[Second Coming is a regular column during the 2014 football world cup dedicated to my late brother]
Romance died on planet earth somewhere in the 1980s and technology triumphed over such mundane human indulgences as romanticism. Today it is hard to imagine a world before the advent of mobile, internet and satellite television when life moved at a pace that was measurable through simple analogue clocks on grandfather’s study tables. This slowness of life devoid of technical detailing was something that could not be captured in numbers or be broken into neat data sets to present as a template for future generations to emulate.
Romanticism never stood a chance in its battle with technicalism, for it was simply too spontaneous and therefore unprogrammable. Romance had to be defeated and Brazil was defeated in 1982.
Perhaps sporting arena offers us the best metaphors to describe the death of romance in all its gory details. Perhaps, more than anything else, team sports capture the essence of an era through expressions beyond the realm of paintbrushes of an artist or the melody of a poet. It is therefore no coincidence that the death of romance and the technical triumph finds an expression in the sporting battles of the 1980s.
In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Brazil was to the world of football what West Indies was to the world of cricket or India was to the world of hockey – unquestioned emperors who redefined winning by the sheer grace of their style. Let us face it, a Sachin Tendulkar for all his records, could never match the absolute flamboyance of a Vivian Richards; no not even close, did he come. When a Viv Richards walked majestically towards crease he owned that entire cricket ground in that moment of madness.
When a Pele, or a Garrincha danced on a football, the whole world had to fall in love with them. No wonder Brazil became the first country to win three world cups and got to keep the Jules Rimet trophy permanently and the sensational Indian hockey teams were undefeatable through this era.
The Götterdämmerung of 1980s cleansed the world of sports of all its Gods and we were left with mere mortals fighting for speed and technical one-upmanship. The “greatest team to have ever walked on a football pitch”, the Brazilian team of 1982 with such brilliant talents as Zico, Falcao and Socrates lost to a totally defensive Italian side in the quarter-finals. As if on cue, the very next year, West Indies lost to India unable to chase even a paltry 181 in a 60 over match. Hockey was Astro-Turfed overnight and the sheer poetry in motion of Indian hockey was replaced with a game that is methodically mechanical in every frame.
The 82 defeat of Brazil changed the core DNA of Samba football for ever; that defeat still rankles Brazilian coaches to this day. In fact, that 82 defeat put an end to the romantic, attacking football philosophy and European style of defensive tactics became the order of the day. The full import of this changed soccer world order became obvious in 1994, when Brazil ended its 24 yearlong world cup drought, justifiably, in the mecca of technological triumphalism, the United States of America in a forgettable repeat encounter with Italy.
In that damp squib of a final in Pasadena, on that night, there were actually two Italian teams competing with each other, each one more defensive and more boring than the other. Brazil’s ultimate revenge on Italy for defeating the Gods of 82 was to Italianize its own football to such an extent that they failed to score a single goal for 120 excruciating minutes and the winner of a world cup was for the first time decided by the Russian roulette of penalties!
That Romario-Bebetto-Dunga squad of circa 94 is unquestionably the worst Brazilian football team to have ever won a world cup, but for a victory famished Brazilian public nothing mattered more than winning the world cup. One man who had just returned back from the middle-east after coaching Kuwait in the 90s was at the forefront of this new pragmatic style of football.
He kept producing results though, with his club Gremio even winning Copa Libertadores in 1995 (the most prestigious international club football competition of South America and the equivalent of UEFA Champions League in Europe). That man was Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has become one of the most successful Brazilian coaching exports of the post-modern era training such diverse teams as Chelsea and Portugal in the span of a decade.
After the boring victory of 1994, Brazil chose briefly to return back to flair football and brought the 1970 coach Mario Zagallo as the coach for the 1998 world cup. That team had possibilities. It was perhaps possible to bring back the glory of Samba football in 98 and Zagallo did believe in the right soccer philosophy, but he probably lacked the courage to experiment. A team pregnant with possibilities never really delivered and only suffered false labour pains in an agonising final defeat at the hands of Zizou.
Maybe in an alternate universe, another Zagallo would have employed that ball magician Dennilson far more than he actually did and could have also given Edmundo, the Animal, greater chances in the world cup. Results of such an experiment could potentially be stunningly spectacular and may have also altered the soccer philosophy of that universe for good.
That 1998 French defeat meant that Brazil was ripe to be taken over by the pragmatist Luiz Felipe Scolari, who produced a victorious campaign in Asia with the 4 R’s – Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldhino. Yes, there were flashes of brilliance in that 2002 triumph, but they were few and far between. Scolari then went on to coach Portugal and took them to the final of Euro 2004 where they suffered an unthinkable defeat at the hands of the stupendously defensive Greeks. Scolari had met his match in Otto Rehhagel.
When Brazil were convincingly beaten by Mexico in the 2012 Olympic final at Wembley, the Brazilian FA once again turned to Felipao (Scolari) to take over the 2014 campaign. He has repaid the faith of the national team by winning the confederations cup last year defeating world champions Spain 3-0. True to his pragmatic philosophy, Felipao has built one of the strongest defences that Brazil has had in decades, but what the Selecao lack is a powerful striking force upfront. This Brazilian team has one of the weakest forward line up which is mostly dependent on Neymar to create chances and also score.
How well will Neymar’s chemistry work with Oscar or Willian as he runs in from the left wing will determine how far this Brazilian team goes in the tournament. Scolari is typically faithful to his 4-3-2-1 formation which gives great flexibility but also leaves many holes in the midfield, at least on paper, but then Scolari has the ability to turn the most attacking footballers into strong defenders, which is what he has done with Danny Alves.
Yes, the two fullbacks, Danny Alves of Barcelona and Marcelo of Real Madrid are the best wingers in the world today who also play for the best clubs in the world, which makes them great assets to have. In fact, the reason why Brazil outperformed everybody else in the 90s and early 2000s, when they won 2 world cups (1994 and 2002), was their strength in the wings in the form of the legendary duo of Roberto Carlos and Cafu as fullbacks. Felipao has played with the same philosophy of movement along the wings with emphasis on defensive roles. Silva at the central defence is also one of the best in the world and he has Luiz for company who is a completely different player in the golden Selecao jersey unlike what he is every week at Chelsea.
This is where the eulogies for this Brazilian team end, for inside the wings and away from the defence, this team leaves a lot to desire from. Behind the defence is possibly the weakest link of this team, the goalkeeper, Julio Ceasar, who looks very wobbly at best of times. Just one simple error from him may prove to be very costly in a tournament like World Cup. Up in the front, Oscar as the playmaker number 10 is not of the same class as Ronaldhino or Rivaldo let alone greats like Pele or Didi or Gerson etc.
If he remains as listless as he has been in some of the recent friendlies then he may have to be replaced with Willian to assist Neymar. Neymar and Hulk play just behind Fred who is the lone centre forward, but together they are not really awe-inspiring like say the R-Power of early 2000s or even the Romario-Bebeto combo of 1994. This frontline, barring Neymar, may just about manage to win, but how will history judge them is a completely different matter altogether.
It is indeed sad that the world cup had to come to its spiritual home, Brazil, at such a junction in the country’s soccer history when they probably have one of the more underwhelming teams in recent times. It is indeed criminal that Brazil should wait for 64 years to host only its second world cup. In fact, the world cup has returned to continental South America after a whopping 36 years, despite the continent having won 9 of the 19 world cups so far! All the money that European club football brings to the world governing body, FIFA, has skewed the powers and is also destroying the rhythmic beauty of the game, just like all the Indian money and IPL have made cricket such an ugly game. If only Brazil were able to hold a world cup much earlier, say in the 90s, there was a much better chance of rescuing Samba Soccer from an overtly European bias.
But then, Brazil is, well, Brazil, it simply can conjure up magic from out of nowhere and alter all the best laid plans of even the most defensive minded coaches by its Samba Soccer. I for one would be looking for the second coming of the Brazilian football from tonight and would be fervently hoping that they finally put to rest the ghosts of 1982 and rediscover the beautiful game. Brazil and the world of football deserve nothing less to come out of the Maracana this summer.
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