Brazil’s past – the anvil factor

Living with a glorious past can sometimes be a difficult task to negotiate, especially if that past is looked upon as something like La Belle Époque.

Although Brazil have won the World Cup twice since 1970 – you could be forgiven, given the hyperbole that accompanies the Selecao every four years, for assuming they have won it on every occasion since that heady summer of ’70 – they have struggled to live up to a peerless period in the country’s footballing history.

Expectation for World Cup 2014 will be astronomical. Playing host, after a gap of 64 years, will be the opportunity they have been waiting for in Brazil to show how far they have come, as a nation and as a football team. They will want to show – Joga bonito in every sense of the word – that they are still the “samba boys” of old.  Actually, they have rarely been purveyors of magical football since 1970, despite occasional flashes of brilliance. In many ways, samba football died in the Azteca Stadium in 1970 and has only been brought out of the boot cupboard once or twice since that day.

Compare it to music. Did the Beatles ever get over producing Sgt.Pepper or Oasis ever recover from peaking too early? The answer to both is probably no and it’s not entirely left-field to suggest that those wonderful football artists of Brazil found it hard to live up to their seminal work.

Were they really that good.? It’s comparable to heresy to suggest, even hint, that perhaps the garlands placed on that team were a little too fragrant. Let’s remember that the age of catenaccio was upon us in 1970. It was pre-Ajax, so the masters of European football all wore striped shirts and brilliantine in their hair. Italian league scores were written in binary. South American club sides came to Europe and unveiled a brand of strong-armed thuggery that resulted in a stream of ambulances leaving the stadium full of maimed footballers. It was a dark time.

Brazil offered an alternative to that and set the narrative for a tournament that people, quite rightly, still go all misty-eyed about. Again, we’re treading on sacred ground here, but the Brazil team of 1970 was a one-off, something that many people have refused to even consider. Pele, for example, would bow out little more than a year later. Gerson, who smoked heroically for Brazil, would never play in another World Cup, neither would Tostao, whose eye problems flared up again before the next World Cup. Rivelino, Jairzinho and Piazza were the only survivors of the winning team that returned four years later and of those, only Rivelino, 24 in 1970, was in any kind of form.

Brilliant in yellow

There’s no denying Brazil’s brilliance in Mexico. In the first technicolour World Cup, their yellow shirts sparkled in the incessant midday sun. There was a kind of balletic grace about the way they played, skipping over challenges, improvising all over the pitch and rocketing long-range shots past floundering goalkeepers. Alan Ball, who played in the England v Brazil game, one of the highlights of the tournament, chirped that Brazil played “basketball football”, meaning that if the opposition dared to score, they would immediately go upfield and put the ball in the net themselves.

Brazil were definitely everyone’s second favourite team in Mexico, largely because they had done their homework before arriving, glad-handing their way from Guadalajara to Mexico City while gifting “beads for the natives” and winning friends. So when they won the World Cup, the euphoria was not just from the Brazilians in the crowd, but also from the Mexican public. Brazil had played a style of football that excited the world, but at the same time, they set a benchmark that has proved near-impossible to live up to. A millstone for the next generation? More like a giant anvil on the back of every player.

We’ve only seen occasional glimpses of it since 1970. By 1974, European football had influenced Brazil’s psyche so much that they almost forgot the legacy. In West Germany, a brutal version of Brazilian football threatened to tarnish the “total football” World Cup, as illustrated by Ze Maria’s (a squad player in Mexico) sending off against the Netherlands. We would not see the “real Brazil” until 1982, when the brilliant team of Zico, Socrates and Falcao deserved to triumph in a competition won by late-developers Italy.

There was the theory that Brazilian teams didn’t travel well – witness 1966 and 1974, but this was a country that won the 1958 competition in a relatively chilly Sweden. Moreover, Brazilian players are now a major export – underlined by the debt-for-equity swap conducted by the Brazilian government that sent the young striker to PSV Eindhoven in the 1980s, and the plethora of players turning out for clubs in every corner of Europe and beyond. Brazilian players have become a sought-after commodity for those who still believe it is 1970.

New Peles

Perhaps the huge achievements of that year cast a shadow over every attempt to recapture the World Cup, so much so that Brazil lack the confidence to push on and win the trophy? At one time, it looked as if the lustre had definitely faded for the Selecao, with each World Cup failing to revive the “performing puppies” everyone really wanted to see. That said, only four nations have put paid to Brazil’s hopes in the 10 tournaments since 1970 – the Netherlands (twice), Argentina (twice), Argentina (twice) and France (three times). Ironically, when Brazil did finally win it again, in 1994 and 2002, they did so  with two workmanlike teams, the latter lifted by a rejuvenated Ronaldo.

Ronaldo, himself, has felt the weight of expectation placed upon him by a football-obsessed nation. He was, like every young player who shows signs of exceptional talent, dubbed “the new Pele”. The list is getting longer with each decade: Paulo Cesar Caju, Zico, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and now Neymar.

There’s been so much talk about Neymar – with every major club apparently ready to place  the equivalent of a European periphery country’s GDP on the table for his services. He’s still only 21 and currently playing for Santos – so he’s at the right club to be compared with Pele –  although that will surely not continue for long. He’s already featured on the cover of TIME magazine and Edison Arantes do Nascimento  himself has proclaimed that Neymar is better than Messi.

Neymar, who – get this – has just become a comic book character in Brazil, is widely predicted to be the face of 2014. The smart money is on him being a Barcelona player by then. The expectation on this latest “new Pele” could be enormous, but will he and Brazil, be allowed to flourish under Scolari, a manager who prefers function over form? We’ll not have long to wait to find out….

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