Brazil – Running Out of Time

Brazil’s tardiness is completing infrastructural projects is painfully reflected in the stark lack of preparedness its celebrated Seleçao finds itself in

The Estadio Do Maracana, or the Estadio Jornalista Mario Filho, for the anorak-types, was, and is, not ready.   Steeped in history, a perennial monument to the fervent splendour that is Brazilian football, the globally famous concrete edifice welcomes the World Cup back to its deep bowel for the first time since 1950.  For Brazilians, that tournament 63 years ago still stirs up sensations of frustration and anguish.  It was July 16th and Brazil needed a draw to win the World Cup on home soil.  Having disposed of Sweden and Spain(7-1 and 6-1 respectively) the odds were ever in their favour.  As such, expectation was sky high, worshipping fans (all of the reported nearly 200,000) whipping themselves into a collective frenzy. And they failed, letting a lead slip as complacency gave way to disabling terror and the harshest of realities – defeat.  Uruguay celebrated to a backing music of ‘morbid silence’, so eerie it was described by Jules Rimet as ‘too difficult to bear’.  Indeed, it was – to date, the episode pockmarks Brazilian football history, infamous for the suicides which followed, two of which reportedly occurred at the stadium itself.  Die hard fans indeed. Such was the hysteric disappointment, epitomising the almost crushing levels of pressure those who dare to don the celebrated yellow and blue have to handle.

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Photograph courtesy of Brazil Portal

‘BEWARE – STADIUM UNDER CONSTRUCTION’

Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup in 2007, 6 years ago.  In October 2011, addressing questions about the construction work, Pele admitted ‘Brazil is not ready…not yet, it is not ready’.  FIFA’s deadline for completion was December 2012, in anticipation of the highly anticipated dress rehearsal that is the Confederations Cup.  That the Sao Paulo Itaquerao, the venue of the Opening ceremony, remains in a poor state (hardly 70% complete) has caused great consternation.  Indeed, Andres Sanchez, the former President of Corinthians football club, recently said that ‘there is a risk of work stopping or the stadium not being ready on time’.  In this case, a pending guarantee for a bank loan is what threatens the prompt completion of the stadium.  Without the promised $200m, Sanchez suggested that alternatively, a less impressive stadium’ may be built, one that will almost certainly not be up to FIFA’s standards.  This is a prospect which none of the organisers embraces but bureaucratic politicking remains crippling.

The construction of the Itaquerao is hardly alone in its tardiness.  In states such as Porto Alegre, Cuaiba and Manaus, stadiums are still inching towards 70% completion.  However, with the ‘strong deadline’ now for December, 2013, it is expected that construction will be completed by then.  Even if this is the case, full technical audits may yet be compromised, particularly with the short space of time between completion and event.  Indeed, Sunday’s friendly against England nearly did not happen.  While the injunction which, theoretically, would have prevented the game from going ahead was lifted after the required technical report was submitted, the initial farce was enough to reinforce the view that Brazil’s preparations have been plagued by incompetence, red-tapism and ballooning costs, far beyond initial estimates.

Oh, and the corruption.  A ‘BRIC’ nation, Brazil’s administrators are flush with more and more cash as its economy continues to grow.  “Mo’ money, mo’ problems”, raps American hip-hop legend, Biggie Smalls.  In 2012, Ricardo Teixeira stepped down from his post as Brazilian FA President amidst accusations of corruption.  His successor, Jose Maria Marin, hardly a saint himself, is accused of both corruption and more sinisterly, torturing opposition during the Brazilian military junta’s rule from 1964-1985.  Ridiculed by former legend-turned-congressman, Romario, as a ‘thief’, Marin’s is hardly the public visage one would want in times of such testing times

By drawing 2-2 with England, Brazil came up short against yet another top side (England… Top side??? *spits out chicken drumstick*), continuing a worryingly debilitating trend that has now lasted 4 years.  Since 2010, Brazil have failed to beat Italy, Holland, Argentina, France and Germany, to name the best of the lot – to be the best, you have to beat the best.  This hoodoo has mushroomed from incidental coincidence to a genuinely problematic situation – when faced with football’s powerhouses, they disappoint.  The Three Lions, experiencing personnel and tactical struggles of their own, presented the best opportunity for Brazil to break this duck but La Seleçao was left grasping at air as they surrendered meekly.  In many ways, both teams are but pale imitations of greater sides from eras bygone, although Brazil is cast in the gloom of a much larger and imposing shadow.

The revamped Maracana, the centrepiece of Brazil’s preparation for next year’s showcase, is emblematic of the current Brazil side.  Legendary, it is in a state of refashioning which has so far failed to provide any assurance that it will be ready for next year’s big event.  While Sunday’s draw took place without incident, uncovered gutters and loose panelling remain, providing patent evidence of unpreparedness, a state of affairs that has only continued to generate more rancour in the domestic and international football community.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  6 venues, of the 12, are fully operational and ready to run.  FIFA’s Secretary General, Jerome Valcke, promises, like he has done before, that the rest, including the Itaquerao, will be in full working condition come June next year.  While they almost certainly will be, the constant delays of construction work will leave all involved tense, on the edge of their seats, as Brazil plays a dangerous, and now unavoidable, game of brinksmanship.

Amidst the depressive air of underachievement and unpreparedness, football regularly serves as an opium to the worst fears of many, providing respite, even if ephemeral.  Kuper and Szymanski, writers of the wonderful Soccernomics (I will recommend this again – fascinatingly insightful), note the role successful hosting of a tournament (that is success on the pitch as well as the general organisation of the broader event) has to play in making the people happier.  Apparently, fewer suicides are recorded on average, and more children are conceived (Iniesta’s winner in Johannesburg led to a 50% surge in births in Catalunya alone, a phenomenon famously dubbed the ‘Iniesta Baby Boom’).  With administrative failings holding up infrastructural progress, it falls to the men on the pitch to alleviate the gloomy pall.  Disappointingly, La Seleçao are failing at the moment.

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Photograph courtesy of SportsKeeda

‘BE WARNED – TEAM UNDER CONSTRUCTION’

Dark clouds hang over Brazil’s celebrated football team – like half its country’s world Cup venues, it is still not ready.  As the Confederations Cup 2013 looms ever larger, the Champions of its last two editions lag far behind their fellow high profile global counterparts.  That is, of course, if they are still counterparts.  The FIFA rankings have Brazil lying in 19th place (**correction – they are now 22nd, one place ahead of Mali**), its lowest ranking since official publication of rankings began.  Some would point to Brazil’s lowly placing as an anomaly, a consequence of the hosts not having to play any competitive games in the lead up to the showcase.  Despite this excusable consequence of hosting the Copa Mundial, their constantly underwhelming friendly performances have only exacerbated the situation, providing validation to an unusual scenario.  Does anybody seriously think Brazil is the 22nd best nation in the world, lagging behind the likes of Switzerland (14th) and Greece (16th)?  Probably not, but it does reflect the substandard nature of their recent results and performances.

Since Iniesta smacked Spain into World Cup history in Johannesburg, Brazil has played in the 2011 Copa America and the Olympics (admittedly, a largely u-23 side but many of those players will feature in 2014).  The Copa was blighted by stilted football and even more shocking results, with Brazil registering a solitary win in 4.  Watching Brazil labour the ball towards an even more laboured Ganso (who was patently unfit) hurt the eyes – seduced by the mythical joie de vivre of Brazilian football, I expected to be entertained and watching Brazil was a crushing letdown.  Brazilian daily, O Globo, had the words ‘a historic incompetence’ splashed across its front pages.  Perhaps an overreaction, but then again, I am not Brazilian.

There is nowhere else in the world that can lay claim to such a styptic relationship with the beautiful game.  Indeed, in the lead up to the recent friendly, England’s Theo Walcott expressed his amazement at the ubiquity of football in Brazil‘As soon as you come here, you realise just what a football place it is’, he cooed, particularly after seeing ‘6 or 7 year olds kids using their shoulders to play beach volley’.

It is this relationship that translates to such expectation, voracious demand even.  In Brazil, the world Cup is regarded as a collective piece of property, expected to come home to roost every 4 years.  Indeed, following their 3rd triumph in 1970, it did; permanently.  The Jules Rimet trophy, then the prize played for, was given to Brazil for all time.  In 1983, while Brazil was in the middle of its driest spell of Copa Mundial success since the World Cup began, it was stolen and has never been recovered – in some way, Brazil’s hunger to recover the Cup has only continued to grow ever since.

Mario Menezes survived Brazil’s horror showing at the 2011 Copa America, before leading the u-23’s on an exciting but ultimately futile London Olympic expedition.  There, with the pressure of all of Brazil on the favourites, Neymar and Co quailed, sputtered and wilted as a mentally stronger Mexico sealed Olympic Gold with a comfortable 2-0 win.  Brazil had never won the tournament before and the wait continues (**Nigeria, in particular, takes delight in contributing to this, truncating the dreams of an uber-talented 1996 Brazil side.  The melodic sound of ‘When Nigeria beat Brazil’, trumpeted during games since the epic 4-3 victory, remains an indelible part of our past and present**).  However, Brazil did not wait for Menezes, who was summarily dismissed a short while after.  In his place, Luis Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, the architect of 2002’s success, was brought in.  His Messianic mission is as it was in Korea/Japan – to salvage a sinking ship, restoring confidence and team spirit on the way to a successful world Cup.  Oh, only if football were that open and shut.  After 7 games in charge, he still has won only one game, a 4-0 victory against a Bolivia side that hardly tried to make a match of it.  Other games, particularly at home, have been increasingly checkered by relentless booing as Brazil struggled to draws against ‘less esteemed’ opposition.  Against England recently, cries of ‘Donkey’ were directed at Scolari, accompanying incessant booing as Brazil fell behind.  A Brazilian world cup winner vilified?  It’s just another day in the fickle world of football.

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 Photograph Courtesy of The Sun

In 2002, Scolari could call on Rivaldo, a returning Ronaldo and a burgeoning Ronaldinho, in a tournament greatly remembered for Brazil’s flowing football amidst bungling opposition.  This time, Scolari is lucky in neither department.  He cannot call on players of the ilk of O Fenomeno, and neither can he count on the opposition to bring their worst to Brazil; Germany is on the rise, Spain are the current holders and the most dominant national team in history and other powers such as Holland and Argentina (led by the delectable talent that is Lionel Messi) are steadily getting their acts together for what could be the most competitive World Cup in recent memory.

However, despite this, Brazil continues to export players at a prodigious rate – for 4 years in a row, Brazil has provided the over 500 players to Europe’s 478 top division sides, by far the most of any nation.  In the Champions League, now regarded as the premier football competition in the world, Brazil remains the most represented nationality. At first glance, a shortage of talent does not appear to be the problem.  So what is then?

With a Brazil side in the middle of an evolution (of the 2010 World Cup Squad, only 3 players have been selected for the Confederations Cup – can you name them without cheating?), this surplus of talent would otherwise be regarded as a blessing, the kind of depth that every manager craves for.  Admittedly, La Seleçao’s crop of defenders is probably the best in the world, a cultural quirk in light of past history. Rob Smyth of the Guardian notes that Brazil is conventionally regarded as synonymous, whether rightly or wrongly, with a lack of true defensive talent.  On their exit glorious exit in 1982, here is what he had to say –

‘The problem (of the 1982 side), please, surely lay with the defence and goalkeeper, yet their eccentricities and inadequacies were largely indulged because, well, this is Brazil and they never have good defenders. What insulting poppycock.’

It might not have been poppycock then but it certainly is now.  Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Dante come off the back of brilliant seasons for their respective clubs and a conundrum for the manager is how to take advantage of these talented centre backs, all blessed with the silky ball skills of Brazilian footballers complemented by true athleticism.  It is ironic, for the issue of shoehorning players into a side is almost always in relation to the forward players, the traditional difference makers.  Down the sides, Dani Alves, Marcelo and Filipe Luis provide ample forward thrust, in keeping with a lengthy tradition of flying wing/full backs.

It is further ahead, problems persist.  While a sound defence provides a solid foundation, excuse the cliché, but ‘goals win you games’.  Or shall I echo Jim Fleeting, the SFA’s Director of Football Development, who noted that David Moyes stressed how ‘everything these days goes through the middle’?  It is in these two areas that Brazil struggles.  Right now, Brazil is spearheaded by Fred, a striker who failed in Europe (he did serve up some flashes of typical Brazilian brilliance), flanked by Neymar, a boundless talent seemingly caught in inertia.  Of Neymar, the Brazilian public expects the world but for the skinny young lad, the pressure has appeared to be more inhibiting than inspiring.  Recent performances against Italy, Russia and England (in February – even Joey Barton had a dig) have only fueled the conflagration of furious criticism that has come his way.  His recent move to Barcelona, rather than confirm his quality, has apparently left the player with much more to prove, with doubters, of whom there are many, expecting failure.

Hulk, who started against England, has flattered to deceive, and following his mega-money escape to Russia, has struggled to replicate his imperious form of FC Porto.  The likes of Oscar and Lucas, while evidently talented, are hardly of the age, maturity or top level experience to be expected to lead the way either.

‘The Centre Cannot Hold – Things Fall Apart’

In midfield, therein lies the biggest problem.  A surfeit of midfielders means that Scolari appears inundated with options, continually chopping and changing in an attempt to find the perfect blend.  The names roll off the tongue – Fernando, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Luis Gustavo, Sandro, Hernanes, Ramires and a host of others. The resultant lack of continuity and consistency has contributed to the Brazil’s persistent struggles to find a consistent style and identity.  Sometimes, more is indeed less.  While all very good players, none stand out from the bunch, except possibly Hernanes.  And even he has been rotated as Scolari struggles to find the right combination that will allow Brazil to control and dictate the rhythm and flow of the attack.  Of the names listed above, none apart from Hernanes is renown for their technical prowess – energy and verve are their prime attiributes.  Also, it does not escape watchers of Serie A that Hernanes, extremely ambipedal and versatile, has proven to be of greater utility in a more attacking role behind the strikers for his club, Lazio.  How Big Phil addresses the midfield dilemma could be the making, or breaking, of this current side.

While he should be lauded for picking 11 domestic players, something bound to be hugely popular with the fans, one wonders whether their presence and lack of knowledge of European styles and pace of the game may be hindering the side.  Yes, the Brazilian league is one of the fastest growing in the world, increasingly attracting the top brow of talent from the rest of South America, as well as providing a welcome roost for returning stars from Europe.  However, it should never be suggested that it is near par with Europe’s top leagues.

Going deeper still, one suspects that its issues might be more psychological.  While the Brazilian public expects, perhaps more than any other, there is a more palpable feeling of self-doubt in the air, aggravated by the team’s poor performances.  Brazilian English teacher, Marcos Grillo, in an interview with the Independent, sums up the overriding mood in Brazil –

‘Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Daniel Alves, Neymar… we’ve got the players,’ he says. ‘But the side lacks confidence. We’re scared of the big teams now. It didn’t use to be like that. Brazil needs to be Brazil again.’  When asked about what he expects at the Mundial, Grillo quips, ‘It’ll be the hexa (meaning ‘number 6’), for sure’, before admitting that this ‘boast’ is more, way more, romantic hope than realistic prediction’.

Brazil’s public has been given no reason to expect.  As such, they boo, they moan and lament, but in the end, Brazil remains the legendary yellow and blue and the hosts, hence as fans in the heat of 90 minutes, logic will often give way to fierce demand.  How the Seleçao handle this will be key, and the pressure will continue to grow exponentially as the World Cup opener approaches.

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Photograph Courtesy of Radio Netherlands Worldwide

‘Style or Substance – A Faustian Pact?’

Ideally, any fan yearns for both but currently, the Seleçao possess none; in football, this is criminal – for Brazilians, cardinally so.  South America’s most populous nation has built a veritable global brand on the idea of joga bonito – ‘to play beautiful’ – which is why even when success comes, it has to be accompanied by that aesthetic flourish that crystallises fleeting moments of genius forever.  We have heard of the goals of such cheek and breathtaking audacity, they are said to be ‘Made in Brazil’.  Brazil is the home of samba football, characterised by the off-the-cuff wonders that delights and regales in abundance.  Football is a commoner’s delicacy, a public good to be shared and enjoyed by all, but premium service is demanded – every performance should be a 5-star meal.  Otherwise, it might be a tolerable dish for a time, provided it continues to sate the innate hunger for success; just #askDunga.

The defensive midfielder captain of the least exciting, most functional of Brazil’s World Cup winners, the 1994 side, Dunga’s (I cannot help but point out the aural similarity between ‘Dunga’ and ‘Donkey’, a term long used by Brazilians to criticise stolid, disappointing play) side reflected his inherent conservatism.  For him, romanticism was success’ Kryptonite, dulling logic; instead, he favoured a pragmatic style designed to achieve success in the most efficient manner.  Reclaiming the World Cup in 1994 after a 30 year hiatus, Dunga appreciated the validatory role success, above all else, increasingly plays in football.  And for a while, Brazil succeeded and with it brought grudging acquiescence of a style at odds with tradition.

After leading Brazil to dominant victories at the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Confederations Cup playing a highly regimented, solid counter-attacking style, Dunga’s Brazil looked set to go far at the 2010 World Cup.  It was no surprise that this side, particularly the 2009 side, was led by the most European of Brazil’s marquee players, Kaka.  Against Holland in the quarters, despite taking the lead and playing the much better football, two freak Wesley Sneijder goals dumped out a hitherto well – performing Brazil side.  Its weakness was that in ceding control of the ball and playing on the counter, chasing games it was losing was extremely tough.  Recognising that he had been unable to keep his side of the faustian bargain, he resigned in the immediate aftermath of Brazil’s loss.  When the trade off involves substance for style, your options are limited, and with the Brazilian public, failure is not one of those.  Having traded its soul for success, Brazil sought to reclaim it and Menezes was drafted in with this remit – to bring back the beautiful game.  It was this ‘Great Commission’ that Menezes struggled with, his Brazil occasionally finding some fluency in possession, precision and incision (check Neymar’s dazzling senior debut, Menezes’ as Brazil coach too: a 2-0 victory over the USA – it was beautiful destruction). However, without the required level of consistency in either style or success, the Menezes project was given short shrift and eventually discarded.

Contrast this with the supreme but failed 1982 World Cup side, one which succumbed to eventual winners, Italy.  Favourites and riding on the crest of a wave, it all came crashing against an Italian cliff.  They are fondly remembered, in some quarters regarded as the finest Brazilian world cup side, even finer than Pele’s showmen of 1970.  Back then, failure was tempered by titillatingly flamboyant play, a paradox of palatable sorts which helped defuse disappointment; in ultimate defeat, both goals scored by Socrates and Falcao were paradigms of collective beauty and sublime technique, further embellishing their legend.  Unlike Maracanazo, it was not at home.  And it could simply be put down to having poor defenders, not something they were ever famed for; after all, in scoring 15 goals on the way to exiting, the attackers did their job while the defence was cast off as an unfortunate and uncontrollable incident which undermined their fantasy.  Brazil never produced defenders’, they comforted themselves.  At least, they lived up to the Brazilian ethos despite not even making the semi-finals.  In a results-driven business, it is this admirably principled, yet illogical level of expectation, and some, that 2014’s Seleçao will have to live with.

Currently, Brazil has neither success nor flamboyance, Neymar, its crack (a player capable of significantly altering the fate of games with unguardable moments of genius) struggling to consistently bring his dazzling skills to the very top level so far.  Scolari’s task is doubly complicated by the heightened expectation that Brazil, as hosts, will have to handle.  This time, defensive weakness cannot be an excuse – the rear is their strongest department.  The public, having tolerated bitter success under Dunga quickly succeeded by harsh failure under Menezes, pines for a jamboree, a party on the pitch worthy of the masters of ’70 and ’82.  Beautiful victory is the absolute minimum and Big Phil is aware of that, ruefully observing, in the aftermath of the 2-2 draw on Sunday,  ‘Of course, the crowd expected the team to win…they wanted goals and a victory, but we understood that England are a difficult team to play against.’ 

The enormity of the task ahead is not lost on Big Phil.

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A year to the 20th World Cup, Brazil, the host, is evidently not ready. In the eyes of many, the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal, but for Brazilians so much more, presents yet another opportunity for Brazil’s failings to be amplified and vilified.  The Maracana injunction episode was embarrassing enough to cast the spotlight, yet again, on prevalent infrastructural shortcomings.  The match which reopened the legendary stadium illuminated shortcomings of another sort, to the public, the ones that matter most. They are promising bunch of players of whom much is expected. Nevertheless, some remain acutely cognisant of the fact that 2014 may be too soon.  Carlos Alberto Torres, the captain of the feted 1970 World Cup side, acknowledges as much, stating that – ‘We Brazilians have to become aware that Brazil will have a nice team for 2018.’  He continued, ‘they say we are the favourite for 2014, but for me we are not. Those who have played a World Cup know that you need experience.’

Romario, brash and harsh, ever outspoken, recently criticised the current team. ‘If the World Cup was played today, Brazil would not win.  I don’t think we can win the Confederations Cup either, Brazil are currently playing too far from the level needed to be world champions.’

Strong words, backed with reason, from men steeped in the knowledge of what it takes to be champions.   As the clock counts down, this reason will give way to suffocating expectation.  Will Brazil be able to handle the pressure and deliver?  At the moment, pessimism is at an all-time high but paradoxically, expectation remains and has possibly never been higher.  Fans have spoken about how playing at home, Brazil has the obligation of winning’.  It is behind schedule on its infrastructural obligations already but at least, they are inanimate and can be completed on time, albeit in a rush.  With football, no such guarantees are available and as such, pessimism is the unwelcome accompaniment of expectation on this occasion.

The Confederations Cup will provide a demo of what we might expect to see next year.  It kicks off at 20.00 GMT on the 15th of June with Brazil hosting Japan.  If past Confederations Cups are anything to go by, settle down for a cracking fix of summer football.

 

Raymond Utuk

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3 thoughts on “Brazil – Running Out of Time

  1. I think the biggest problem is that they have too many players. The coach is trying to do due diligence by giving everybody a chance and the result you have the team playing without chemistry.
    I believe in Scolari, I believe that he will eventually stick to a consistent 11 or 18, and eventually do what he did in 2002 or at least close to it. Their youth may be a problem but that didn’t stop Germany from going far in 2010.

    Great job as always

    • Yes, certainly. With a team in evolution, the inevitable flux is hitting them harder than the public realise. I still find it pretty remarkable that they’ve gone 4 years without a scalp. Will they do well next year? I honestly don’t know. Gonna be much tougher for Scolari but he’s still got that year to prepare. We shall see.

  2. Pingback: munduspintus's Blog | BRAZIL – ANGRY AT THE WORLD CUP

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