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Meet Francisco Moraes. Sporting his customary baseball cap and the red-and-black jersey of his club team, Flamengo, his skin bronzed by years of bicycling around Rio de Janeiro, the 69-year-old Moraes may well be Brazil's most famous futebol fan. If the job description torcedor (Portuguese for "supporter") makes him sound like a swashbuckling adventurer, well, that's because he is one. Over the last 40 years Moraes has traveled to watch Brazil at every World Cup, from Mexico 1970 (with the Pelé-led outfit that is regarded as the greatest of all time) to USA 1994 ("the worst World Cup I went to, but we won!") to Germany 2006 ("the best players in the world, all Brazilians, and we didn't even make the semifinals").
"I have seen everything," says Moraes, who's on a first-name basis with the Brazilian greats—1980s star Zico hooks him up with tickets and signs jerseys to help fund his trips—and posts rollicking tales of his travels on his website, historiadetorcedor.com.br. But even he might not be prepared for what's happening to his beloved Brazil.
There's no avoiding the change that is afoot in the land of caipirinhas and capoeira. Police have embarked on a campaign to take back Rio's poor favelas from violent druglords. Construction cranes have popped up everywhere, and even the outstretched arms of Rio's iconic Christ statue are hidden behind scaffolding these days. A recent cover of The Economist shows an illustration of that statue launching like the space shuttle from Corcovado and proclaims BRAZIL TAKES OFF. Fueled by mass-scale ethanol production and the discovery of new deep-sea oil fields, Brazil is expected to pass Britain and France sometime within the next 15 years to become the world's fifth-largest economy. Goldman Sachs included the South American giant in its prediction of four economies—along with Russia, India and China—that will dominate the 21st century. When the country won the rights to host the 2014 World Cup and Rio was granted the 2016 Olympics, the first Games in South America, it was a symbolic confirmation that Brazil now has a place at the adult table in global affairs.
A country's soccer style often reflects the nation itself, and these days Brazil's famed Seleção, the five-time World Cup champion, is more feared than loved. Coached by the taskmaster Dunga, a midfield enforcer from the 1994 Cup--winning team, Brazil is No. 1 in the latest FIFA World Ranking and a cofavorite with Spain to win the 2010 World Cup. But this is not your father's Brazil. This one plays with two holding midfielders. This one prefers defending and counterattacking to leading the charge. This one values power, speed and athleticism over midfield passing and dribbling, a collective team mentality over the individual brilliance that defined Brazil's past World Cup winners with magicians such as Garrincha, Romário and Ronaldo.
These days, if you're looking for the Beautiful Game of short passes and midfield maestros—o jogo bonito, as coined by Pelé himself—it's being played by Spain. "If we win this year, it's going to be the victory of the non-beautiful game: power, not technique," laments Marcos Motta, a Rio-based lawyer who represents several top players and clubs. "And that's a problem. In Brazil it's not just about winning. It's about how we win."
Style matters, in other words. But like everything else in Brazilian soccer, that notion is up for debate, a never-ending argument that rages in bars and houses and workplaces all over a soccer-addled country.
On a gorgeous April afternoon in Rio, Moraes gathered with two younger supporters, Bruno Melo and Thiago Vieira, both 28, over drinks at an open-air restaurant by the city's sprawling, placid urban lagoon. In the shadow of Sugarloaf they debated a matter of grave national importance: What is happening to the soul of Brazilian soccer? Does Brazil still play the Beautiful Game? And as the country gets serious, turning into a global economic powerhouse, is the Brazilian soccer team doing the same—and losing the romance and imagination that has captivated fans around the world?
SI: What do you think of the current Brazil team?
Vieira: Dunga has changed things. He plays with the counterattack. Brazil always used to attack the adversary. This is a problem for me. I don't like this.
Moraes: Soccer has changed. For me Brazil's best player is [midfielder] Kaká, but he doesn't play the Beautiful Game. In the World Cup the important thing is the result, not playing beautifully. We are going to win because we'll play for the victory.