There’s a common misconception that Brazilian World Cup teams play with a free-flowing, attacking ethos that typifies jogo bonito. But you must rewind over 30 years to find the last time it happened. As it was, that beautiful side in 1982 with Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Eder swaggered only to the quarter-finals where they lost a thriller to eventual-champions Italy.
Ever since, various Brazilian managers have attempted to find the right balance but it hasn’t been easy. In 1994, Carlos Alberto Parreira scrapped a sweeper system and instructed his players to push up and engage the opposition more. It was very un-Brazil like. But, he was playing to the team’s strengths. The 1994 side lacked a playmaker and was short of midfield magic. Up front, there was a consistent sharp-shooter in Romario and an able deputy in Bebeto. But it said a lot about Parreira’s philosophy that Mazinho, normally a fullback, was brought into the starting XI (on the right of midfield) when Rai, the team’s captain and natural creator, failed to ignite in the opening games.
Though Romario scored five goals and Bebeto three, the cornerstone of Brazil’s ultimate success 20 years ago was their defence. Two of the back four, Jorginho and Marcio Santos, made the Team of the Tournament – something that hasn’t happened since and from seven games, Brazil conceded just three times – twice in the quarter-final clash against Holland.
It may not have been fantasy soccer but it was pragmatic, realistic and succesful – Brazil were crowned World Cup winners for the first time since 1970.
Four years later, Mario Zagallo had a typically-Brazilian dilemma. His World Cup side was flush with expressive, entertaining players and there was an expectation that the team would set the tournament alight. But, with Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Denilson, Rivaldo and Ronaldo all featuring, something was amiss. The team trudged through the group stage, inexplicably losing to Norway. Though Chile were easily dispatached in the knockout round, Brazil were very nearly caught by Denmark in the quarter-finals before scraping past Holland in a shootout. Though defeat in the final to France was a shock, it seemed to fit the narrative Brazil had carried through the previous collection of games – that the blueprint had lacked definition. There was a distinct lack of a clear vision and system and, perhaps most unforgivably, focus was placed on the individual rather than the team.
There was a further World Cup success in 2002 under Luis Felipe Scolari – the current Brazilian coach. He borrowed heavily from Parreira’s idealogy eight years previously. He identified three game-winning attackers (Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho) and absolved them of defensive responsibility. He also acknowledged that the wide defenders, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, could be pushed forward if there was a solid defensive foundation behind them. He played three central defenders, one of whom, Edmilson, had the intelligence to begin attacks from deep if required. In front of him, ultimately, was Gilberto and Kleberson – two steady, rather unfashionable holding midfielders. Once again, like Perreira before him and in contrast to Zagallo in 1998, Scolari had got the mix just right. In seven games, the team conceded just four goals while their attack was a rampant success. Ronaldo finished the tournament with eight, Rivaldo scored five while Ronaldinho grabbed two. From the side’s 18 goals, 15 came from the trio whose sole direction had been to attack.
So, to this tournament. In many ways, it’s a Brazilian dream team. On the bench, Scolari coaches while Parreira is the technical director. Unsurprisingly, the side has a blend of robustness, physicality and intelligence. Parreira has spent a large portion of the build-up to this tournament lauding the defence. It’s certainly an imposing unit with Dani Alves and Marcelo on the flanks and David Luiz partnering arguably the world’s best defender, Thiago Silva, in the middle. In midfield, there’s Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo to offer composure while Oscar, Hulk and Fred will look to create and engineer openings. On the left side will be Neymar, heralded as the next best thing for so long but who endured a fitful debut season with Barcelona.
In many ways, his mixed performances in Spain may help him and his teammates over the next number of weeks. In the build-up to the tournament, the spotlight has been on Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney while other headlines have been dedicated to those missing due to injury. Though certainly an individual, Neymar doesn’t carry the same burden as Ronaldo (the earlier Brazilian version) did in 1998, suffering the consequences prior to the final. By flying under the radar, Neymar is, right now at least, just another member of a strong Brazilian side, not the boy wonder set to take on the world by himself.
As the street protests seem set to continue through the tournament, how apt it would be if the Brazilian team could reunite a divided country. Soccer, after all, is the language of its people.