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Brazil, Netherlands sacrifice romantic ideals for pragmatism

Hardwired into the human brain is a tendency to seek patterns when confronted by data. Thus, we like to think that Europe is in soccer crisis because only three European teams remain in the final eight and that South America has triumphed because four squads are still there. The single African nation is either an exception or proof that Africa is the future of football or both.

We also exhibit the propensity to classify our information, often in reference to opposite extremes, conditioned to seek characteristics typical of South Americans or Europeans. The South Americans are poetry, whereas the Europeans are prose. Or so the old cliche goes.

Back in 1971, Pier Paolo Passolini, the Italian filmmaker, political activist, intellectual and midfielder, wrote about this distinction, stating no value-judgement: "[This] is purely technical," he expressed. Seeing soccer as a language, he wrote that like all languages: "Football has its purely 'instrumental' moments, rigorous and abstractly regulated by the code, and its 'expressive' moments. ... Among the languages spoken in any country there is some common ground which is the culture of that country: it's historical actuality. Therefore, precisely for reasons of culture and history, the football of some peoples is fundamentally in prose, ... and the football of some other peoples is fundamentally in poetry".

Back then Brazil was considered the undisputed poet laureate, with its beautiful play full of dribbles, or joga bonito as it came to be named, while Rinus Michels had stunned the world with what we still refer to as Total Football, a system in which all players were able to perform all roles. The fact that over ensuing decades the Brazilians picked up five World Cup titles has not taken away the Dutch supremacy -- they remain acknowledged as the best team never to have won the World Cup.

We continue to this day measuring performances against those standards. Even at club level -- if Arsenal has a season in which its passing rate is above average, headlines hail the advent of the "new Ajax." Ghana can still on occasion be labelled the "African Brazil." Young players of promise become burdened with the expectation of becoming the "new Pele" or the "new [Diego] Maradona." Suffice to say we have adhered to this broad strokes: Argentina are chaotic and spontaneous; Germany disciplined and potent.

And much as we like our politics to be left or right, we like to think of our soccer as attacking or defensive. Furthermore, we have come to equate attacking as beautiful and defensive as objectionable.

But then, we have also come to derive the most extreme sense of personal achievement and fulfillment when our team wins. And this, the win-at-all-costs school, albeit criticized in theory by purists, is actually the back-bone of the industry. "In this business, money is how you keep count of the score" is an old adage a man of soccer once shared with me many moons ago. That has not changed.

However, most of these assumptions are inaccurate (except for the one about the money). Take Brazil, for example. Pele this week in an interview with Der Tagesspiegel, criticized Dunga's team's play: "I was a forward and always wanted to score. That was the most important, what the fans want. The current team, instead plays on the counter attack, doesn't control the game. Domination and the will to always control the rival are lacking."

It is not just Pele who speaks out against Dunga's style (a beautifully defensive player in his day, BTW) within the Brazilian thinkers' camp. Octavio Couto Silva, an architect and lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, (Fluminense from birth) tells me "This is the worst Brazilian seleçao in any World Cup since 1930, much worse than 1990. The team are not inspired. The defense is solid and the mid-field is also focused on defending with no talent. The team depends too much on the counter attack. Kaka and Robinho are old and past their prime and with such limitations in midfield Dunga made a mistake not including Paulo Henrique Ganso or even Ronaldinho Gaucho, who in spite of everything has returned to good football".

Dunga's decision to exclude Ronaldinho was a major story at the time, and widely attributed precisely to the fact that Ronaldinho, emblem of the joga bonito-airport-dribbling-jorge-ben-sountrack poetry, is totally at odds with the instrumental Brazil the manager desires. The country is still in the competition; for all the whining of the intellectuals, we can guarantee well over 100 million people will samba and claim the victory as their own if they actually win the Cup.

Brazil has been efficient and pragmatic for decades now. The 2002 World Cup winning squad were a far cry from the stereotype, and I will always treasure interviewing Gilberto Silva for a Nike-backed avdertorial in which it wanted him to say "In Brazil it doesn't matter wehether you win or not, it's how you play that counts." Over and over Gilberto insisted "No. No. No. No. Winning is very important to us."

Total Football also turns out to be a bit of a fallacy, says Dutch by migration global footbologist Simon Kuper, "the term "total football" is wrong in that the Dutch never use it. (I think genesis of the phrase is actually in American gridiron football,). The Dutch just call it "Dutch football" or "the Hollandse school." If Michels returned to earth and saw this team some things would surprise him: this team plays from the counter attack. When the opposition loses the ball, that's the moment we strike. But I do think it's in the Dutch tradition created by Michels-[Johan] Cruyff 40 years ago, even if updated for the new era. The fast passing, the brilliant positional sense, the swapping of positions, the having 11 thinking players on the pitch, almost like 11 playmakers, are all very Dutch aspects. It might not be "total football." But it is "Dutch football.""

Much in the same vein, Dunga's defenders are playing Brazilian football, whether we like them or not. Perhaps then, it is not the common ground of culture or nationality that codify the narrative stances of the modern game. More and more teams are relying strongly on counter-attacking; effective defending (or bus parking to adopt current European winning club parlance) is safer, if not indipensable.

Arguably, even cum laud graduates of attacking flair academies are proving that adaptability pays more than principled commitment to an idea, as illustrated by Paraguay'a Gerardo "Tata" Martino. Marcelo Bielsa's best student and first foot soldier when the latter was manager of Newell's Old Boys, Martino has lead ranked outsiders Paraguay to the final 8 displaying just about everything Bielsa stands against. A clear case of pragma versus dogma; whereas Bielsa is inflexible and will play the same system no matter who the opposition (trying to attack Brazil like they are Honduras may win over sympathies but alas not a winning strategy) Martino has shown survival instincts to boot in his ability to build his squad around the virtues of his players: "compact, hardened, capable of hurting when they can." The moral of the story is that, albeit accused of mean and closed play, the disciple has stayed at the party while the instransigent master has gone home.

Is it fair, though, to think that this modern game we are all glued to, with it's reliance on the counter attack, is somehow devoid of beauty? For what, pray, is beauty? The ball, the object of desire par excellence in the game, is universally considered the most ultimate perfect shape; the union of the end with the beginning. Holland and Brazil may not be honoring their ancestry according to stereotype, but they are instead merely by being there.

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