A Copa Of Resurrection for the Seleção

The “Mineirazo whack” plunged footballing behemoth Brazil into a dark abyss of mediocrity and shame last year. The Copa America thus takes critical importance as they strive to reclaim pride and their position in the Leaders’ Quadrant. In this installment of our COPA immortal stories, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh delves into Brazilian football history’s amazing sinusoids as they aim for continental glory in Chile. You can read the other stories of the ‘Copa America’ series here.

 

Brazil and the word football have been synonymous in many ways ever since I started appreciating the beautiful game. Be it the legend of Pele and his Cosmos team paying Kolkata a visit, or his celebrated national teams and their world cup coronations or the myriad stories heard from my father’s generation, the Canarinhos were always the definitive yardsticks in football. That feeling was cemented by the time the Copa Mundial paid a visit to the Spanish climes in 1982. If ever there was romance in soccer, it was Jogo Bonito of Tele Santana’s boys in Spain. It was poetry, nay ballet, in motion, stuff that I have never seen again on a soccer pitch. Realists would say that it lacked a winning theme or a strategy to win, but in those days when tactics or strategy took a backseat to ball-playing and sublime skills, teams threw caution to the wind and played attractive soccer to win the masses over. Silverware, though important, was not the showstopper that led to divergent philosophies and strategies of the modern day, an example of which is parking the bus and trying to score on the counter.

A Chequered Past

Brazilian football history, almost like the duality of the 24 hour clock, can be bifurcated into two logical periods viz. PM and AM, with the fulcrum being the unfortunate Maracanazo in 1950, a national tragedy of gargantuan proportions that altered the Brazilian footballing ecosystem in many ways. In the Pre Maracanazo (PM) era i.e. from ~1914 (when the national team started playing) till the 1950 home World Cup (WC), Brazil were not even the 2nd fiddle in Latin America with the 2 powerhouses viz. Uruguay and Argentina topping the charts in continental supremacy. Brazil was possibly the third  best team in Latin America, though they had won three South American Championships (SACs) in this period (Argentina had already won nine and Uruguay eight Championships). Brazil’s first win came when they hosted the Championship in 1919. That Brazilian team had arguably the sport’s first outstanding black player, Arthur Friedenreich, the original “El Tigre”. Born of a German father and an Afro-Brazilian mother, he faced many racial prejudices but that did not hamper his goal scoring prowess. He is said to have scored more goals than Pele in his short but illustrious career wherein he participated in four SACs only. Arthur was the top scorer in the 1919 edition, with the winner against Uruguay in the final. This final match, which was actually a replay, happens to be the longest match in Copa history. Four extra time periods of fifteen minutes each were played, making it a 150 min match with Arthur scoring the winner after 122 minutes. After the match, his “golden” boots were on display in the window of a rare jewel store in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, on the world stage, Brazil finished a creditable third in the 1938 WC, in which neither of their Latin rivals participated. 1938 marked the unveiling of the first Brazilian global star in the form of “Diamante Negro”, the Black Diamond, Leônidas da Silva. Leônidas, is credited for showcasing the first “Bicycle kick” on the world stage during the WC, though the inception of the same is mired in controversy, especially with two other Latin teams viz. Chile and Peru claiming to have invented it much earlier and taking pride in their respective colloquial names viz. chilena and chalaca. Leônidas was the star and the highest scorer in the 1938 WC but was strangely rested by manager Pimenta for the semis against Italy, confident that they would qualify for the finals. Such arrogance has often marked Brazilian football, and Italy made them eat humble pie that day winning the semi-final match 2-1 and going on to retain their 1934 WC, beating Hungary 4-2. Brazil defeated Sweden 4-2 and won the third  spot. Therefore, by the time they hosted the WC in 1950, there was unbridled optimism that they could win the Cup; especially as two of the earlier three hosts had successfully done so.

before Pele they had Arthur Friedenreich - the hero of Brazil's first Copa america triumph
before Pele they had Arthur Friedenreich – the hero of Brazil’s first Copa america triumph

The first FIFA WC after WWII was also the first, where the trophy was referred to as the Jules Rimet (JR) Cup, to mark the 25th anniversary of JR’s FIFA presidency. Brazil as a venue for 1950 was a given, because most of Europe lay in tatters after the devastating war. Brazil and Italy qualified automatically as host and defending champion respectively. The Azzuri were, however, severely weakened as most of their first team squad from the fabled Torino team had perished in the Superga air disaster one year before the start of the tournament. The Italians eventually agreed to participate, but travelled all the way by boat rather than by plane. With many exclusions caused by the war, plus a new format, Brazil advanced to the final stage comfortably where they then won their first two matches, a 7–1 thrashing of Sweden and 6–1 rout of Spain. The stage was thus set for a riveting decisive match against Uruguay, who at  second position, was a point behind. Brazil needed just a draw to win the WC at the majestic Estádio do Maracanã. It was going as per script, in front of an estimated ~ 200,000 people (biggest ever in a football match) when the hosts went ahead in the 47th minute, thanks to a goal from Friaça. Uruguay equalized through “Pepe” Schiaffino, an Italian-Uruguayan footballer who played in famous clubs like Peñarol and AC Milan, often referred to as one of the best Uruguayans of all time. Then, with just over eleven minutes left to play, disaster struck. Alcides Ghiggia squeaked a goal past Moacyr Barbosa and Uruguay were crowned WC champions, for the second time.

Uruguay equalizes through Juan Alberto “Pepe" Schiaffino in the 1950 World Cup
Uruguay equalizes through Juan Alberto “Pepe” Schiaffino in the 1950 World Cup

Maracana and Brazil were numbed into misery. The shocking defeat provoked numerous reactions, demonstrating the magnitude of the devastation. Some distressed fans committed suicide while many died from heart attacks. Outside the stadium, a group of Brazilian fans knocked over the bust of the mayor, reviled due to his premature congratulations. The defeat influenced the Brazilian team heavily; they did not play any match for two years, and even after resuming play didn’t play in the Maracana for two more years. The most visible consequence of the defeat was the fact that the national team adopted the now famous yellow and green shirts (and blue shorts) instead of the white shirts that it had worn during the match. The defeat also had an emotional and psychological impact on the Brazilian people as a whole and on Brazilian society in general. The stunning defeat against Uruguay, nicknamed the “Maracanazo” (meaning the Maracana Blow) is considered to be a national tragedy by Brazilians. The Maracanazo was particularly tragic because it hampered Brazil’s efforts to show the world that it was a country worthy of the respect and admiration of its peers and impacted the country’s self-esteem for a long while.

Turnaround and Transformation

The “Maracanazo”, however tragic, steeled the Brazilian resolve to do wonders. For the 1954 WC in Switzerland, the Brazilian team was almost completely rebuilt, with the team colours changed as earlier mentioned. Brazil reached the quarter-final, where they were beaten 4–2 by tournament favourites Hungary in one of the ugliest matches in football history, known as the Battle of Berne. In the same decade, Brazil reached the finals of the SACs thrice, losing twice to Argentina and once to Paraguay. The team was slowly building up a crescendo with established players like Nilton and Djalma Santos, Didi, Julinho, Gylmar and upcoming stars like Garrincha, Zagalo, Vava and a soon to be soccer legend named Pele. The loss to hosts Argentina in the final of the 1959 SAC is of special significance. Brazil, having excelled at the 1958 WC, had a glittering line up comprising most of the above names and had swept aside all opponents, with Pele being in majestic form and emerging as the top scorer in that SAC. However, in the final match against Argentina at the famous Monumental, a winner takes-all match, Brazil managed to only draw and La Albiceleste took the championship pipping Brazil by a single point. A similar scenario had unfolded in the preceding SAC in 1957 in Peru when Brazil had again lost to Argentina in their final match to lose the championship to their bitter rivals; however it was before the emergence of Pele.

In the same decade, Brazil reached the finals of the SACs thrice, losing twice to Argentina and once to Paraguay. The team was slowly building up a crescendo with established players like Nilton and Djalma Santos, Didi, Julinho, Gylmar and upcoming stars like Garrincha, Zagalo, Vava and a soon to be soccer legend named Pele.

In the 1958 WC, Brazil were drawn in a group with England, the USSR and Austria. They beat Austria 3–0 in their first match, and drew 0–0 with England. Before the final match against USSR, coach Vicente Feola made three changes that went a long way in reshaping Brazilian football history, bringing in Zito, Garrincha and Pelé. From the kick off, they kept up the pressure relentlessly, and after three minutes, which were later described as “the greatest three minutes in the history of football”, Vavá gave Brazil the lead. They won the match easily, 2–0. Pelé scored the only goal of their quarters against Wales, and then they beat France 5–2 in the semis. Led by the teenage wonder Edson Arantes, Brazil then beat hosts Sweden in the final, 5–2, thereby winning their first WC, also becoming the first nation to win a WC title outside their own continent.

It was the start of a soccer expedition of sorts that would make Brazil synonymous with the beautiful game. And though, the ghosts of Maracanazo would be exorcised, under equally painful circumstances, more than 60+ years later, this was the start of a turnaround for Brazil. From sore losers and also-rans they were going to be the benchmark of football for the next half century and beyond. In the 1962 WC, Brazil earned their second title with Garrincha replacing Pele as the star player, a responsibility laid upon him after the regular talisman was injured during the group match against Czechoslovakia and unable to play the remainder of tournament. Pele’s substitute Amarildo, performed well for the rest of the tournament and even scored the equalizer in the final after Brazil went down by a goal. However, it was Garrincha who would play the leading role and carry Brazil to their second WC title, beating the Czechs in the final.

A small blip in the journey came in the 1966 WC, with Brazil’s worst performance till date. In a tournament remembered for its excessively physical play, Pelé was the most affected. Against Portugal, several violent tackles forced Pelé to leave the match and the tournament, seriously injured. Brazil lost and were eliminated in the first round, thus becoming the first defending champions to be eliminated so early. After the tournament, Pelé declared that he did not wish to play in the WC again. However, he returned in 1970 at Mexico, as Brazil won their third WC. Brazil fielded what has arguably been considered one of the best football squads ever, led by the talisman Pelé, captain Carlos Alberto, Jairzinho, Tostão, Gérson, Clodoaldo, Rivelino among others. They won all their games – against Czechoslovakia, England and Romania in group stages, and against Peru, Uruguay and Italy in the knockout rounds crushing the twice former champions Italy, 4-1 in the final. Jairzinho, who scored in each match ended with seven goals, though Gerd Muller took the Golden Boot, and Pelé finished with four and the Golden Ball. More than the scoreline and their six consecutive victories what is remembered is the brand of football they dished out. After the Magical Magyars in the 50s, no side had been so adroit while sweeping their opponents off their feet. Brazil lifted the coveted JR trophy for the third time since it was christened during their devastating 1950 home campaign, which meant that they were allowed to keep it. Though not entirely, it would somewhat soothe the pain of the catastrophe that was Maracanazo.

Pele scoring in the 1970 World Cup final
Pele scoring in the 1970 World Cup final

Lull Before The “Joga Bonito” Storm

Brazil, by now, had captivated the world stage and were being considered one of the best football teams in the world. Strangely, this was not translating in the South American championships where Brazil were still drawing a blank. After their last final appearance in 1959 where they lost to arch rivals Argentina it took them another 24 years to reach the Copa final in 1983. The golden generation led by King Pele was also bowing out of the game and though the “fantastic football factories” continued to churn out talented Brazilians on the world stage, Team Brazil played ordinary football in the 70s. However, another talisman was slowly being nurtured to take Brazilian and world football by storm. “King Arthur”, a sobriquet given to him much later during his coaching career by Fenerbahçe fans, Zico and his wonderful team of gladiators were on their way to be the most feted group of Brazilian footballers since Pelé’s generation. A creditable third place finish in 1978 was followed by a shock exit in Copa 1979 when, a team comprising Zico, Falcao, the good doctor Socrates, Eder and others lost to eventual champions Paraguay in the semi-final, played on home and away basis. However, all these were the genesis of Jogo Bonito or “Beautiful Game” that was to be showcased from the early to the mid-80s, a phenomenon that would create, cement and transform fans into die-hard Brazilian supporters for life. Coached and managed by Tele Santana, considered by many as the “last romantic of Brazilian football”, they displayed pristine skills, sorcery, magic and scored fantastic goals that left a world of football fanatics agape and astounded. Their extremely eye-catching brand of football had been matched only by their 1970 compatriots or the Magical Magyars in 1954, but in 1982, televised to a much wider global audience, it had a more telling impact. Forget the ‘best team not to have won the WC’ label –  in my honest opinion the best team in the history of WCs was Brazil 1982. Period!!! Unfortunately, they were so good they had to beat themselves to lose. But football, specifically World Cup, is full of such ironic events that typify the romanticism of the game.

They steamrolled their group opponents, the Soviets, the Scots and the Kiwis, scoring ten goals in the bargain. Brazil’s game was about flicks, tricks and sublime footwork, exquisite passing, magical off the ball play and dummies sold, turns and body feints and what not, all at a blistering free-flowing, one-touch pace. A few goals stood out viz. Zico’s thunderous, acrobatic, scissor-kick volley from Leandro’s cross, or Eder’s beauties against the Soviets and the Scots, the latter a delightful chip that drifted into the net, and the former which was an end product of sheer fantasy football. Falcao sold a dummy through his legs, Eder collected the ball, flicking it up with his left foot and seamlessly volleyed a dipping shot past the brilliant but hapless Dasayev, almost a training ground routine scored in the cut and thrust of a WC match.

Zico’s amazing scissors kick against NZ in the 1982 World Cup
Zico’s amazing scissors kick against NZ in the 1982 World Cup

However, the best moments of the Brazilian team were saved for the crunch match against Italy in the quarters, a match which in many ways, changed Brazilian football forever. Brazil needed a quick response after Paolo Rossi got Italy the lead, and Zico and Socrates combined to architect one of THE goals of the tournament. Socrates receiving the ball in the midfield passed it to Zico, who with an incredible Cruyff turn flummoxed the rash and brash Claudio Gentile, and then threaded a defence splitting, inch-perfect return pass to Socrates, who beat the legendary Dino Zoff for the equalizer. It was a moment of class and vision that highlighted just how gifted Zico was. And it was definitely a case of foreplay beating the climax. Unfortunately callous defending, with just a draw needed, meant that the magical side would bow out.

An almost exact replica of those events happened in 1986, when with the core of the 1982 team, under the able tutelage of Santana, Brazil flattered to deceive yet again, losing out to another giant of that edition, France in a QF tiebreaker. The irony of it was the great Zico muffing a penalty in regular time which would have ensured a Brazilian win. The great conductor would never don a Brazilian jersey again, as the magical team of the 80s would pale into oblivion. The sad truth of these dual blows, was that Brazil have never been as exciting to watch since and will probably never be so again. Socrates, ever the philosopher, said it changed football in Brazil forever and saw them try to copy European pragmatism. If only they had triumphed in either WC, the face of football could have been different today. Mourinho would be teaching PE to Portuguese teenagers and Scolari would be running a pub, no offence meant to either.

Resurgence Followed by a Brutal Fall Once More

The debacle of these two WCs meant that there would be a massive change in Brazilian football philosophy. The next few WCs would confirm the desertion of stylish play and invigorate the partisans of a pragmatic and loss mitigating pro-European football style. In the 1990 WC, Brazil coached by Sebastiao Lazaroni, had a very defensive outlook (led by CDM Dunga and three full-backs), lacked creativity and were eliminated by Argentina. Change had percolated into their game; flair was sacrificed for practicality plus some individual brilliance to win games. The 1994 WC was emblematic of that approach, as a boring side bulked up their midfield early on hoping for the best from superstars Romario and Bebeto, a tactic which worked its magic with a fourth  WC win, but did not leave Brazilians happy, ultimately ashamed by the disappearance of jogo bonito that their soccer embodied. Brazil did reach the final in 1998 and won the cup again in 2002, the elusive Penta, where success was once again based on defensive solidity and the brilliance of a few players like the 4Rs; Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto (Carlos), Ronaldinho. To Brazil’s credit they had a more balanced side, with better goalkeepers and defence and the emphasis was on organisation and discipline rather than exuberance and flair. It was an irony because Brazil had won two WC championships in eight years and reached the final of the third, yet the purists weren’t happy with the direction Brazil football was taking.

Ironically to start off this successful period, there was some Copa panacea too!!! In 1989, 40 years since the country’s last continental triumph, with four defeats at the final hurdle In between, Brazil’s fourth turn as hosts ended in celebration, when six goals from Bebeto inspired them to the trophy. More than 100,000 spectators flocked the Maracanã to witness Brazil defeat an Argentine side (including Maradona and the cream of the 86 and 90 WC teams) 2-0 in their first game of the final round, with Bebeto and Romário on target en route to the title. Interestingly, all of Brazil’s triumphs in the championship till then had come when they had hosted the same, viz. 1919, 1922, 1949 and 1989.

Carlos Dunga tackling Diego Maradona in the 1989 Copa America
Carlos Dunga tackling Diego Maradona in the 1989 Copa America

Brazil finished runners twice in the next 3 championships, first in 1991 to a Gabriel Batistuta inspired Argentina and then again in 1995, to a rejuvenated Enzo Francescoli driven hosts Uruguay. Then, just when winning a Copa on foreign soil was turning out to be almost jinxed, Brazil broke the hoodoo, by winning the 1997 tournament at the “heights” of Bolivia, defeating the hosts in the final by a 3-1 scoreline. This tournament saw the emergence of Ronaldo, selected as the best player, and his “Ro-Ro” partnership with legend Romario. This was the start a Brazilian golden era in Copa championships. Brazil travelled to Paraguay in 1999 as reigning champions and took a huge step towards defending their title by coming from behind to beat Argentina in the quarter-finals. Juan Pablo Sorín’s opener for la Albiceleste was negated by goals from Ronaldo and Rivaldo, who also emerged as joint top scorers in the tourney. Rivaldo was also named MVP in the tournament and was given his adequate due by coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

This tournament saw the emergence of Ronaldo, selected as the best player, and his “Ro-Ro” partnership with legend Romario. This was the start a Brazilian golden era in Copa championships.

Heartbreak and shame compounded Brazil’s woes in the next Copa in Colombia (held under controversial circumstances with the withdrawal of Argentina and Canada in the wake of kidnappings and security woes), when Brazil slumped to an all-time low, shocked 2-0 by Honduras in the QFs. Even with a weakened team without players such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Romario, Cafu etc. loss to minnows Honduras, a last minute replacement, with non-existent preparations was unimaginable. It was a shocking year for Brazilian football as they also lost to minnows like South Korea, Ecuador, Australia, Bolivia etc. and put manager Luiz Scolari on the line of fire, though he successfully managed to douse it by next year, winning Brazil’s Penta.

However, Brazil successfully turned the tide in Peru in the 2004 Copa, starting with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Chile and then an Adriano aided hat trick to sweep Costa Rica 4-1. Adriano was again on target in the semis against Uruguay, but it was Captain Alex who scored the winning spot-kick in the tiebreaker to book a final showdown against red-hot favourites Argentina. The final, a Superclásico de las Américas, proved to be just as dramatic; Brazil came from behind twice, Adriano’s equalizer in the third minute of added time took the final to penalties after a 2-2 draw. La Albiceleste missed their opening two spot-kicks and there was no way back for them as the Seleção maintained a 100 per cent conversion for a 4-2 shoot-out win. It was the third time that Brazil had been crowned champions in four editions of the Copa America, a feat which somewhat obliterated their lacklustre Copa history. Yet, the Brazilian juggernaut was to go on even further, in the 2007 Copa held by first-time hosts Venezuela. Mexico proved to be Brazil’s nemesis yet again in the group stages, where Robinho started his goal scoring spree that would bring him both the Golden Boot and Ball. Brazil swamped Chile and yet again scraped through a tie-breaker against Uruguay in the semis. The final, yet again, was against arch-rivals Argentina, who had swept away all their opponents till then, scoring sixteen goals. However, a determined Selecao breezed past their challenge winning by a convincing 3-0 margin and landing the Copa for their  eighth success and four times in their last five attempts.

Meanwhile, in the WCs post the Penta, Brazil continued the trend of dour football. Players plying their trade abroad seemed immune to the requirements of samba soccer or the Brazilian emotion. The selection of coaches like Parreira, Dunga and Scolari resulted in predictably dire results. In the 2011 Copa América, Brazil lost to Paraguay and were eliminated in the quarters. In 2012, for the first time since it was created in 1993, Brazil slipped out of the top ten ranking. They were on a vicious downward spiral. Though they did win the Confederations Cup in 2013, the victory is considered as a mere mirage. With gifted, young and exciting players like Neymar, Oscar, Willian etc. and experienced folks like Kaka and Robinho, Big Phil had the chance to build a talented attacking side. Instead, he resorted to archaic tactics. Fred up front (sans creativity and mobility), depending on two or three CDMs  and Neymar  being asked to carry the whole attacking burden as Oscar retreated into a shell with the hapless Hulk upfront. Scolari eschewed the typical flamboyant Brazilian style of play. Instead, he introduced a philosophy of winning at all costs, without understanding the players’ limitations and a belief that Neymar could do it all alone.

Minierazo And A Look Forward

Ever since Brazil got the rights to host the 2014 WC, the Maracanazo was definitely on the minds of many Brazilians. Many felt, albeit mistakenly that winning the tournament would finally exorcise the ghosts of Maracanazo. Having won the Confed Cup in 2013, the Brazilian team had become one of the favourites too. However, Brazil’s dreams of winning their home WC were crushed after an ignominious 7-1 loss to Germany in the semis. The game, which took place in Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte, set a record for the largest victory margin of a WC semi. The humiliating match has since been dubbed the Mineirazo. That defeat was a disaster-bubble waiting to burst, coming from the accumulation of ~30 years of neglect. It symbolized Brazil’s loss of identity, and its decline as a football superpower. Towards the end of the match, the home crowd began to “olé” each German move, and booed their own players, a footballing travesty of sorts. Mineirazo was a sad comedy, an utter humiliation, NOT a Maracanazo tragedy. But it finally put to rest the tragedy of 1950. Many felt that the humiliating loss could actually  bolster Brazilian football.

“Mineirazo” Emotions @ 2014 World Cup
“Mineirazo” Emotions @ 2014 World Cup

The iconic Dunga was brought back at the helm of affairs after the shock of the WC. Many considered   it as a move backward with Dunga not exactly advocating attacking soccer. However, he has removed the bulk of the national team, except some core players of the 2014 WC squad and infused a lot of fresh blood and thinking. Surprisingly, Brazil’s form since Dunga came back has been enterprising. He has had a 100% win record before the Copa in eight matches played, including ones against strong opponents like Argentina, France, Colombia.

This year’s Copa America, has immense significance for Brazilian football, already reeling from the Mineirazo whack. Rebuilding Brazilian soccer’s brand equity from the dark abyss of mediocrity would be Dunga’s utmost priority, and thankfully, early results are showing. If Brazil can have a successful Copa it will go a long way in erasing the darkest chapter of their history, and putting them back on the right track again. It would give them back the much needed self-confidence that they are still the undisputed champions everyone knows them to be. Annexing a fifth Copa crown in the last seven championships, and ninth overall can only happen by overpowering the other great teams like arch rivals Argentina, continental powerhouse Uruguay, hosts Chile and a magical and talented Colombia. So here’s hoping this Copa in Chile could turn out to be Brazil’s Copa of Resurrection – one that could slowly pave back their way to the Beautiful Game. Good luck Selecao!!!

P.S: By the time the article surfaces, readers will be aware of the result of the first two games played by Brazil.  The situation is not very cheerful. Their only hope Neymar is out of the tournament following a post match brawl with the Colombians. Even qualification for the knock outs lies in doubt. But life begets life, hope begets hope, adversity brings out the best.  Let’s hope Selecao will bounce back and prove their doubters wrong. After all romance, unpredictability, football and Brazil can never be separated from each other!!

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.

Brazilian World Cup Squad in 1982
Brazilian World Cup Squad in 1982

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.

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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.

Clovis Acosta Fernandes, after Brazil's defeat against Germany
Clovis Acosta Fernandes, after Brazil’s defeat against Germany

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.

Corinthians - The most successful South American club in FIFA Club World Cup
Corinthians – The most successful South American club in FIFA Club World Cup

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)