Guest Post: So Long, Samba Soccer?

As today is World Cup Final day, I thought it was about time for something football-related on Another Kind Of Mind. I’ve also been wanting to put up some guest posts from bloggers I like and admire – so why not combine the two? This fascinating post on the history of the Brazilian national side in the World Cup and the decline of their style of ‘samba soccer’ is the first of these guest posts, and has been written exclusively for me by my old friend and fellow blogger Martin Marshall. So, thanks to Martin for this intriguing post and I hope you all enjoy reading!

So, the 2010 World Cup is almost over and we are guaranteed new winners. Very soon now either The Netherlands will no longer be the best team never to win the World Cup or Spain will complete the job they began two years ago in proving that they are no longer football’s great underachievers.

Football changes, it’s an evolving sport, affected by innovations in tactics, training, sports science and nutrition, not to mention the socio-economic factors of rising player wages and changing participation models. Yet our attitudes to football often struggle to keep up with the pace of change. Rooted in clichés and stereotypes, we continue to hold certain expectations long after it should have been obvious that they are unrealistic and when, inevitably, they go unfulfilled we remain perpetually surprised.

I can remember Des Lynam, on an early nineties Match of the Day, asking Alan Hansen “does the Premiership need a strong Liverpool?” It was a question rooted in the inability of many football fans to accept that Liverpool were no longer the dominant force they had been. After twenty years in which they had been Champions eleven times and Champions of Europe four times, not to mention another ten major trophies in other cup competitions, it took people a while to get used to the fact that Liverpool were no longer the team to beat. Yet football got along perfectly well for decades before Liverpool’s dominance and would get on after it as well.

It’s another persistent illusion that I wish to address here and it concerns the greatest of all footballing nations, Brazil. Brazil is, of course, the only nation in World Cup history to have played in every World Cup finals tournament. Early on in the history of the tournament they did consistently well without ever really setting the world on fire. In 1958, however, they won their first World Cup with some of the most exciting attacking football that the world had yet seen and, in the process, began to create a myth that simply will not die.

The star of the squad was a 17-year-old prodigy called Pele but he was hardly alone. Players like Didi and Garrincha also demonstrated incredible skills and a willingness to do things that had never been seen on a football field before. Pele and Garrincha hardly seemed to need to pass the ball, such was their skill when dribbling. In their game against the USSR the Brazilians were nervous and decided that they needed an early goal against the very fit Soviet team, so they attacked without mercy from the word go. After three minutes of relentless attacking both Pele and Garrincha had already hit the woodwork and Vava had scored. Sports journalists of the day could hardly believe what they had seen.

1962 was Garrincha’s tournament, after Pele was injured in the opening match and Brazil became only the second team to retain the trophy after Italy in 1934 and 1938, a feat nobody has ever repeated again. Moreover, with the proliferation of television, these players were building legends that would forever outshine those of earlier stars of the game. Their exploits were watched by millions and can still be watched today.

Brazilian fans remember 1966 less fondly as it saw Pele become the target of much thuggery by opposition defenders. He was, quite literally kicked out of the tournament and, for the first time, so were the Brazilians, failing to get past the first round. The sixties were an era of increasing cynicism and tactical play, with the arrival in Italy of the catenaccio style that saw the widespread use of such devices as offside traps.

In such an era the Brazilians stood out all the more. They were never happy to keep the ball, attack on the break, starve the opposition of possession and snatch a 1-0 win. No, they charged straight ahead with reckless abandon, relying on the unparalleled skills of their attacking players to see them through. In an age when many teams intended to win by conceding fewer goals than their opponents, the Brazilians still wanted to win by scoring more.

These were not mere footballers; they were footballing superheroes. They did not have proper names; they had exotic nicknames: Pele, Garrincha, Rivelino and so on. It seemed appropriate, somehow. Brazil never lost a match in which Pele and Garrincha both played. Even after Garrincha’s retirement, they were not done.

In 1970 Brazil assembled what many commentators have called the greatest World Cup team of all and won the Jules Rimet trophy outright by becoming the first team to win the World Cup three times. It was Pele’s crowning glory. The first World Cup to be televised in colour, it gave rise to moments that passed into legend; Pele’s near-miss from the halfway line, Gordon Banks’ amazing save from Pele’s header and the outstanding final goal of the tournament, in which the Brazilians put together an eight-man move that started in their own penalty area and ended in the Italian net.

Brazil had won the World Cup three times in twelve years. The legend of samba soccer had been born. From that moment on Brazil would enter every World Cup with a special expectation surrounding them. Not only would they carry the hopes of a nation that demanded success, as England, West Germany, Italy and many others did, they would also carry the hopes of every football fan who wanted to see “the beautiful game” triumph over the cynical game. It was a heavy responsibility.

Relative failure in 1974 was masked by the emergence of the Dutch, Johan Cruyff and total football. 1978 would be a very different story. Old stager Rivelino was still hanging on, a link to 1970 but Brazilian football had a new hope. A young man known simply as Zico had burst onto the scene, earning himself the nickname of “the white Pele” and Brazilian expectations began to rise once more. They played with customary flamboyance and, in controversial circumstances, ended up becoming the first team to end up finishing in third place without actually losing a match!

1982, therefore, was a World Cup of massive significance for Brazil. It was twelve years since they had last won the tournament. Zico was joined by Socrates, Falcao, Eder and Junior. It was, perhaps, the greatest assemblage of attacking talent seen in one team since 1970. At that point Zico was probably the best player on the planet (a young star called Diego Maradona was beginning to emerge as a contender). His dribbling recalled memories of Garrincha and Pele and his free-kicks were second to none. Socrates was almost as good, an attacking midfielder with wonderful passing. Young striker Careca was unfortunately unavailable due to injury but many thought it would not matter; Brazil were hardly lacking in firepower.

This team certainly lived up to all expectations regarding flair and exuberance; they seemed not to know how to defend but they scored wonderful goals from every angle imaginable. Yet, once again, they fell short of the mark. They lost a thrilling quarter-final to Italy 3-2, despite dominating most of the game. The Italian defence soaked up the pressure and striker Paolo Rossi mercilessly punished the Brazilian’s own defensive sloppiness with a hat-trick.

The final saw Italy beat West Germany, and it seemed that this World Cup was a triumph for cynical, dour European football. South American flair had been crushed and the two most defensive and, frankly, boring sides in the tournament had contested the final. The aging Zico would have one more chance, in 1986. This time Careca was fit, so expectation remained high.

However, Brazil crashed out on penalties in just the second round against France, a match remarkable because Zico missed a penalty in normal time that would have sealed the victory while the shoot-out saw Michel Platini’s first ever penalty miss. Diego Maradona, now at the height of his powers would steal all the headlines as Argentina won their second World Cup and Brazil were reduced to not even being the best, or most exciting, team on their own continent. Zico’s generation had failed.

Careca was the only big-name survivor of the 80s to make it to the 1990 World Cup Finals. Brazil actually came close to losing their position as seeds after the second round exit four years earlier. I can remember that, once again, expectations for this Brazil side were high, with Careca joined by Bebeto and Romario.

Yet, once again the Brazilians went out in the second round, this time to Argentina. The Brazilians spent most of the game attacking but couldn’t score; Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia took his chance ten minutes from time and Brazil were sent home early from one of the most dismal World Cups of all. Brazil had now not won a World Cup for twenty years. Their attacking play had brought them earlier and earlier exits from the tournament that had very nearly been their own. This had not gone unnoticed. People didn’t realise it at the time; many have still yet to really get it through but make no mistake, this is the moment at which samba soccer died.

1994 saw the World Cup move to the USA. Brazil, highly fancied, as always, lived up to the tag of favourites, running out deserved winners, although it took a penalty shoot-out in the final to get them the trophy. This was not, however, a return to the Brazil of 1970. This Brazil team played in a rigid, European-style 4-4-2 formation. Defence came first and there was to be no suicidal charging forward. Romario was a great striker but one in the mould of a European finisher like Gerd Muller or Gary Lineker, not a Zico or a Pele. Teenage sensation Ronaldo, tipped by many to be Brazil’s next superstar, was hardly glimpsed. In the end, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira did not quite get the acclaim that he might have expected for bringing home the trophy, incidentally making Brazil the first team to win four World Cups. The Brazilian public had not enjoyed the style of play and Parreira left the job soon after.

Since then, we have seen Brazil pick up a record fifth World Cup in 2002. They have produced some wonderful players: Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Kaka and so on. As a result, each and every World Cup, including this one, has seen TV commentators talk up the “samba soccer” and free-flowing football of Brazil. Those days are gone. The last Brazilian team that combined that kind of skill with that kind of reckless abandon was the 1982 side and, sadly, they were exposed as being tactically naive. Football changes and these days, it has evolved to a point where no team, no matter how good their players, can get away with that mentality.

Will we ever see it again? We can hope so. Certainly, there are many in Brazil, not least Carlos Alberto Torres, scorer of the 1970 final’s wonder goal, who lament the passing of the samba spirit. It’s hard to imagine, however. South America long since caught up with the tactical innovations of European football and someone will have to devise tactics that trump modern defences before anyone will return to non-stop attack. It is time for the media to abandon the charade that Brazil is synonymous with flair, excitement and attacking prowess; these days, they are just another good team.

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