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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.