Why don’t Brazil play like old Brazil? People have become obsessed by this question throughout Brazil’s World Cup campaign, and especially after their humiliating semi-finals elimination to Germany. It’s not the question to ask, however. The more accurate one is, why don’t Brazil play like the really old Brazil of the 1950-80s?
Brazil fell to a Germany, which on the technical level, were superior both collectively and individually. For a football nation always thought of as the gold standard for the beautiful game, that observation was quite humbling.
There is nothing particularly novel about Brazil’s more pragmatic approach however. Their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, has always been a results-first coach who built his teams from the back. Although his 2002 World Cup winning squad played with a different formation, the mechanism was not too dissimilar from his current 2014 squad.
Scolari’s recipe is simple: two bombing fullbacks, dynamic center-backs, two physically imposing defensive midfielders in front of them, a couple of tricky wide men and/or a playmaker, and a powerful striker to batter down defenses and finish chances. Minimalist? Certainly. Effective? You’re damn right.
Brazil captain Thiago Silva had explained the philosophy in a press conference after their goal-less draw against Mexico in the group stages: “When we enter the field, it is to win, not to play attractive football … we do not think about entertaining. The objective is to qualify, so first and foremost to win.”
Of course that template is not Scolari’s alone. It is the template that Brazilian football and the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) decided on almost 20 years ago now.
Brazil were among the first teams to switch to a four-man defense in the late 1950s, to give themselves a little more ballast. Over the decades, the small, low-center-of-gravity, highly technical central midfielder was also phased out. Brazilian football relinquished its fluidity and now sought to win games on moments—by capitalizing on set-pieces, for instance. Brazil suddenly wanted athletes in central midfield.
In 1994, when Brazil won the World Cup, captain Carlos Dunga epitomized this “new” Brazil. Dunga was a brawling midfielder who was not shy about wrapping his studs around another player’s ankles. In 1998, Brazil were finalists with very much the same formula (and with Dunga still hanging around). In 2002, Scolari’s Brazil again won the World Cup, and again the formula remained, this time with Gilberto Silva, a former center back turned central midfielder. The 2006 side had Emerson, and Dunga coached the side in 2010 with both Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo in central midfield. The hulking 6-foot midfielders of the new Brazil had supplanted the nimble technicians of the old Brazil.
The main difference between all those teams and Scolari’s today is that this year’s edition is short on individual creative talent. It was glaringly obvious that against Germany, barring Neymar, the supporting cast is poor. The team is more functional, and Scolari stresses an esprit de corps that seems to have warped even the Brazilian star’s own philosophy of play.
“We are here to run until we can’t anymore. The hardest worker on the field often ends up winning,” said Neymar in a press conference ahead of Brazil’s quarterfinal against Columbia.
For a brief moment, the CBF, facing the dominance of Spain and Barcelona, elected to change course. Beginning with Spain’s Euro win in 2008, tiki-taka had become the new benchmark for beautiful and beautifully effective football. Brazilian football watched in bewilderment as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta (both 5-foot-7) dominated games in central midfield through ball possession and technical precision, as opposed to sheer athleticism.
Appointed in 2010, Mano Menezes was charged with bringing Brazil in line with Spain’s more aesthetic style. He featured Paulo Henrique Ganso, a classic No. 10 playmaker. He favored smaller, ball-playing central midfielders like Hernanes to focus on a more possession-based game, and employing Ramires and/or Lucas Leiva as his defensive midfielders. Less brawn, more flair. Results went against him however, and he was sacked two years later. The CBF thus returned to the old tried-and-tested Scolari.
But many onlookers, both inside Brazil and beyond, still pine for the old jogo bonito. Brazil legend Jairzinho himself criticized the state of his country’s football on display at the World Cup.
“We only have one great player, Neymar,” said the 1970 World Cup winner in an interview with RMC Sport after the Chile game. “For me, this is the worst Brazil team of all time. This is not our football. We are playing English-style football from 40 years ago.”
In their semi-final against Germany, the absence of Neymar’s talent meant Scoalri was left with his team of brawlers, whose scrappy play had produced no less than 31 fouls against Colombia prior. Even Joachim Loew took precautions in his press conference ahead of the game, saying that Brazil’s play “went beyond the limits,” in an attempt to put pressure on the referee to temper Brazil’s physical play.
“There were brutal fouls, tough fouls … I believe that we will have to see that these really brutal fouls are stopped,” said Loew.
It is difficult to say if changes to Brazilian football are likely to come any time soon or not. Rumor has it that the CBF’s top candidate to replace Scolari is former Corinthians coach Tite, who subscribed to the same minimalist and pragmatic approach when he won the Copa Libertadores and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2012.
In effect, maybe the common denominator of Brazilian football in recent decades has been predominantly coaches from the south of the country. Men like Sebastiao Lazaroni, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Dunga, Scolari today and the aforementioned Tite have all extolled this more robust style.
But maybe we’re asking the wrong question altogether. What is certain is that it is time we stop wondering when Brazil will return to their football identity and start wondering if what we have seen now is Brazil’s identity.
You can follow Ogo Sylla on Twiter at: @RossonerOgo_3