The game is known for its simplicity. But such simplicity hides myriad complexities. Think of the options available to a player receiving the ball: He can pass it forwards, backward, sideways, long or short, in the air or along the ground, using his right foot or his left. He doesn't even have to pass -- he can go for a dribble.
Such a range of choices means that soccer is a game that can be interpreted in different ways. It's one of the big explanations for soccer's global success -- like a universal language spoken with different accents, it gives the chance for diverse cultures to express their own identities through their approach to the game.
If it were just numbers, then, soccer would be bingo, and never would have become such a worldwide phenomenon. All this means that soccer is about much more than what you do. How you do it is also of fundamental importance.
The Brazil team at the 1982 World Cup did it in style. The Brazilians didn't win the competition. They didn't come second, or even in the top four. But they played matches of extraordinary beauty that have never been forgotten.
Ángel Cappa, the idealistic coach of an attractive side at Argentine club Huracán, recalls well the magic they generated: "The ball arrived in one zone," he wrote, "and disappeared to reappear in the form of a rabbit or a dove, and was then hidden again from opponents who in their anguish searched for it in the most unusual places, without being able to find it. We glanced at the watch with the intention of making time stand still because we wanted the game to go on forever. And in reality, it's still going on in the memory of all those who were there in the stadium or who watched it on television."
One of those who was clearly paying attention was Leonardo, the Brazilian who was just hired as the youthful coach of Italian giant AC Milan. Last week, he named that '82 side as a reference for his team, proclaiming an intention to play in a fluid style, without fixed positions in the midfield.
It's an implied criticism of the direction that Brazilian soccer has taken in recent times. The failure of the '82 side to win the World Cup cut deep. Coach Telê Santana had another go four years later with a slightly more cautious side, and when that didn't work, either, aesthetic considerations went out of the window, replaced by an emphasis on bulking up to match the physical power of the Europeans, closing down the center of midfield with markers and runners, and relying on quick breaks and set pieces. Since then, Brazil has been efficient and pragmatic, with breathtaking individual skills but without the fluidity of old. It also has been successful, winning two of the last four World Cups, and reaching the final in one of the others.
It's not easy, though, to escape from your own tradition. The '82 team still casts a shadow. Even in moments of triumph, the press reaction, both home and abroad, has frequently included the line, "not a typical Brazilian team."
National-team coach Dunga couldn't care less. He is the high priest of modern-day pragmatism. He even has said that yearning for a return to the values of '82 is part of a European-inspired plot aimed at bringing a halt to Brazil's run of success.
Shortly before taking over as Brazil coach, Dunga gave an interview in which he described the '82 side as "specialists in losing." They lost in '82, he said, they lost in '86 -- they couldn't even win a mini-World Cup staged by Uruguay in '80 to commemorate the Cup's 50-year anniversary. Brazil reached the final of that mini-World Cup before losing to the hosts 2-1.
That game was yet another frustration Brazil had to endure against Uruguay in Montevideo's historic Centenario stadium. Brazil had won friendlies there -- a famous victory in '32 changed the course of soccer history -- but never a major competitive match, like a World Cup qualifier or a Copa América clash.
That is, until Saturday. Dunga's men brought that hoodoo to an end with a score line that could hardly have been more emphatic: Brazil 4, Uruguay 0. Another triumph for pragmatism. The corner count was 15-2 in Uruguay's favor, but Dunga's Brazil gave the latest in a line of demonstrations of its counterattacking prowess. Where the fondly remembered boys of '82 failed, the current, much-maligned team has succeeded.
Perhaps. Like most comparisons, this one is unfair. The '82 team had Valdir Peres in goal. This time, he was playing at the other end. Veteran Brazil watchers could afford a wry smile at the opening goal on Saturday, a speculative long shot from right back Daniel Alves that bounced and somehow squirmed through hapless Uruguay keeper Sebastián Viera's reach. It was eerily reminiscent of a goal conceded by Brazil in '82, when a long-range shot from the Soviet Union's Andriy Bal eluded Peres in similar fashion. Viera was hardly convincing on the second (beaten to the ball by Juan's header) and third (a shot in at his near post from Luís Fabiano) goals as well.
Brazil goalkeeper Júlio César, meanwhile, once more was in magnificent form. The shots rained down and he kept them all out. Time and time again in this campaign, Júlio César has come up big when it has mattered. Saturday's match was one in which swapping goalkeepers could have altered the outcome.
There's no doubt the standard of Brazilian goalkeeping has improved by leaps in bounds over the last 20 years. Back in '82, poor Peres didn't inspire a great deal of confidence. It's certainly arguable that if Brazil had been able to count on a Júlio César back then, it might have won the World Cup, and the whole beauty vs. efficiency debate may never have erupted.
Certainly Spain, at the national-team level, and Barcelona, at club level, have shown there isn't necessarily a contradiction between the two concepts. A team can base its game on possession in the opponent's half, on a constant exchange of passes, with small, talented footballers instead of giant athletes -- and still can win.
Indeed, it can win because of these very characteristics. There will always be a place in the game's pantheon for those sides that stir the blood but still fall short of winning the silverware. But beauty and efficiency need not be in opposition.