Those of you like me who will check the Chelsea news feeds and rumour mill websites at least tri-daily, may have realised that there aint much going on at the moment. So, I thought I’d self-indulge with an article about Brazilian football, inspired by the recent riots in the country’s capitals along with the Selecao’s perfect run in the group stages of the Confederations Cup. There will sort of be a loose Chelsea connection running through the piece though, just to make it slightly relevant.
One of the most intriguing questions in world football is why so few Brazilians have ever managed to succeed, over any significant period of time, in England/the Premier League. There’s been the odd exception, Juninho at Middlesbrough and Gilberto Silva being probably the most famous ones, but the list of flops in comparison is extraordinary: Robinho, Kleberson, Andre Santos, Julio Baptista, Jo, Alfonso Alves… to name just a few. The most typical response to the problem is usually the difference in physicality between the two leagues, but even the briefest of studies into the history of English and Brazilian football, will elucidate cultural differences so much deeper that it becomes a wonder the PL even managed to attract these players in the first place.
The British game has always been defined by its conservatism. Until recent times, the rigidity of its formations and profound dearth of sort any tactical innovation, had resulted in a style where the antecedence would always be placed upon directness, pugnacity and an ability to do the basics well. Compare this to the extreme individualistic style that characterised Brazilian football wholly until the mid 1970s and then it’s no wonder its players have never been compatible with the English game.
For the last 40 years however, the sport in Brazil has been dealing with a clash of interests that has led to many unwelcome and unproductive compromises on both sides. The country’s failures to recreate a side that could succeed in the style of the 1970 World Cup (even with the squad of 1982) all but forced the game into a reform led by the ‘technocrats’ appointed as part of the justification of the military coup of 1964. Since then, Brazil have won two World Cups and have greatly improved their record in the Copa America. The total transformation into a nation that can tactically compete with the Europeans however has always been hindered by the commerce and marketing that funds the game domestically and also the fans who crave superstars in a #10 shirt, who must entertain as well as win matches.
With that in mind, what do these current protests mean for Brazilian football? I think firstly what they demonstrate is that national team has joined other famed symbols of nationalism no longer impervious to the public wrath. Brazil is obviously still (and presumably always will be) in love with its team though it is no longer the infallible source of pride and distraction from government failures that it once was. Now, the severity of the protests I think is proof they cannot be spontaneous and are the result of an unhappiness that has been accumulating for years (if not decades) and so I think we can deduce that the loss of enchantment with the national team has been a gradual process as well, and I think this is apparent in the way the team has developed since the previous World Cup.
In the ten years prior to South Africa the conflict between those pushing for a tactical reform and those protecting advertising deals with Nike, had produced Brazilian teams with selections rather unsubtly made to appease both ideologies. The likes of Dunga, Cesar Sampaio, Ze Roberto, Edmilson, Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo and Lucas Leiva all performed dutifully in their time, sitting stolidly in front of the back four and providing support for the poster boy playmakers . But the last two World Cups have shown the deficiencies with this compromise however, with the holding players lacking the creative skill/versatility to link up fluently with the attackers and with the pressure on the superstar names evidently being too much.
The evolution of the typical Brazilian player being bought into the national side, in my opinion, is brilliant news for fans in the country (or the country in other words). I love the irony behind the fact that as these protests bring with them the worst possible PR for Brazilian football ahead of the World Cup next year, they also bring with them an evident change in attitude towards football that might finally allow to country to move on from its restrictive traditions. To demonstrate, let’s compare the XI from the WC in 2010 to the likely XI in 2014:
2010: Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Juan, Bastos, Melo, Gilberto, Robinho, Kaka, Nilmar, Fabiano
2014: Cesar, Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo, Paulinho, Hernanes, Oscar, Hulk, Neymar, Fred
Whilst in my opinion, every part of the team has improved in four years (apart from Julio Cesar in goal who probably was better back then) the three key areas are the centre halves, the midfield and the striker. (And this is where the Chelsea connection comes in…)
Lucio and Juan were great defenders in a similar way to how Dante is currently a great defender in that they were mobile, physical and read the game well. But, in a team like Brazil who will always look to press and attack down the flanks, the advantage of having centre halves who can come forward the way Silva and Luiz (in particular) can and play long balls to the wings, is just huge. In the Brazil v Italy game Saturday night, an English commentator criticized Luiz for being naively optimistic in his decision making and questioned his discipline. I find this a typically English pessimistic viewpoint. Johan Cruyff used to say he didn’t mind his goalkeeper getting lobbed occasionally for coming off his line and getting involved in the build up play with the defence. In the same way I think the combination of skill, toughness and versatility that Luiz brings to Brazil is worth the occasional needless foul on the halfway line that he might concede.
The story with the midfield and strikers is similar. Felipe Melo was a good player and Gilberto Silva was a very good one but neither were as creative or as resourceful coming forward as Paulinho or Hernanes. And whilst Fabiano was just as clinical Fred is, you never saw him playing the sort of selfless tactical role the current #9 is playing – holding it up to link with Hulk and especially Neymar. And Oscar just wraps the case up completely. He isn’t Kaka but his creative talents cannot be called into question. Yet role he plays, dropping deep and wide, linking up short passing moves, covering even for the full backs at times and always willing to stick a foot in, shows perfectly how priorities are changing in Brazil – and as far as the Premier League is concerned, changing very much for the better.
I like to imagine that Chelsea’s recruitment team noticed this trend in Brazil early, of the top players becoming more universal and consequently more suited to the English game, but it might be wishful thinking on my part. Regardless, it’s clear with our current crop that we’ll go down as the first English club to have really utilised Brazilian talent in the Premier League. In ten years time I feel very confident that the top of lists rating the best Brazilians in the history of English football will look very similar, if not identical to this…
2) David Luiz