Spain's success could inspire Brazil's return to attacking style
Spain's World Cup success proves that attacking soccer can still triumph
Brazil has shifted away from flair to a more physical, counterattacking approach
Leonardo would be an interesting outsider candidate to replace Dunga as coach
The status of the Brazilian national team -- and its value to its international sponsors -- does not rest solely on the fact that it is the only country to have won the World Cup five times.
It is a style thing. There is a way of playing associated with Brazil, joyful and expressive, which has made the Selecao a favorite of people all over the planet. Inventors of the jogo bonito, Brazil is sold as the spiritual guardian of the game.
But the sales talk is wearing thin -- especially in light of Spain's triumph in the 2010 World Cup.
Two years ago, when Spain won the European Championship, Brazilian great Tostao was full of praise. "Spain," he wrote, "with lots of skillful, little players and good collective play, have shown the world the obvious -- to the surprise of many -- that a beautiful style of play can also be efficient. Many Spaniards have said that their team play in a Brazilian style. Evidently, they were referring to days gone by."
It is a comment that is even more pertinent two years later. In the view of the dominant current in Brazilian soccer, what Spain has done was no longer thought possible.
The game in Brazil was shaken to its roots by the Selecao's loss to Johann Cruyff's Holland in the 1974 World Cup. Four years later, Brazil even tried to copy the Dutch. Brazil's coaches were enchanted with Holland's fluidity, with its constant change of positions. But they were especially concerned with the way the Dutch behaved when they lost possession, putting intense pressure on the opposition as they pressed to win the ball back.
New dogmas were formed, reinforced after Brazil's 1982 side, the last of the great romantics, was cut down by Italy. The physical development of soccer, it was argued, made contact more inevitable and more intense. Brazil sought to match the Europeans in physical terms, in the expectation that the difference in technique would tip the balance its way.
This had an implication on the way the game was played. Old-style, elaborate passing movements through the middle were considered too easily blocked in the age of the hyper-athlete. Instead, the aim was to launch quick breaks down the flanks. Statistical analysis appeared to indicate that if the move contained more than seven passes, then the possibility of a goal was reduced. Playing on the counterattack became the new obsession.
All of these observations were on display in the Brazil team that Dunga took to South Africa. Many blamed the team's ultra-pragmatic style on the coach. But it goes much deeper than that. It is the direction that Brazilian soccer has taken. The symbol of Dunga's reign may be Gilberto Silva, a plodding central midfielder with sound defensive awareness but limited passing ability. But Gilberto played for Brazil in three World Cups under three different coaches. Once upon a time, Brazil's central midfielders were among the world's best passers. Over time, their game has taken on such a defensive balance that for the last decade the man who has played there has been a converted center back -- Gilberto's original position. The team can have wonderful individual talent in other zones of the pitch, but if the ball does not circulate well from center field, there is little chance of jogo bonito.
And then along comes Spain to show that old-fashioned passing, carried out at pace, remains a highly effective weapon. "Where are our Xavis? Where are our Iniestas?" the Brazilian media cry, without being able to name a single strong candidate. It is little wonder. The Spain and Barcelona pair would be considered on the small side for a Brazilian midfield. Maybe someone would have tried to convert them into fullbacks.
But now that Xavi and Andres Iniesta have used South Africa to make yet another statement of their worth, how will Brazil react? It is a fascinating question that could have a profound influence on the choice of the next national team coach, who is likely to be named before the end of the month.
The new man faces a huge task. He must rebuild an aging side and prepare it for the type of pressure no team has ever known -- winning the World Cup in 2014 as host in a nation where 200 million will be demanding nothing less. With no qualifiers, there are few competitive games to help him get his men ready -- just next year's Copa America and the 2013 Confederations Cup. And then there is the style issue. Can the Selecao's international reputation survive another pragmatist at the helm?
Looking around the candidates, though, it is hard to find anything else. Luiz Felipe Scolari is the overwhelming people's choice -- though the fact that he is about to take charge of the Palmeiras club would seem to rule him out, in the short term at least.
The most successful local coach in recent times has been Muricy Ramalho, now in charge of Fluminense but winner of three consecutive league titles with Sao Paulo. An arch-pragmatist, he makes no concessions whatsoever to style. Current Sao Paulo boss Ricardo Gomes, a former captain of the national team, comes across well but failed to qualify Brazil's Under-23 side for the 2004 Olympics, and picked up a reputation for being ultra-defensive when he worked in France. Mano Menezes of Corinthians has shown some commitment to more expansive midfield play, but lacks international experience.
All of this makes Leonardo an interesting outsider. The former international has never coached in Brazil, but spent last season in charge of Milan. He was sacked at the end of the campaign, a decision that seemed to ignore the fact that he inherited an aging squad that had just lost its key player, Kaka. Leonardo showed a capacity to work with big-name stars, coaxing Ronaldinho to his best season in four years. Also, a huge admirer of the 1982 side, he demonstrated a commitment to attack that sits well with the national team's current needs.
His appointment would clearly be a gamble, but given the size of the task, the same could be said of any of the candidates. From a PR angle, it is hard to see a better option, as Brazil struggles to regain lost ground in the hearts of fans around the world.
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