Rant of a Seleção Fan
For someone who’s watched the Samba magic from the 80s, through the insipid 90s till the 7-1 thrashing in this edition of the World Cup, it’s heartbreaking to see the marked decline of Brazilian football. But Sumit Sarkar lives in hope – his team will lift the trophy a sixth time.
One summer afternoon a little more than 32 years ago our household in suburban Kolkata, then Calcutta, received a black-and-white television set with immense joy. My uncle had applied for the TV more than a year ago hoping to see the World Cup. With the world’s most expensive player in the team, he was confident that his favourite Argentina would be able to defend the title, just like Brazil did 20 years ago. For the 10-year-old boy that I was, that success of Brazil some 20 years ago, or even their triumph in 1970, was like an event from the history book. So, Argentina became my team too. Like I had no choice but to be a Mohan Bagan supporter, I had no choice but to be an Argentina fan. This is the uncle who introduced me to Kolkata Maidan, and would take me to watch Albicelestes at the Eden Gardens 18 months later. But by then I was a convert.
Doordarshan, the only television broadcaster those days, eventually failed to broadcast group stage matches and decided to air live matches only from the semi-finals. My uncle arranged for boosters and a special kind of antenna to make sure that we receive the broadcast of Dhaka TV from neighbouring Bangladesh. Dhaka TV was broadcasting live matches from the second group stage. Thus, on a rainy night, we sat in front of a black and white TV to watch Argentina play against Brazil. An hour before the match was scheduled to start, there was a power cut. When power came back, the match was already in the second half and Argentina was down by a goal. On the grainy screen, I noticed a tall bearded Brazilian player, wearing the No. 8 jersey, making some awesome passes. No. 6 of Brazil, another tall bearded fellow, intercepted the ball from the centre circle and passed it to No. 4 who made a through pass to the No. 8, who passed the ball to a tall man with flowing curly hair on the left flank wearing No. 11. No. 11 dribbled passed one Argentina player and passed it back to No. 8. This time No. 8 received the ball on his right foot, did a body faint, and then passed the ball forward diagonally to his right. This forward pass was all it took me to convert. That No. 8 was Socrates. That forward pass completely ripped apart the Argentinian defence. There were four defenders between Socrates and Zico. Zico, the No. 10, received the ball well inside the penalty box and crossed left. No. 9 Serginho, a tall dark man, scored with a simple header. No. 6 was Junior, who later scored another goal from another defence ripping forward pass diagonally to the left from Zico. The No. 11 was Eder.
That was my first exposure to international football and I was completely mesmerized by the dazzling passing game from Zico, Socrates, Eder, Junior, Falcao and Serginho. I couldn’t sleep that night. The excitement was too much for me to handle. I fell in love with the Seleção Brasileira. I didn’t know that I’ll have to cry within three days. I was told that Brazil needed a draw against Italy to reach the semi-final. On the match day again there was a power cut and we missed 10 minutes of the match. Brazil was already down by a goal. Then came another magic moment – two forward passes between Socrates and Zico. Socrates passed the ball forward to Zico, who beat one defender with a half turn and passed it forward to Socrates. That was magic for me. After passing the ball forward to Zico, Socrates sprinted past the defence to receive Zico’s forward pass that cut across the defence. I didn’t know football could be that brilliant. Socrates didn’t make any mistake in slotting the ball past Dino Zoff. Brazil went down again due to a defensive lapse and a superb finish by Paolo Rossi. Then came the waves of attack. The score was levelled by Falcao halfway in the second half. Brazil needed a draw, but they kept attacking. Rossi scored another goal from a corner which knocked Brazil out of the World Cup. And I cried that night. Just like the spectacled plump boy who was trying to hide his face in a paper glass, in the stands of Arena Mineirão on July 8, 2014.
But from that day, July 5 1982, I have been a Seleção fan. Four years later, Diego magic inducted most of my friends and possibly most of Calcutta to the Maradonian Church, but didn’t get the scope to convert me back as I gave the remaining tournament a miss. For me the World Cup was over as soon as Julio Cesar’s penalty hit the post in the quarter final against France. Before that my hero Socrates too had missed his penalty during the shootout. By 1990, Telê Santana was replaced by Sebastião Lazaroni and the magic was gone. But my love remained unshaken. After a pathetic group stage wherein they scrapped past minnows Costa Rica and Scotland and a weak Sweden, Brazil met Argentina in the round of 16. With a solo run from the centre circle, dribbling past three in canary yellow, Diego finished my dream with a final pass to Claudio Caniggia. By then my friends used to tease me that I am outdated, as in 1990 it was hard to find anyone around, below the age of 30, following the samba boys.
So, as you see, I have experienced the heartbreaks of ’80s and the insipid ’90s. But 8th July 2014 is a very different day in the life of a Brazil fan. This piece is supposed to bring out that difference. Am I qualified to do that? Do I know how the Brazilians felt in the galleries of Arena Mineirão? How did Clovis Acosta Fernandes, who has attended each and every World Cup match of Brazil since 1990, feel? Or the ladies who cried their hearts out? I think I do. Seeing your country concede four goals in six minutes in a World Cup semi-final at home should not be very different from seeing your national cricket team lose seven wickets for 22 runs in a World Cup semi-final at home. I was there at Eden Gardens on that fateful March evening of 1996, when Sanath Jayasuriya and company had India reeling at 120 for 8 chasing 251.
In the last 20 years Brazil have added two stars on their shirt, played three finals. The younger generation who began following Brazil from 1994 or 1998 or 2002 have seen all the success and have grown up with a feeling of being the best, if not invincible. Many might have forgotten the pangs of 1998 final. Despite failing to reach the last four in the previous two World Cups, the hangover of success continued. Indian, fans of other nations think of Indian Brazil fans as high-headed. Superciliousness from the champions is acceptable, but not from the fans of a team that got knocked out in the quarter finals in the last two World Cups. They were ecstatic on 8th July. The ecstasy is same as that of the crowd at a bullfight after the killing. The Seleção have fallen. FIFA’s most successful child failed miserably. The bull has been killed. The nation that dreamed of making a Hexa conceded a Hepta! The team that last lost a competitive game on home soil back on September 30, 1975, lost again in the same Arena Mineirão.
The initial feeling was that of disbelief, followed by numbness. Many must have thought that it was a one-off bad day. Many believed in Scolari’s black-out argument. Indeed it is possible that they didn’t know what to do after conceding the second or the third goal. But the problem in Brazilian football is much deep-rooted. What about the third place play-off against Netherlands? The Seleção conceding two goals within 13 minutes in that match, too, made me think; made me ask a few questions.
From 2010 to 2013, each year Brazilian clubs won the Copa Libertadores, the annual continental club championship of South America – the counterpart of the much-coveted UEFA Champions League. But this year, for the first time since 1991, no Brazilian club made it to the semi-final. Only Cruzerio made it to the quarterfinals. Atletico Mineiro won the continental championship last year but at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco they lost to local outfit Raja Casablanca in the semi-final. That must be news to many Brazil fans outside Brazil, but it indicates that the problem is not just with the Brazil national team, but with Brazilian football in general. Alright, Corinthians defeated Chelsea in 2012 to lift the FIFA Club World Cup. Exactly how did they manage that? I saw the match. Corinthians gave Chelsea a taste of their own medicine – a tightly organized defence, or what is commonly called ‘parking the bus’, which is a far cry from the magical jogo bonito.
I don’t know what people mean by jogo bonito but I haven’t seen Brazil play fluid, passing football, as a team, after the 1986 World Cup. The failure of 1982 and 1986 gave birth to the strategic idea of organized defence and fast counter attack along the wings. The idea was conceived by Lazaroni and later perfected by Carlos Alberto Parreira. The role of defensive midfielder was never so important before the arrival of Dunga, followed by the likes of Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo and now Luiz Gustavo. Emergence of attack-minded full backs like Branco and Jorginho, followed by Cafu and Roberto Carlos made the strategy work. Of course there were the individual brilliances and flairs of Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. But, as a team, Brazil never played the one-touch fluid passing game wherein they used to play 10-15 passes amongst themselves to reach the opposition box. But the strategy was successful, primarily due to supremely talented individuals. And there were moments of magic. At times Romario and Bebeto were in perfect harmony in 1994. So were Rivaldo and Ronaldo in 2002. It was not only the big names. Denilson used to come off the bench for the final 15 odd minutes and no one could snatch the ball from him. Scolari used to bring him to entertain the crowd in matches already won. Do you remember Viola? A desperate Parreira brought him in at the 106th minute in the 1994 final to pull up a Houdini.
Where are the talents now? Possibly in the underbelly of the Brazilian metropolises, getting wasted in gang wars and drug trafficking. The generations of great Brazilian footballers from Pele and Garrincha to Ronaldo and Rivaldo were born as underprivileged children. But they made their way to the clubs and the national team. In the 21st century, players predominantly come from academies. It has become a requirement of modern football for players to be properly trained in academies. Also the success of Romario followed by that of Ronaldo and Rivaldo in European club football made Brazilian parents dream big about their sons. The academies started mushrooming across the country since mid-1990s and became footballer producing factories. This assembly line production had a single point agenda – exporting footballers to Europe. The academies are not very expensive, but even then the poorer section cannot afford it. In the absence of scouting among the underprivileged and stipends for them, only boys from middle class and above could reach the academies and beyond. It’s not that there cannot be enough talent amongst the middle class. There is. From Kaka to Pato to Oscar, they all came from the middle-class and came through academies. But exclusion of the poorer section reduces the pool from which you scout the talents. This perhaps is the biggest tragedy of Brazilian football, as these boys learn the tricks of survival from day one during their difficult upbringing and hence have an innate talent to mesmerize in tight match situations.
We all know about the Brazilian passion for the game. But we don’t know that for club matches the spectator attendance is as miserable as in India. A few derby matches like Fluminense-Flamengo or Corinthians-Sao Paulo are played in near full arenas, but other matches are played in front of a few hundred spectators only. Average attendance in Brazilian top flight Serie A matches is 15000, which is less than the average attendance in MLS, the top flight of USA, where football is yet a minor sport. Serie A matches often start at 10 PM. In Spain too weekday matches kick-off at 10 PM to accommodate the spectators who will attend the matches after work. But in Brazil it is to accommodate for novelas – soap operas that must get the prime air time! So much for the love of the beautiful game of futebol!
Clubs are in dire financial situations. They don’t earn much revenue from either gate-money or from TV rights. Footballers don’t want to play in Brazil. Given a chance they will go even to Russia, or Japan, or China, or some place in the Middle East, than play in Brazil. Playing in Brazil means playing 80 odd matches in a year for peanuts. The clubs not only play Serie A, but top flight clubs also play local leagues like Paulista, Carioca, Gaucho, Mineiro etc. Even in India we have reduced the number of matches in local leagues like the Calcutta Football League. But in Brazil they play the local leagues for five months before the national league kicks off!
The academies focus on exporting players to Europe. After Ronaldinho, who are the most successful Brazilians in Europe? Thiago Silva, David Luiz, and Dani Alvez.All defenders. Then there are the holding midfielders, box-to-box midfielders and defensive midfielders like Fernandinho, Ramires or Gustavo. Not a single striker or attacking midfielder. Neymar and Oscar may have a bright future, but the current crop of attackers playing for the national team are not earning their daily bread in the major European leagues. Hulk, Fred, Bernard or Jo are just not good enough for those leagues. The players left out like Lucas Moura or Coutinho are not out and out strikers. Lucas scored three for PSG and Coutinho scored five for Liverpool last season. Neymar, too, is not a striker and scored only nine goals for Barcelona in La Liga matches from 1738 minutes of playing time, which means a goal per 193 minutes. Chile’s Alexis Sanchez scored a goal per 125 minutes for the same club. That leaves us with a very uncomfortable question – given that Diego Costa suddenly realized that he is Spanish, who will score the goals for Brazil? I have heard people saying that this Brazilian defence is the worst ever. At least in presence of Thiago Silva it doesn’t look too bad. But this Brazilian attack is the worst I have seen. Even Careca, Muller, Silas were better than Fred, Hulk, Bernard.
Where do Brazil fans and Brazil go from here? Brazil fans may go anywhere they wish. The Indian and Bangladeshi Brazil fans may join Argentina. The Brazilian fans may give up futebol and watch beach volley. But Brazil National Football Team needs to go back to basics. Brazilian Football Confederation CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol) needs some cleaning up and the bosses need to rethink their long term strategy. With re-selection of Dunga as the national coach, it doesn’t seem that CBF is going in the right direction in the short run. But it is the longer run that matters and CBF needs to work on the youth system. Brazil cannot invest as much as Germany or Spain, but they can surely tap into the talent existing among the poorer sections of the society .
I shall live in hope. As my favourite song-writer Kabir Suman wrote:
Protidin surjyo oothey tomay dekhbey boley, (Ignite my fire, once again,
O amara agun, tumi aabar otho jwoley. Every day the sun rises to see you)