! In fact they were just about as far away from a traditional Brazil side as you could possibly imagine; sluggish in movement, missing any spark of inspiration, a concerning lack of pace and what seemed a reluctance to break out of Scolari’s tactical straight-jacket with that trademark burst of individual flair that has won them fans the World over! Yes it was Scolari’s first game back in the hot-seat but his 4-2-2-2 default line-up looks hideously dated and lacking flexibility. England cut through the central areas at will and the reluctance of Brazil’s attacking players to help out defensively will be ruthlessly punished by better sides than the Three Lions.
I have to say that the biggest conundrum facing Scolari in my opinion is the supposed talisman of this new look side, Neymar! Flamboyantly gifted, outrageously talented, better than Lionel Messi (admittedly only in the eyes of the most one-eyed commentator the World has ever seen, Pele) and a £40M+ signing coveted across Europe! Or at least that is what Neymar is supposed to be! Because, on the numerous times I have watched him in action he looks embarrassingly lightweight, he seems to lack belief and quickly loses interest while the game passes him by. Frankly, his actual effective contributions are few and far between. Perhaps he is still settling into his role as the face of Brazil 2014? Perhaps the hype, the media attention and the expectation has swamped him, instilling fear and restricting his natural game? I don’t know, but as much as the financial boom in Brazilian football must be a factor in his staying at Santos until after the World Cup, I cannot help but wonder whether the spectres of previous lightweight wonderkids emerging from Brazil, specifically Denilson and Robinho, may be a more significant factor in the lack of any concrete offer for his services despite the numerous rumours of cast-iron interest from European giants? When you consider the respective merits of 21yr old Neymar and the prodigious talent of 17yr old Ronaldo when he arrived in Europe at PSV, before illuminating Barcelona, there really is no comparison whatsoever!
But in Neymar’s defence, he cannot be expected to carry the team on his own! Although reports suggest at something of a resurgence for Ronaldinho at Athletic Mineiro, his recall to the national set-up alongside the likes of Fred and Luis Fabiano smacks of desperation rather than an inspired selection. With due acknowledgement of the riches now available in Brazil, if Ronaldinho had anything to offer on the highest European stage then AC Milan’s fabled Milanello training, conditioning and medical facility would’ve ensured his prolonged stay at the San Siro rather than encouraging his swift return to South America. With Hulk sulking in semi-retirement at Zenit and the most over-hyped striker in recent years, Pato, returning home to Brazil with his tail firmly between his legs, the options in attack are hardly blessed. At the other end of the pitch Dani Alves has been strangely subdued in international colours while his clubmate at the Camp Nou, Adriano, will probably have to settle for bench-warming behind Jordi Alba and the returning Eric Abidal. Debutant Dante looked a colossus at the heart of the defence, but any team who rely on the defensive discipline of David Luiz is bound to come unstuck more often than not. And the midfield, apart from the silky Oscar, look industrious and willing but lacking in true craft and, crucially, lacking that essential Brazilian magic.
Are there positives? Of course! Brazil are by no means a lost cause. Julio Cesar continued his impressive EPL form in goal and the former Inter goalkeeper looks a solid candidate for the World Cup. Dante made the most of his belated elevation to the international stage at Wembley, Ramires offers energy and industry, Oscar has adapted well to the physical demands of the EPL and looks a star in the making, Lucas Moura has potential at PSG while heaven knows why the sparkling latin contingent at Shakthar Donetsk continue to be overlooked. And there are injuries too; Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva and Spurs’ Sandro would expect to feature in future squads, PSG’s Thiago Silva and Inter’s Juan Jesus ought to compete for selection ahead of David Luiz, Real Madrid’s Marcelo may feature while the much-coveted Leandro Damiao must surely usurp the ageing Fred and Luis Fabiano. But who is going to sprinkle that essential stardust?
But with no competitive matches outside of this year’s Confederations Cup warm-up, Brazil and Scolari face a race against time to become truly competitive and to produce a credible display on home soil come 2014. As a romantic football fan I would love to see the swaggering Selecao of years gone by match up against the metronomic Spanish carousel, the powerful and emerging German side and a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina who will be particularly motivated to triumph at the home of their greatest rivals! But, I wonder with a sense of sadness whether the possession-dominated modern game almost renders the naturally flamboyant Brazilian style obsolete? Whilst I know that we will never again see Pele’s 1970 benchmark or the fine 1982 squad of Zico and Socrates, I would hate to see the outrageous skill and flair coached out of Brazil for the sake of conforming to the current possession-based approach. The hard-nosed 1974 incarnation won few friends, the uber-defensive World Cup Winners of 1994 were fortunate that they could call upon the gifts of Romario and Bebeto while the 2010 side were just abysmal!
It is always a futile exercise to pitch sides from different eras against each other but it’d be interesting to see the contrasting styles of the 2002 Brazil against the current Spanish generation. Spain’s 4-5-1/4-6-0 incorporating Puyol and Pique, Xabi Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta against what could loosely be described as a 2-1-2-5 Brazil with Cafu and Roberto Carlos masquerading as full-backs (but playing as advanced wingers) and the trio of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo…with Gilberto and Lucio manning the defences? Brazil 2013/14 patently do not have the players to attempt such wanton bravado…but I for one hope they possess a fraction of the style, the ambition and the desire to stay true to their traditions!