I'm never a big fan of sports being reduced to soap opera. There's much more going on than the emotional drama and the athlete's state of mind. We can talk about "focus" and "concentration'' all we want -- at times they're used like magic words that explain everything about the outcome.
What gets lost in this approach is an appreciation of technical, tactical and physical factors that can tip the balance in a sport. To take an example from the Confederations Cup, New Zealand can be as concentrated and focused as it's possible to be -- but the Kiwis are still likely to get a beating every time they come up against Spain.
But it would be foolish to deny that emotional aspects can also be crucial -- probably more so the higher the level of the game. In circumstances of near-technical, tactical and physical parity, then in a low-scoring game like soccer, the psychological difference can be decisive. And the Copa Libertadores has given us firm evidence.
In the last few years, I've argued repeatedly that South America's premier club competition is becoming a Brazilian show. Geopolitical and economic factors have meant that Brazilian clubs give it a higher priority than before, the introduction of a league system in the domestic championship means that the best Brazilian clubs qualify and with the relative strength of the national currency, players from elsewhere in the continent have started to gravitate towards Brazil.
This has been borne out on the pitch. Year in, year out, Brazilian soccer has demonstrated its strength in depth in the Libertadores. The expansion of the competition in 2000 is an appropriate cut-off point. Since then, of the 10 finals, only twice has there been no Brazilian involvement. In the last five years, this is even clearer: Of the last 10 finalists, seven have been from Brazil.
So why can't they win the thing? Of these eight finals in the last 10 years, only two have been won by the Brazilian representative. Curiously, both times the beaten finalist was also Brazilian. Which means the other six finals, against foreign opposition, were all lost. For 10 years, a Brazilian club hasn't managed to beat an opponent from elsewhere in the finals. They can do it in all the other stages of the competition, but not in the finals.
This trend was as clear as day again this year. Of the eight quarterfinalists, half were from Brazil. Estudiantes of La Plata were the only Argentine team left standing. But it won the trophy, coming from behind to beat Cruzeiro 2-1 in Belo Horizonte after the first leg in Argentina had finished scoreless. For the third consecutive year, the Brazilian club let the title slip away on home field.
Obviously there are technical explanations. Estudiantes was spearheaded by superb midfield playmaker Juan Sebastián Verón, who had turned his back on European soccer with the explicit aim of helping the club win the Libertadores. Where is the Brazilian Verón? His style of play is highly reminiscent of Toninho Cerezo, a wonderful Brazilian midfielder from the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. But he is a type of player Brazilian soccer no longer seems interested in producing. In the haste to construct rapid counterattacking teams, the old-fashioned midfield general seems surplus to requirements in Brazil, and the spectacle is the poorer for it.
Nevertheless, there aren't too many stars in Verón's supporting cast, largely made up of journeymen professionals. Man for man, the Cruzeiro side looked to be superior. Estudiantes, though, won the title on merit. It seems hard to deny that in both legs of the finals, the Estudiantes team played at or close to potential. The Cruzeiro side never got remotely close to its own.
Cruzeiro had shown problems with a lack of emotional equilibrium in the group phase when, despite qualifying comfortably, it picked up five red cards. It all seemed forgotten when it sailed through the knockout matches, but come the finals, the Brazilians were uptight, on edge and unable to do themselves justice.
They had an obsession with the referee. Brazilian officials tend to give free kicks for the slightest contact, a criteria that is not usually followed elsewhere in South America. The Cruzeiro players must have been aware of this, but unable to control themselves, they kept looking for fouls. The more they were denied them, the harder they tried to convince the referee and ended up in a vicious circle of protest, seemingly more concerned with winning a free kick than winning the game.
It was a similar story last year when Fluminense lost the title on penalties to LDU of Ecuador. The Brazilians worked hard to level the aggregate scores, but seemed to freeze when they had done so. After the game, they were furious with the referee, claiming they had been cheated and so on. In truth, if anyone had suffered from an error, it was the Ecuadorians -- they had seen a perfectly legitimate late goal ruled out, a strike which would have won the game and done away with the need for a shootout. Once again, in the finals, a talented Brazilian team had not done itself justice. The occasion seemed too big for it. The performance and the protest suggested an infantile lack of emotional balance.
The irony here is that mental strength is one of the big plus points of the Brazilian national team. The Confederations Cup supplies some excellent examples: Brazil was struggling in the second half of its debut match against Egypt, had problems in the semis against South Africa and was two goals down in the final against the U.S. But every time it displayed a steely will to win, and a deep inner belief that it would pull through however unpromising the situation. Their mental strength made things happen.
So what is the difference? Why is a strong point of the national team a weak area of the clubs? One point, of course, is the quality and seniority of the players. Cruzeiro, for example, is unable to hang on to the excellent players it produces. But the same is true of Estudiantes. South American club soccer is a selling industry, so in the Libertadores, this cannot be seen as a comparative advantage.
Instead, I tentatively would suggest that Europe has something to do with it. Based on his own experience in Italy and Germany, Brazilian national-team coach Dunga once said, "Our press likes to say that the Brazilian player goes abroad in order to evolve tactically. The reality is that the Brazilian player goes abroad to learn to have responsibility, both individual and collective. In Brazil, any player who is above average thinks he can get away with more than the others and behaves irresponsibly, including on the pitch. The big problem of Brazilian coaches is paternalism. They let the players get away with too much. But in Europe, if the player is not playing for the team, he loses his place."
Perhaps this is the key. Brazilian coaches are paternalistic because the local culture is. Providing he can adapt, the experience of living abroad can make the Brazilian player more mature, more responsible for his own actions and more able to channel his will to win in a positive direction.
Cruzeiro, though, needs a quick fix. It must throw off the depression of last week's defeat and concentrate on domestic matters. While it was concentrating on the Libertadores, Cruzeiro wasn't taking the Brazilian Championship particularly seriously, frequently fielding reserve lineups. Now, with the campaign almost a third of the way through, it finds themselves in the relegation zone. Cruzeiro has all the talent needed to dig itself out of a hole, but it will need a dose of mental strength as well.