Brazil’s dispiriting quarterfinal defeat against Paraguay means that the world’s most successful men's soccer nation will once again be on the outside looking in when Argentina takes on Chile in Saturday’s Copa America final.
Compared with many national teams, Brazil remains a competitive and sturdy outfit, but by the country’s own exacting standards the sides it has fielded in recent years have represented a vertiginous drop in quality. Here's a look by the numbers and statistics at some of the key reasons for Brazil’s current woes:
3 – The number of world class attacking talents Brazil boasted the last time it won the World Cup in 2002.
While individual comparisons with past players are largely unhelpful, it is surely telling that most of the great historical Brazilian sides have had a number of outstanding attacking and creative options, such as Pelé, Garrincha and Didi in 1958, Rivellino, Tostão, Gerson and Pelé in 1970, and Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in 2002.
In contrast, the modern Brazil has only Neymar, through whom all the team’s attacking moves seem to flow. “Has Brazil ever been so dependent on one player?” wondered one of the country’s leading sportswriters, Juca Kfouri, in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper recently.
As well as making Brazil tactically predictable, such dependency allows the opposition to target the Barcelona star. Most of Colombia’s roughhousing of the forward during the Copa America group stage match between the teams was within the rules of the game, but the constant niggling and intimidation undoubtedly got to Neymar, making his eruption on the final whistle almost predictable.
9 – Number of coaches sacked in first eight rounds of games of Brazil’s Serie A season
Brazil fans may complain about Dunga’s limitations as coach, but the truth is that there are few alternatives available, especially as the CBF (the Brazilian FA) has made it clear it is not interested in hiring a foreign manager.
The culture of impatience and short-term thinking in Brazilian club soccer means that a coach usually stays in the job for a matter of months, not years.
A case in point is one of the country’s brightest managers, Marcelo Oliveira, who was sacked by Belo Horizonte side Cruzeiro just four league games into the new season, after winning the title in each of the previous two years.
As well as destroying the confidence of young managers, the sacking culture means that tactical experimentation is an impossibility, leading to the paucity of attacking ideas the national team has displayed in recent years. “Brazilian coaches don’t train their teams,” said Oliveira last year. “They just try and get them ready for the next game.”
10 – Successive friendly wins under Dunga prior to Copa America defeat against Colombia
It was hard to fault Dunga’s opening 11 months in charge of the Seleção as the coach rattled off 10 straight wins. Brazil’s play was hardly expansive, but the team at least looked compact and hard-working.
Friendlies are so-called for a reason, however, and when the chips were down at the Copa America, even against comparatively limited opposition such as Paraguay and a Colombia side struggling to recreate its World Cup form, Brazil’s limitations, and those of its manager, were all too readily exposed.
All those friendly wins may merely have been papering over the cracks.
21 – Number of years Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship (1964-1985)
“The dictatorship that took power in Brazil in 1964 imposed technocrats in all walks of life…that is why a military PT instructor, captain Cláudio Coutinho, worked with the team at the 1974 World Cup and was the coach in 1978. The 80s and Telê Santana brought a brief re-flowering of the old way, a re-ignition of the myth, but since then the drift into pragmatism has been relentless,” SI contributor Jonathan Wilson wrote in The Guardian recently.
It is not a theory to be applied blanket-like across the history of Brazilian soccer, much of which has been shaped by insurrectionary mavericks such as Garrincha, Socrates, and Romario.
Nor did the dictatorship do much to change the essential ingredients of Brazil’s terrace culture, where an appreciation of the beautiful and the outrageous, and a scorn for the cumbersome, still endures.
The military dictatorship’s need for rigidity and order, along with a desire to ape the muscular strength of more powerful European sides like Holland and Germany, however, did play a role in Brazil’s descent from the side that won the World Cup in Mexico in such glorious style to the more physically focused teams that, 1982 aside, would represent the Seleção at future tournaments.
It is a transformation arguably best represented by Dunga himself, who, as the splendid, abrasive captain of the team that won the 1994 World Cup, regularly expressed his contempt for the ultimately unsuccessful entertainers of 1982.
15,000 - Average league crowd in Brazil’s top division
If the country’s club game is anything to go by, it is no wonder that Brazil is struggling. Top-flight crowds hover below the 15,000 mark, while even the country’s biggest clubs are mired in enormous debt and frequently unable to pay their players on time. The country’s best players, meanwhile, now not only swap Brazil for the bright lights of the Champions League, but for more financially stable leagues in the UAE, China and Mexico.
While the continual flow of Brazilian talent abroad means the strength of the country’s club game is not quite as important as it once was, it is hard to imagine how Brazilian soccer can hope to put its house in order when the foundation of that house, the country’s clubs, is so riddled with termites.
83 - Age of former CBF President Jose Maria Marin
If World Cups were awarded for shadiness, then the Brazilian FA would have won more trophies than the national team it controls. Former president Ricardo Teixeira was regularly accused of crookedness by journalists, but repeatedly wriggled his way out of trouble, often through the help of his political allies (“I sh** a heap,” he sarcastically and memorably proclaimed in one interview, when asked if the rumors worried him).
When Teixeira fled Brazil for a life of gilded exile in Florida, his replacement was the cadaverous Jose Maria Marin, a man once caught on camera pocketing a player’s medal after the final of a youth tournament, and who has even been linked with involvement in the murder of an opponent of Brazil’s military dictatorship when he was a right wing politician in São Paulo in the 1970s.
When Marin’s term in office ended recently, this most un-Olympic of torches was passed on to another man of power, privilege and advancing years, Marco Polo Del Nero.
The FBI investigation into FIFA corruption now seems to have confirmed the extent of corruption at the CBF. Marin was arrested during the authorities’ first swoop, while Del Nero and Teixeira are reportedly “co-conspirator 11 and 12” in a Copa do Brasil bribes racket dating back to 1990 that is also part of the FBI charges.
123 – The number of fouls committed by Brazil at the 2014 World Cup (second most in tournament)
It is perhaps not the fouls themselves that matter–soccer has known plenty of admirably tough-tackling teams in the past, and the Seleção itself has historically been no stranger to the rough stuff (as Tab Ramos will attest). What is more worrying for Brazil is how the country’s coach and players continually insist that they remain the innocent guardians of the beautiful game, picked upon and bullied by thuggish opponents whose only hope of winning is through brutality.
“Our players at times got caught in their provocations and forgot to play football,” said Dunga, after the defeat against Colombia. “Brazil has to play football. Brazil can’t go to war, we have to focus on what we do best, which is play football.” Yet Dunga’s men committed 20 fouls to the opposition’s 19 during that game, more sinner than sinned against, just as they had during the World Cup clash between the sides, when 31 out of 54 fouls were committed by Brazil.
At the same time, Brazil’s glorious past creates an air of entitlement that serves to isolate the game’s administrators, and seemingly the current generation of players, from the realities of modern soccer. “Spain has to understand that there’s a hierarchy in the game, and Brazil has won five World Cups,” said goalkeeper Julio Cesar after Brazil had won the Confederations Cup in 2013, and just a month before the World Cup itself, assistant coach Carlos Alberto Parreira declared that Brazil had “one hand on the cup.”
This dangerous combination of paranoia and arrogance serves only to make avoiding the real issues that plague the Brazilian game much easier.
26,000,000 – The number of Brazilians who have escaped lives of poverty in recent decades
Perhaps in some ways fans should be pleased that Brazil is no longer the force that it was, for the national team’s decline may in part reflect the social changes seen in the country in recent years.
"It's a huge country," said Tostão before the 2014 World Cup, "and one that has never managed to free itself from poverty. Thousands of children, instead of having access to good public schools and growing up with opportunities, end up playing football and dreaming about becoming professional and famous…every now and again a Neymar, Romario, Ronaldo appears. It's inevitable.”
Now, however, while a recent downturn has hit the country hard, economic growth, an increased minimum wage and one of the world’s biggest welfare programs have improved life for many poorer Brazilians.
The welcome growth in educational and professional opportunities, however, may mean one of the Seleção’s great natural advantages, its unrelenting flow of talent, is reduced.
Especially as the economic expansion of recent decades has inevitably meant a squeezing of space in urban areas, hitting the traditional street corner and dirt pitch games hard.
A soccer-obsessed country with a population of around 200 million will always produce more than its fair share of gifted players, and Brazil certainly has a number of promising youngsters both already established at top clubs and in the pipeline. But the Brazil that produced those players is changing, as the country creeps slowly towards a more equitable society, the challenge for the game’s leaders will be how to react to those changes, and to the fact that the Seleção may no longer enjoy the rich harvests of footballing talent that it did in the past.