Feature

A reminder that Brazil needs to get with the times

A Brazil fan anxiously watches her beloved team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup third place play-off loss to Netherlands. (AAP) Source: EFE

An architecturally innovative park - conceived in Brazil's modernity boom of the late 50s - in iconic Rio de Janeiro, will host some of the city's 450th birthday celebrations, providing a visual reminder of a time when Brazil's football was at the cutting edge of the global game.

My adopted home of Rio de Janeiro is celebrating its 450th birthday. This leaves me with an image in my head.

The city is known all around the world for two of its mountains – Corcovado, with the statue of Christ, and Sugar Loaf. I imagine the pair of them looking down with scorn on the works of man, with an air of 'see the magnificent setting we supply and look at what you have done with it!'

But there is one part of the city for which the old mountains might hold a grudging respect. Below Sugar Loaf, in sight of Corcovado, is Flamengo Park, a gorgeous lush green space next to the sinuous curves of Flamengo beach. It looks like another of nature's gifts, but this one received some help. The sea used to extend much further. The park was a landfill project, bold in its ambition, brilliant in its execution.

Flamengo Park, then, is a part of the city where man has lived up the challenge of inhabiting a beautiful setting. It sends out a reassuring message of the merits of humanity, and also a specific one for Brazil. The construction took place at a time – the late 50s and early 60s – when, in the wistful words of one local urbanist, "Brazil was modern." It really did seem to be the moment when the country of the future was arriving. Architecture, music, film – all were caught up in a fervour of ideas. And football was no exception.

The Brazil teams that won the country's first World Cups were the product of this climate. True, they were packed full of brilliant individuals. But their talent flowered because the collective context was right. Coaches from Argentina and especially Uruguay had brought new things, a few Hungarians had added others and Brazil led the world in the idea of defending with a modern back four.

Indeed, the coach for the 1958 World Cup was very nearly a Paraguayan, Fleitas Solich. There was great intellectual curiosity with off the field work as well; the 1958 staff included a back up team of physical preparation specialists, doctors, a dentist and even an attempt (premature as it proved) to work with a sports psychologist. Bossa nova, cinema nova, modernist architecture which paid tribute to curves – and the football, too, was adventurous, exciting and free thinking.

Fast forward a few decades, and in some senses real progress has been made. The achievement of financial stability in 1994 was a massive step – hyperinflation had served as a wickedly cruel tax on the poor. A stable currency paved the way for an expansion of credit, which underpinned the consumer –based boom the country has experienced in recent years. The process appears to have temporarily run out of steam, but in the last few years life possibilities of a significant section of the Brazilian population have improved.

What appears to be lacking, though, are ideas and visions. The old myths look very tired – 'the land of happiness' appears very outdated after the mass protests of 2013. The emphasis on racial and cultural diversity also now comes across as anachronistic, especially given the problems faced by black Brazilians. These days any major Western European city can parade a broader range of peoples and cultures. There is a need, then, for fresh myths and bold new ideas – and nowhere more so than in football.

Former Argentina coach and footballing philosopher Cesar Luis Menotti is a huge fan of the tradition of the Brazilian game. He played for the great Santos side of the 1960s, and is rare among his compatriots in thinking that Pele was better than Diego Maradona.

But Menotti has fallen totally out of love with the way that Brazil approaches the game these days. He recently paid tribute to the revolution sparked by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, "a hurricane," he says, "which annihilated all the tricks and the lies, in such a way that now even the Italians want to keep the play and play." It is a hurricane, he continues, "which has transformed itself into an encouraging breeze in lots of other countries. But not Brazil, where every day they play worse."

Brazil's appalling side in the recent South American Under-20 Championships merely added further proof for his observation. The players were physically strong, and with some individual ability – but with not the slightest notion of how to pass the ball to open up the opposing defence. And, unhappily, these are traits which have come to characterise the contemporary Brazilian game.

The land of curves is now all too often represented on the pitch by a heads down charge in the direction of the opposing goal – no subtlety, no collectivity, no surprise.

Rather than play their way through the opposing defence, the ambition seems to be to force a free kick close to goal. "The principal reason for the decline of our football," wrote the great Tostao recently, "is the lack of value given to passing the ball."

So the new heroes can master the step-over but appear to struggle with the notion that the best way to move forward is with a diagonal pass.

In Tostao's city of Belo Horizonte, this week Atletico Mineiro gave a depressing display of these problems, producing a dismal 90 minutes in which it lost 1-0 at home to Atlas of Mexico in the Copa Libertadores.

 

In general the Brazilian players were superior to their rivals in terms of physical strength and individual ability. Where they lagged so far behind was in the area of ideas, of how to move the ball collectively. Once so modern, much of Brazilian football now looks straight out of the stone age.

Perhaps the celebrations of Rio's 450 years might do a little bit to remedy the situation. Some of the festivities will take place in Flamengo Park, a scenic reminder of when Brazil was modern – and a challenge to once more be at the cutting edge of the global game.