Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.
The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.
Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.
Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.
The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.
For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.
That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.
While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.
Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.
Neymar said this week:
The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.
Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.
Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve striker actually shooting.
One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.
Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.
However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.
Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.
Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.
I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.
This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.
A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.