An indecent Brazilian proposal
The Brazilian national team has gone three games without a goal and is currently in fifth place in South America's World Cup campaign -- outside the automatic qualification slots. The country's well-respected sports daily Lance! believes that the time has come to take a stand.
"Our proposal," outlined in an editorial earlier this month, "is that the Brazil coach should only be allowed to call up 11 players from his squad of 22 who play for foreign clubs." The idea, then, is for a quota of domestically based players, the likes of which have been scarce in recent Brazil squads.
There's no doubt that a distance has emerged between Brazil's players and the press and public. Nowadays, the Seleção play their friendlies in Europe -- which technically is not their fault. It's part of a gentlemen's agreement with the European clubs, the flip side of which is full cooperation in releasing their players for the World Cup qualifiers. Those games -- a total of nine over a three-year period -- are typically the only occasions when Brazil's stars play on their home turf.
Lack of familiarity with their players has bred suspicion among the public -- who are quick to turn on the stars, accusing them of being a bunch of mercenaries who have little feeling for the land of their birth. So the idea of a quota for home-based players may have a certain superficial attractiveness. But when you examine it more closely, it starts to lose its appeal.
The truth -- uncomfortable to many, highly profitable to others -- is that the overwhelming majority of players from all around the world want to move to a European club. I can think of only two top-class players who have said no to such a move in recent times: 2002 World Cup keepers Marcos and Rogério Ceni, who still play for Palmeiras and São Paulo, respectively.
As Brazil's currency gains strength and wages rise, more players may be persuaded to stay. But, as they say in these parts, it's no use trying to block out the sun with a sieve. The exodus of talent goes on and will continue -- and not only for financial reasons. Some time ago, a point of critical mass was reached where it wasn't possible to be considered a truly great player without starring for a major European club.
The effect of this on the quota proposal put forward by Lance! is clear. More home-based players are brought into the national squad. The immediate effect is that their market value rises and it becomes more likely that they will move across the Atlantic. So the next time the Brazil squad is called up, they are playing in Europe, and you're back to square one.
But the main objection to the quota idea is that it won't solve the problem that first led to its proposal -- which has much more to do with results than it does with nationalism. There was little talk of a distance between the Brazilian public and Ronaldinho when he was enchanting the world at Barcelona, or Adriano during his golden time at Inter Milan. Brazilians were proud of their achievements.
And the idea that the home-based players will show more commitment and improve matters on the field is numbskull nationalism of the most short-sighted variety.
I recall being at the press conference back in 2001 when then-Brazil coach Leão played the nationalist card. His team had just lost 1-0 at Ecuador -- hindsight would show that neither the results nor the performance were motives for shame, but that's not the way it was seen at the time. Leão announced he was going to shake up the team and bring about a radical change in attitude by picking home-based players for the next game, at home to Peru. All around me, local journalists were nodding their heads vigorously, while I was thinking that the coach had just talked himself out of a job.
Leão's initiative was hugely popular -- right up until the moment when his team took the field, and its deficiencies were brutally exposed. Brazil was lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw, and by the time the next World Cup qualifier came around, Leão had been replaced and Luiz Felipe Scolari was in charge.
"Spain became champions of Europe with only one foreign-based player," thundered the Lance! editorial. I'm no great mathematician, but by my count, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fàbregas add up to to two starters based in England, plus Xabi Alonso, Álvaro Arbeloa and Pepe Reina were also on the squad. But the point is clear: Almost all of Spain's best players are in Spain. That is not the case with Brazil.
The Lance! proposal is, no doubt, popular in bar-room discussions all over the country, but it doesn't begin to address the central issue: What matters is not where the Brazilians play, it's how they play.
Tostão, the 1970 World Cup great who is now Brazil's most authoritative soccer writer, had some fascinating words to say on the subject. "Spain," he wrote, "with lots of talented little guys and good collective play, showed the world the obvious -- to the surprise of many -- that a slower, more skillful and beautiful style of play can also be efficient. Many Spaniards have said that their team played in the Brazilian style."
"Evidently," he sadly added, "they were talking about previous times."
He went on to call for the emergence of better central midfielders. Anyone who has followed Brazil in recent years should be clear that this, and not the fact that almost the entire squad is based abroad, is the big problem area.