Despite Wins, Doubts Mount About Brazil's 'Beautiful' Soccer Tradition

Despite Wins, Doubts Mount About Brazil's 'Beautiful' Soccer Tradition

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Has Brazil’s soccer team betrayed the beautiful game?

That’s the question on the minds of many soccer fans as they watch Brazil’s talent-studded squad underwhelm — even as they win — in the World Cup.

Joga bonito or “play beautifully.” That Portuguese phrase has become conflated with the essence of Brazil’s usual soccer style: poetry in motion.

Undefeated so far, and headed for the quarterfinals, the iconic yellow jerseys of Brazil’s national side, coached by former defender Dunga, remain an intimidating sight for an opposing team.

The names of star players such as Robinho, Kaká, Maicon, Elano — always just the first names or nicknames as is the style in Brazil — still are synonymous with world-class athleticism, skill, and power.

But, are they making music?

According to a good number of commentators (and Brazilians, too), the answer is — not quite.

Even after Brazil drubbed Chile 3-0 on Monday, a prominent Brazilian commentator was displeased, saying the team verged on boring, and certainly was short on thrills.

“When people feel that quiver and urge to scream, with the patriotism ready in our throat, nothing happens,” Reinaldo Azevedo wrote on his blog in news-magazine Veja. “You go back to your sofa, feeling a little sad, kind of tense like Dunga.”

This Brazilian World Cup team has been criticized at home and abroad like no other in recent memory, perhaps since the embarrassing World Cup qualifying losses of the 2000 campaign.

It’s all about deficiencies in style, and a feeling that the victories, when they came, were not convincing enough.

Humberto Luiz Peron, in São Paulo newspaper Folha, acknowledged Brazil had played its best game yet, but also admitted that Chile was “fragile” and opened itself up to goals once Brazil took the lead. He seemed to minimize the victory by headlining his post “The Adversary Was Ideal.”

In Argentina, soccer critic Quintín, who writes for the blog Lectora Provisoria, was positively withering. (Quintín’s critique, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt since Argentina and Brazil are archenemies in the world of soccer.)

“I would really like for Brazil to lose,” he wrote after the Chile-Brazil game. “It’s not interesting to see a selfish team that gives us, it’s true, a pretty goal as long as the rival allows the space for it to happen, but resigns itself to zero goals if the other team hangs back.”

Two of Brazil’s previous games in this tournament were cause for real embarrassment. Exhibit A was Brazil’s grinding and embarrassingly close 2-1 win over the tournament’s weakest team, North Korea, in their opening game. Exhibit B was a lackluster 0-0 tie with Portugal in their final game of group play.

These games had Azevedo, of magazine Veja, grumbling about coach Dunga’s “puny soccer.”

The reason Brazil’s team has received such a hard time from their fans goes to the heart of a debate over soccer style that is raging on soccer fields and sidelines around the world.

The debate has been characterized as one between artsy soccer and results-obsessed soccer by Harry Browne, who writes on the World Cup for website CounterPunch, and is a lecturer at the School of Media at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“In South America, in particular, there has been for at least half a century a debate between football’s romantics and its pragmatists, sometimes expressed as fútbol arte vs. anti-fútbol,” Browne wrote in a recent column.

Some Brazilians clearly feel that Dunga, their hard-nosed coach, has pushed their team away from art soccer and toward the dark side, anti-soccer, which is often effective but not always that pretty.

Dunga’s game — a game of attrition — of defending narrow victories, wearing an opponent down and using physical fitness as much as flashes of skill or talent, seems alien to fans of Brazil’s more fluid crowd-pleasing tradition.

The tie with Portugal, which conveniently sent both teams to the Round of 16, was seen as a particularly cynical 90 minutes. To play for a tie is what a middling European team does, not the pentacampeão (five-time champion) Brazil, the only team to play in every World Cup since the tournament began in 1930.

To be fair, even an anti-soccer coach like Dunga sometimes gives his players enough rein to shine; and “artsy” coaches like Argentina’s Diego Maradona often order over-planned plays or make game-deadening substitutions that might be considered anti-soccer.

Each coach has his own bit of flair; each team has its regimental dimension and for-the-love-of-the-game streak. The Germans, for example, put on a great show in their Round of 16 4-1 win over England.

But Brazil’s embrace of a more calculated game is a sign, perhaps, that the beautiful game has become more like every other big-money professional sport: dominated by an uncharismatic actuarial attitude, all about the game tapes, the stats, the risk analysis, the exercise regiment, the drills, the rules.

Several coaches in the current World Cup, for example, banned girlfriends and wives from the hotel or even discouraged sex, Dunga among them.

Maradona, of course, did the opposite. He encouraged his players to indulge in South Africa if it was with their soulmates since, according to him, this was healthy and raised morale.

Anti-soccer and art soccer are vastly oversimplified oppositions, but there is a sense that globalization of talent (especially the trend toward foreign coaches training other countries’ teams) and a focus on technique are diluting the more freewheeling soccer legacies such as Brazil’s.

In general the intangibles — a roster’s unique spirit, national style, and the idiosyncrasies of individual players — seem to matter less and less.

Of course, Dunga’s Brazil team may in the end prove that these two styles of soccer are not mutually exclusive (the 3-0 victory over Chile in the Round of 16 was a start). As the torchbearers for the beautiful game, it will be on them to show that a focus on precision, results, and on-field pragmatism can be pretty, too.