In the past, Brazil v England was one of those games that would provide a genuine highlight of the international calendar. There was something magical about it – players from a far-off land that could balance the ball on their nose, swivel on a sixpence and volley home in an instance. Ball-jugglers par excellence. The home of beach football. South American samba soccer against the strength and power of northern Europe. Constrasing styles meeting headlong. You could go on.
Brazil was the poster child for international football. Whenever a World Cup came in sight, television channels would use Brazil as their calling card. If they had Brazil on their schedule, they were guaranteed to win the ratings battle. It’s all changed now.
For a start, Brazil are nearly as European as the Europeans themselves. Most of Brazil’s squad plays in Europe, albeit some of them ply their trade in the far outskirts of the continent, playing for clubs that are willing to pay them a king’s ransom (there are few more mercenary players than Brazilians). Brazil are no longer the world’s leading football nation, that honour belongs to Spain and will shortly be handed to Germany.
Then there’s the malaise around the England national team. It’s very, very average. The self-appointed golden generation has started to retire – witness Scholes, Beckham, Terry, Lampard, Owen and Ferdinand’s declining years – and it’s enough to be English to be in contention for a cap. With the greatest respect to some of the young players being selected, they are either prematurely thrust into action or merely there by default. Roy Hodgson just doesn’t have the options.
One day, the Football Association will wake up and realize that it has allowed the country’s major clubs to destroy the fabric of the game. Youth teams full of imported teenagers, first teams packed with hired guns. In England, we have sold the game down the river, and these waterways are the Volga, the Don and the Persian Gulf.
But what memories we have of England v Brazil. We all know of 1970 in Mexico (Bobby Moore’s tackle on Jairzinho is the latest clip from that game being held up as an example to all aspiring defenders), and David Seaman’s impression of a fish out of water from 2002. And with tonight’s game being played in the Maracana, John Barnes’ slaloming run in 1984 is being replayed over and over again. Let’s get this goal in perspective. It was a friendly, Brazil were not particularly interested and the game was not very competitive. If that game mattered, Barnes would have been taken out long before he reached the danger zone. Any success against Brazil is worth celebrating though.
England have won just four of 24 meetings with Brazil, so if you’ve seen one, you’re lucky. In 1956, England won 4-2 at Wembley, but had to wait until Barnes’ finest hour for the second victory. Then it was 1990 at Wembley and a Gary Lineker scruffy goal to win 1-0, a game I sat and suffered with a gang of South American colleagues. The fourth and final victory was earlier this year, again in a game that didn’t really matter.
England’s trip to Brazil is partly a scouting trip for next summer, should they qualify, of course, for World Cup 2014. The last time they made such a trip was in 1969 when they played Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil on a summer tour. They lost 2-1 to Brazil on that tour, after taking the lead through the outstanding Colin Bell. In those far-off days, Brazil v England really did have cachet.
Whatever happens tonight, we are bound to see some glimpses of what Brazil can do. They will be keen to open the refurbished Maracana with an impressive performance, which may be bad news for England. But it will be a long way off those halcyon days when Pele and co. lit up world football.