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After the 4-0

Santos’ defeat by Barcelona, besides being traumatic, is a watershed; it explains the crisis of Brazilian football and the poverty of our current football culture

Nuno Ramos
THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY_(FREAKINGNEWS)_ART BY PEDRO ZOLLI_2012

Translated by Flora Thomson-Deveaux

versão em português

With the “lead rhythm (and weight)/of the man inside a nightmare” from João Cabral’s poem to Ademir da Guia, the game between Barcelona and Santos unfolded before my eyes. How else to describe – without recalling nightmares – the ball shooting straight past the central defender (Durval’s flub on the first goal), Ganso’s classic trapped pass (atta boy!) immediately snatched away by Xavi, the utter clumsiness of the only outstanding Brazilian player of the last few years (Neymar), the unceasing flow of one team pitted against the eternal dead-end of the other? Never, as far as I can remember, has Brazilian football been so undermined in a game of any importance. As a matter of fact, the only other time a serious team was so completely dominated for 90 minutes was during the famous Uruguay x Holland in the ’74 World Cup. It’s not about the result, it’s about what happens on the field. If Santos came close two or three times, Barcelona had at least ten chances at a goal, had two shots off the post and scored four goals (the third a true masterpiece). Santos didn’t have the game under control for five straight minutes. At times it didn’t even seem to belong in the same division as its torturer.

We must see the game as a trauma, a watershed, a sign that something strange is going on with Brazilian football. And I don’t say this as a Santos fan. During the whole game I felt my team offered up like veal to the jaguars – but would any other Brazilian team have fared better? A team like Corinthians, for example (last year’s national champion, much less elegant but better armed than Santos), would, I’m sure, have shared Santos’ destiny. They might have made more fouls, with an expelled player ten minutes into the second half – and would end up taking it on all fours anyway.

It seems clear that Brazilian football is having two simultaneous crises. The first is that we’re lacking a good crop of players. I think that Ganso’s good six months are disproportional to the excitement he stirred up; I think Pato was a disappointment; Damião still isn’t solid; we need midfielders who can actually launch the ball; the endless line of exceptional defenders we’ve had coming since 1994 seems to be running out. We may be, (Neymar aside), reliving the 1990 World Cup, the worst assortment of Brazilian players I’ve ever seen.

The second crisis seems to be a crisis of interpretation – of the culture of football itself. As I see it, this is only getting worse and desperately needs a dose of self-criticism. (Like, a conference of philologists scrutinizing knowledge itself in some little town in the backlands, we can see if that gets us anywhere.) The heinous transmissions of the Globo network – with Galvão Bueno [i] smoothing over the outbursts and crises that he himself causes – take first prize and would merit essayistic consideration by themselves. But is this different elsewhere? Of course we have to set aside a sporadic, substantive and very interesting brand of Brazilian essays on football coming from names like José Miguel Wisnik and Francisco Bosco, Tales Ab’Saber and Chico Buarque, a current of thought that finds shelter and historical perspective in Wisnik’s new (already classic) book .  Not to mention an entire national essayistic tradition ranging from Décio Pignatari to Vilém Flusser, from Anatol Rosenfeld to Paulo Perdigão, which time was threatening to devour. But the truth is that analysis during the games, in the press and in the long post-game TV shows is still very, very weak.

Of course Tostão [ii], with his lucid, piece-by-piece observations on the totality of the game, is the exception. And if his pearls of wisdom are often mingled with a sort of self-help philosophese, we owe it to him to separate the two. Tostão has commentated almost all recent Brazilian football with an insider’s perspective, devoid of excessive technical droning. We should probably see him as the first true commentator specializing in football – Nelson Rodrigues [iii], Mário Filho [iv] or Armando Nogueira [v] would be more cultural ideologues than experts in the game. And his technical expertise doesn’t come wrapped in statistical scientism (like with Paulo Vinícius Coelho, “PVC”). Statistics can be illuminating, but this tack lacks intuition and a sense for the anarchic, unpredictable, difficult-to-define character that defines the sport as a whole, as well as in each of its details. Tostão is, without a doubt, the best hope of recent Brazilian football culture.

I want to try, in a rather abrupt way, to characterize some of the traits of this crisis and try to understand its origin before returning to the game that inspired this reflection. So I’m going to start from the beginning (my beginning), tracing a brief and wild history of Brazilian football between 1958-1970.

 

I think that the Greek classicism of our three first world titles gave us a patrimony that is our pride and our foundation, but which we also need to get over. Characterized by an undefined plasticity, open to chance, like a mutt – probably Nelson Rodrigues’ proverbial mutt – sniffing around some alleyway, the Brazilian national team played (better) and let their adversaries play as well. This spirit was already visible in 1950, but went into a sort of hibernation after losing to Uruguay before imposing itself as the definitive model of the nation’s football.

There’s something like a Moebius strip here, twisting between inside and out, the whole and its parts; João Gilberto would show something like this in his music. I mean his work as a whole, but in particular when, in the early ‘70s, he sings endlessly, in a loop, the present indicative of the verb ser (to be) in Tom Jobim’s Águas de Março. In the song, time wants to double over on itself and last, making the structure of the lyrics (the list of things that time drags with it) simplify itself enormously, like an immediate and almost random complement of the verb. If we swapped out “pau, pedra, fim do caminho” in Jobim’s lyrics for the nouns of the game (pass, kick, header, trivela, goal), we might have a good description of the ’58-’70 cycle. Brazilian football in the era of the triple championship liked to play, and playing (like that “é” running throughout Jobim’s song) seemed simple.

Hans Ulrich Gümbrecht defends the existence of national schools of football, but not ones characterized a priori by cultural traits (there’s nothing in Italian culture, for example, that dictates a team defined by marking and counterattacks). Instead, he says schools are born of teams that, by virtue of their excellence, come to mark the local sporting culture, forever marking it with their aura. The direction of the influence is inverted – from team to culture, and not vice versa – which troubles simplistic ideological readings. We have to remember, of course, that these teams aren’t found in deserts or oceans but in active cultures that filter and adapt them to their own concepts and biases. In the Brazilian case, the reversal of the 1950 tragedy in the 1958-70 triple championship inaugurated an air of glee and improvisation from which we would never free ourselves.

As we all know, the mutt’s triumphant reign would end in ’74 with the rise of the Dutch national team. Not so much because of the game we lost to them (we could have won in the first half), but because of what the Dutch team’s style meant.

I like the argument made by Stephen Jay Gould (the essay “Losing the Edge” is in The Flamingo’s Smile), in which he tries to explain the decrease in strikes and home runs in baseball today (since 1930, there’s been no batter with an average of 40%, which was fairly common until then). Gould says the change wasn’t because of modifications to the ball, stadium lighting (the advent of night games), or better pitching, but rather a generalized improvement in the standard of the game, finely distributed throughout baseball as a whole. Using statistical models, Gould shows that the fundamentals of baseball are better executed today than in 1927, when Babe Ruth reached his nearly insuperable 60 home runs in a single season.

“When baseball was young, styles of play had not become sufficiently regular to foil the antics of the very best. …Slowly, players moved towards optimal methods of positioning, fielding, pitching and batting – and variation inevitably declined.” This trend – the decline of difference and the standardization of the system – applies in biological evolution as well. The Paleozoic world, according to Gould in another essay, “was very different from ours, with few of a kind distributed over a greatly increased range of basic body forms.” As life tests out its models, it becomes monotonous; mass extinctions set off new bursts of creativity.

Something similar happened in football, and had the Dutch national team as its response. As opposed to the random, open Brazilian stroll – a kind of carousel that rotates on its axis (the ball) – we saw a concentration of the game and the end of dead, unexplored spaces; we were amateurs shocked into action by the appearance of a star. With Holland – and from then on – everything that was latent comes to the fore.

The Brazilian style (like Barcelona’s current style) was a game of solids, centered on the ball, and Holland’s was a style of voids – starting out with the ball, but spreading itself throughout the whole field in remote waves of movement, as if the potentiality of the team imposed itself on the moment in which the ball is in possession. This spatial tendency, as opposed to a focus on the ball, put the screws on our football. And our response, as is so often the case in situations of Third-World inferiority, was excessively technical, almost juridical. Overlapping, strategy, complications – a professionalizing superego emerges, with specialist coaches, polyglot trainers, plenty of droning and a football-related erudition that silenced the amateurs. But apart from two clumsily played World Cups, what we almost lost with the “Dutch invasion” was the hypothesis of victory that Pelé’s generation had built (as opposed to the hypothesis of defeat in the 1950 World Cup). How is it possible that we’re losing? we asked.  I find the question childish. We almost don’t know how to lose now – and this is our principal legacy, which we still carry with us today, of the golden years of our three titles.

The 1982 national team hearkens back to those years – there are almost no specialists and the ball is played with greater creativity than the ’70 team (I never saw the ’58 team play). Of the team that lost to Italy, with the exception of Waldir Peres, Oscar and Serginho, all are midfielders, had played, or would play as midfielders (which recalls 1970). Thus the unbelievable flow of the ball, the circling promise of a goal, the old plasticity seeming to return. But as with every comeback, it was a bit of a farce. The game had already beenlaid bare by Holland, scrutinized like in a scanner, and now everyone knew more than they had before – except us, trapped in the model we wanted to bring back. The extraordinary 1982 team, which made me suffer like no other, lacked self-awareness – they played for themselves, closed in their own circuit of meaning (the main one being: This is how Brazilian football is played, got it?), without paying attention to the fact that someone was on the other side. It was a team out of time (like the first great African national teams in the World Cup), landing in a much more competitive and technical world than it could even imagine.

I think we owe the 1994 national team more than we can confess – they got over the classic ’58-’70 model, if not in terms of interpretation (the old label was still there) then in the way they played. It was different not just in the absence of midfielders, but also in the only ace on the field (Romário, even though Bebeto played better than most say), in its lethargic defense, in the way it rotated around itself – the famous “floor-polisher” style of football, as Zinho was dubbed. We can recall the performance of our all-time best goalie, Taffarel; the genius of Aldair; the spectacular showing by Dunga (with excellent distribution of the ball, I insist) and Mauro Silva; Cafu’s debut; Romário’s splendor, etc. But perhaps this isn’t what really matters. In 1994 we learned that we could win another way, without so much gloss and gilt. That understanding the adversary was a fundamental part of victory. That we could negotiate mano a mano, counting every penny. 1994 saw an almost Spartan concentration of forces which seems contemporary to me: winning against adversity, with no complaints and nothing left to spare. Finally, we understood that the Brazilian model of football can be much more than the aces wearing jersey #10.

 

I want to linger on this point just a bit. I find the clever, gleeful image of our football horrible, even tacky. First of all, our god, Pelé, was an ace and a lousy player at the same time. Along with his unbelievable technical expertise, he used his shins and elbows like nobody else. And, like those faun-like Greek gods, he liked life enough to mix clean and dirty playing. I don’t see his style as gleeful, but rather powerful and furious. Garrincha, a minor god, was at once baroque and minimalist, shall we say. On one hand, he had that famous, efficient rightward launch that everyone – the defender, Garrincha himself and the crowd – recognized and knew what it would do (description borrowed from Armando Nogueira). On the other, he played in a scattered spiral (this part was, in fact, fun), which meant that you never quite knew where he would take the game. Garrincha’s double nature is his legacy and his truth: the effective conquest of the natural ambivalence between extreme concentration and complete dispersion, moving easily from one to the other (due to the absence of an injured Pelé, the first side helped to bring home the ’62 Cup). This. Not the carefree dribbles of a bird hunter. Robinho’s endless fakes (“Pedala, Robinho!”[vi] in the voice of Galvão Bueno) are the caricature that we want to avoid.

It’s a caricature of what was avoided by the next generation, responsible for one title and a second-place finish, and which has Ronaldo and Rivaldo as its protagonists. The 1998 and 2002 World Cups established the contradictory schools of ’94 and ’58-70. Ronaldo, a kind of specialized Pelé, brought back a fusion of physical power and technique, while the clumsy Rivaldo supported him (almost anonymously).

If you will, a parenthesis. To sing of Rivaldo’s fate one would need a great poet – a truly great poet. Jairzinho played one great World Cup (1970) and will always be remembered for it. Rivaldo played two extraordinary World Cups (perhaps even better than Ronaldo). He won everything possible, scored decisive goals for the teams he played on and for the national team (I think his goal against Belgium, in 2002, was the most important of the Cup, since we were playing terribly and the referee had already helped out by annulling one of their goals), he was voted best in the world, and now he’s reduced to jostling for space alongside the kids in São Paulo. He was cut from the 2006 national team without any tears shed – and now, in hindsight, what a difference he would have made! Will there be no farewell game for him? No TV show, not even a lousy samba? Of all our greatest players, Rivaldo is by far the least loved. Bad-tempered, skinny, ugly and unexpressive, he seems to have entered into the cosmopolitan machine without truly participating in it. But, a bit like Joaquim Cruz[vii] or Nelson Piquet[viii], he may go out the same way he went in.

In any case, we owe that duo the recovery of all we left behind in ’82, but with no snobbery or naïveté. The ’98 team was far from great, and Ronaldo and Rivaldo carried it on their shoulders.  The sacrificial crisis that Ronaldo suffered, like a self-contained ordeal, gives a true, urgent dimension (it happened in his hotel room, just before the World Cup final) to what seemed airy and inevitable. There’s no footage, but the event is realer than what was filmed. And perhaps it had to happen so that we didn’t lose touch with the greatest player of his generation, or so that he didn’t lose touch with us. That seizure is what distinguishes Ronaldo from Ronaldinho Gaúcho and moves his continued success into the sphere of sacrifice and personal ordeal. In Ronaldo, the abstraction and presence of the modern world found a concrete body to mark and inhabit; in exchange, he seems to become thicker, more real (it makes sense that he struggled with his weight over the course of his long career – he needed it).

The sequence of contusions and sacrifices, combined with his PR talent, makes him a sort of clumsy Michael Jackson (without the personal eccentricities). There’s certainly something tragic about him. But, for the first time for us, it wasn’t poverty that dug that hole in him (as with Garrincha and so many others), but rather the speed of the modern world that gave him a swelled head, as it would with anyone (think of Zidane’s head-butt in the final of another World Cup).

In this sense, Rivaldo and principally Ronaldo take the great cosmopolitan leap that Brazilian culture idolizes and infantilizes (today, the ball of cultural cosmopolitism – fairs, market, auctions, international careers – seems to be in the court of the visual arts). They’re global footballers, with no saudade or jet lag. But they pay the price for it: drooling and trembling miserably in a hotel room before playing a World Cup final; tearing an adductor muscle in front of the cameras; having their frail organisms bombarded with who knows what additives. Thus Rivaldo and Ronaldo prepare the way for the great star, the neo-baroque trinket, the headlining trapeze artist in the Cirque de Soleil of cosmopolitan football: Ronaldo Gaúcho. The great sphinx of contemporary Brazilian football, that devours us because we cannot understand it.

Even today, six years after our loss to France, in my sleepless nights I hear an insidious little voice asking, “But what happened to Ronaldinho?” For me, the absolute, definitive decline in his playing during the 2006 World Cup (he was voted best in the world in 2005) is, like the Novos Baianos song, “the mystery of the planet.” The only footballer comparable to Maradona (not Messi, who’s like a swifter Zico), Ronaldinho, to state the obvious, was speed itself (remember his dash to Rivaldo’s goal against the English in 2002). But he froze up in tricky territory, balancing the ball on his nose like a seal. Of course, he still had a vision of the game, long passes and a few fouls. But without that speed, technical splendor becomes a gimmick, and something almost nauseating, closer to artifice (which his pre-2006 football had left behind), starts to appear. What most irritates me about his “late work” is that it condemns what he did as a young player, as if it couldn’t possibly be true.

The reader may remember an ad that went around YouTube in 2005, in which Ronaldinho shot the ball at the crossbar four times in a row, in a single take, without letting the ball touch the ground. I was naïve enough to think that he’d actually done it. I think that the question of the possible (Is that possible?) that Maradona raised had its second wind with Ronaldinho. Play using his back? Pass to the left looking to the right? Make the ball go back because of the effect? Move the ball from left to right with the same foot, in an elástico, and with the game rolling? Taken out of the flow of the game this becomesfutebol de salão, and I can only imagine what a futsal playerlike Falcão[ix] might be capable of. But on the immensity of a grass field, alongside the innumerable, anarchic coordinates of a game, what Ronaldinho and Maradona did made a dent. For the first time, slow-motion replay served to decipher what had happened, not just for the delicious repetition of what we already knew.

 

And so, where did all of this bring us? This, I believe, is the beginning of the crisis that flowed into the Barcelona-Santos game. Brazil was coming off three consecutive World Cup finals. A year ago, even with Ronaldo off the field, we’d humiliated historical adversaries in the Confederations Cup (Argentina and Germany). We had two players voted five times the best in the world (Ronaldo and Ronaldinho), a future best-in-the-world and consummated ace (Kaká), a middling player pushing past his capacities (Adriano), and a young phenomenon (Robinho). Roberto Carlos and Cafu seemed like safe bets. The good-natured coach (Parreira) didn’t want to complicate things. And yet everything went wrong. Why?

I haven’t lost any sleep over this one. It was natural for us to be too sure of ourselves, even if everyone denied it in every interview. We were in a golden cycle, just like ’58-’70, but without the frustrations of ’66 in the middle. We needed some sort of contrast, some enemy blood in our veins. Our current adversary (and of ’98) had been knocked out of the last Cup without scoring a single goal. I won’t say that we were arrogant. There’s something of a monologue in every victory, and it was inevitable that we should be reciting our own. So then we lost, OK. And to France, the polar opposite of our classic play-and-let-play style, a kind of neutralizing spider specialized in not letting the other team play and not really playing themselves. One of the most monotonous teams in history, whose two most exciting moments in recent history were the 3-0 against us in ’98 and Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 final.

But here’s where the second crisis comes in – our crisis of interpretation. Our problem was clearly how to renew ourselves. Out with the oldsters from past Cups and the ones with blemishes in their careers, and let’s play ball. But no. Instead we heard the old Brazilian argument that it all comes down to how badly the players want to win – not ability, but “guts”. I don’t know if this is just a Brazilian problem, but it’s wreaking havoc amongst us. It seems like a vestige of a slavery-era mentality where others’ efforts can be judged from afar, from the veranda of theplantation house (rather, from the TV-commentary booth). Apparently now we needed the opposite– sweat, military upheaval, blood pacts, paranoia, enemies around every corner. And that’s what we got. Dunga.

Just like that, we lost our understanding of what had happened. And the only thing that had happened was that we’d been winning everything for the past twelve years. Period.  Like always, we became disconnected from the present, reacting to the crisis by inaugurating a “new era” stupidly contrary to the modern one. And we left our sphinx, Ronaldinho, without deciphering it. How could this rare breach in the monotony of the cosmos close so swiftly? What price must we pay for this? And how to waken the sphinx again? Could it be that the answer is the simplest one – that he simply doesn’t work as a principal player (he played in 2002 under the wings of Rivaldo and Ronaldo), and freezes up when he takes center stage? Wasn’t that exactly what happened with Rivelino, whose playing worsened terribly when he began heading up the ’74 and ’78 national teams (and ended up getting bruised)?

Instead we preferred to set up a counterattacking team (I think that Dunga, as a coach, knew exactly what he wanted) based on Kaká, Robinho, Luis Fabiano and Maicon’s absurd velocity. We won the Confederations Cup again (here’s hoping that we lose the next one), we took all of humanity for enemies in disguise; then, when one of us failed, betrayed us, took a frango of an easy goal (despite Galvão Bueno’s best efforts, Holland’s first goal in 2010 will forever be “Julio Cesar’s frango”), we went into a paranoid spiral. Now, of course, everyone is against Dunga and wants happy, carefree, true Brazilian football back. Of course this is going to ruin us again. If we ever had a chance of getting anyplace, it would be more through self-knowledge and a certain asceticism, modeled on the ’94 team.

There’s something about Brazilian social and cultural life that I have to mention: a fearful nownessthat disconnects the self-absorbed present moment from the past and the future. We wind up (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day) imprisoned in the present, like a stuck, euphoric clock hand. In times of crisis, like this one, we have to connect the wires, try and braid them together, in order to wake up in the next day.

I think we’re still in the aftermath of an extraordinary generation, comparable to the ’58-’70 cycle. Kaká and Robinho are, in a broad sense, the last of a generation that begins in ’94 and has the all-star 2002 team as its pinnacle. We’ll have to invent a new team from scratch. It’ll have Neymar at its heart but has no other clear reference, at least not now.

If there’s one thing Brazilian football has learned, it’s that we can play in different styles. After all, even Dunga’s team managed great Italian-inspired performances before the World Cup, with strong recovery of the ball and an exceptional counterattack. I’m not afraid of the first half of our crisis (a less-than-impressive generation of players), but I am afraid of what we’ll do with it (our football culture).

Maybe the easy malleability of our classic phase, which spread itself across the field with tensions and releases, dispersions and sudden contractions, has morphed into a single style within different modes. The stray mutt, now experienced and learned in the ways of football, sniffs around different ways of playing. The alley has expanded – it’s in Lyon, or Moscow, in some city in the middle of Ukraine. Instead of glee, inventiveness, poetry, or fake-outs, what probably characterizes our exported football is its access to multiple styles. I imagine the bara 20-year-old kid has to overcome to go out onto some nearly frozen field in Gdansk or Munich (the bar that sent a 21-year-old, Ronaldo, into convulsions). The positive side of this, though, is that we have a fairly varied menu at our disposition.

 

To go back to the Barcelona-Santos game, but continuing with a few simplifications, I think that football is composed of two basic forces: 1) the quality of the players, which break down into universalists (covering more than one function or area) and specialists (with a single role in a single area) – I suspect that, after decades of specialization, the current balance leans towards the first group; and 2) the mysterious and difficult-to-define collective “click” of a team. This second aspect is particularly decisive in clubs and happens differently in national teams, which simply don’t have the same time to grow together. It obviously has the same structural force as the first, even though it’s practically forgotten nowadays.

When I was a boy, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a team’s way of playing lasted a decade. Players came and went, but something stayed, a deeper truth, something like what in an artist – as much as he changes or denies what he does – we call “style.” This ended definitively in the ‘90s, with the hallucinating speed of new contracts, the entry of the Russian millionaires, the demand for immediate results, new teams wanting to strengthen their brands, etc.

Because of this, I think, football coaches are so overrated nowadays (as Tostão keeps saying) – they have to do in months what a team only used to achieve over a long period. Give the team a face, a rhythm, a preference: left side or center field? Ball in the air or on the ground? Slower plays with more players close to the ball, or faster, with players spread out? Marking from the front or behind? These decisions used to be semiconscious, shall we say, shaped by the flow of several games, and only one force could truly make them: time. But time became too precious, and today the decisions are made by drawing boards, tactical schemes, and long lectures.

Whatever else you say about Barcelona, we have to start here: we’re talking about a team that’s played similarly for two decades. So it plays like a seamless group against other teams that have just been cobbled together.  José Mourinho can’t do for Real Madrid what two decades of erosion and gradual adjustments did for Barcelona. In that sense, we’re looking at a very Catalan payoff, as opposed to the imperial “cosmopolitan teams” of Real Madrid, constructed by pompous hires (“the best in the world”). The dominated province, doubled over on itself (many of Barça’s players came out of its own school), seems to have recovered something that football left behind, thought it could overcome. It seems obvious that if Real were willing to lose a few seasons to Barça in a row without swapping out all of its players, it would end up stronger than ever – after all, with the exception of Messi, Real’s team is better than Barça’s. But no. Defeats (like goals), spark crises and set off a confused mass of nearly infinite resources, and it all starts over again.

Santos put together a model team in the first half of 2010. It played and won a Campeonato Paulista and a Copa do Brasil (two tourneys with many weak adversaries), with an offense the likes of which hadn’t been seen in decades. Its coach, Dorival Júnior, even took out a defender to put in another forward, and the result was huge scores, tons of goals scored and too many goals taken, and an unprecedented semi-suicidal campaign that drove Santos fans mad. This innovative team, much better than the 2011 one (which scraped out a Libertadores victory with an impossible kick by Danilo), would set up a kind of stubborn illusion in Brazilian football. It was a sort of friendly ghost: it wasn’t there anymore, but that’s what everyone saw – until the defeat by Barcelona put things back in their place.

Ganso looked outstanding, which he still hasn’t lived up to; Neymar was already Neymar; Robinho, playing center field, was where he belonged – as a center-forward without so much pressure to score goals, given that that wasn’t his forte; André, with rare happiness, played the pivot; and Wesley, well, Wesley was a consummate ace. In short, a strong “click” was forming. But, of course, we ruined everything in less than six months. And it wasn’t because of Milan’s gold, which carried off Robinho – we started by picking fights between Neymar and Dorival Júnior, the coach who truly gave him his break in football (Luxemburgo called the skinny player a “butterfly”), and then we started selling off all those excellent players (sparing the two biggest, Ganso and Neymar), who will surely never play as well as they were playing with us.

Extraordinary players like Messi, Neymar, Kaká or Zidane don’t need a “click” – they’re a sort of bonus on top of what’s already there. But excellent players like Wesley, André, or Danilo are totally dependent on the whole, and they can become mediocre in other contexts. I don’t mind losing Neymar to Real or Barça – I know that it’ll happen, sooner or later – but I do mind losing Danilo to Porto. For what? I doubt that it’s financially best for him – he would’ve earned the lump sum he just got anyway, but over the course of his career, closer to his fans and a possible invitation to the national team.

Teams need time, and whoever gives their team more time will go far. That is the first, simple message to be drawn from Santos and Barcelona, and from Barça’s existence in general. São Paulo owes its three championships to a reasonable conservation of energy (its coach, for example, stayed for nearly four years). Downgraded teams come back strong in the first division just by virtue of playing together for more than one season – look at the example of the champions Corinthians and Vasco.

It’s odd that, in characterizing something so new, we have to remember that Barcelona is principally an old team, and this gives it a huge advantage from the start. If the Santos of 2010 had kept on, the final of the International Cup would have meant a lot more for football. I think we would have lost, but we would have actually played, gone on the attack. Undoing the 2010 team (even though we kept Ganso and Neymar) was a fatal error. We threw out the “click” – which was everything – as if it weren’t something precious and rare.

 

I can’t end without saying a little something about Barcelona. More than its short triangular passes, which tend to recall the classic Brazilian school, its great originality comes in recovering the ball. No other team, as far as I can remember, gets the ball back with such sheer competence, and it’s not difficult to understand why. To play keep-away with the adversary it has to put many players close to the ball; thus, since there are necessarily fewer men behind, its weak point is the counterattack. Barça is obliged to get the ball back, then, or at least stop the game with fouls (and what fouls!). This creates a strange fluidity, or an almost equivalence, between attack and defense (in José Miguel Wisnik’s argument), which is new.

The ball is always under control, circulating with first-class passes as if it were hitting the edges of a billiard table; even when there’s an open corridor ahead, players wait for a colleague to arrive to tighten the tourniquet of triangulations. They don’t worry about getting past the most defenders. Like a boxer who adjusts his gaze by his adversary’s guard, preferring him to be composed, the players choose to let the defense set itself up in order to better penetrate it. Then, when the ball is lost, the thief is cut off or knocked down. The game of solids is back, leaving the Dutch spatial model behind. But a game of solids on a disenchanted field, which should be walked in continuous march, with no surprises, hold-ups, or flinches.

If watching Barça play can be somewhat monotonous (this becomes obvious in the Spanish national team, which plays the same way but, for lack of a Messi, ends up creating an agony without goal, priapism without climax), it must be because of this: the continuous energy of the game, the equivalence between defense and attack, the lack of long kicks, launches, turnarounds, outbursts, moods, changes in speed and rhythm. Like a locomotive on its tracks, Barcelona triangulates, triangulates,and at some point, as an inevitable consequence, it scores. It moves like an oil slick, with no fits or starts. The tragic aspects of football – born of the difficulty in converting possession of the ball into scoring – are drastically diminished. A team that has the ball 70% of the time exposes itself very little; justice, it seems, would finally be served in this anarchic game.

But is this really the case? The worst course would be imagining that this is the only way to play the game. Of course it’s not – for two years (but, again, with no continuity), Mourinho’s Inter faced down Barcelona with equal strength and with another philosophy of playing (in some senses, similar to our 2010 team). Football still has its voids, its dead spaces, and a will of its own (truly a shame that we threw out the 2010 Santos when it offered itself to just that). But, as such, we must recover the club dynamic that Barcelona seems to have reinvented.

 

Gaudí’s works are a sort of art nouveau fungus – it’s as if the façades of Barcelona were fermenting, swelling out on all sides. An almost gnostic imagination is born here. Everything looks like everything else; vegetable and mineral, high and low, sky and cave are always changing places. The great chain of being comes into view, spreading itself out into its many limbs as if all shared some placental origin. Space is conquered inch by inch in continuous metamorphoses, with no fits or starts or confrontations between its parts. Even the opposition between Gothic (ribs, arches, open spaces) and Arabic (patios, cloisters, railings, interior spaces bending inwards) seems to be smoothed, as if a cosmogonic dragon had devoured the both of them.

Even so, the modern forces of simplification and universalization, with their impersonality and abstraction – which would flow into Bauhaus or the Swiss Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in” and which would stir up conflict for all the architects of that generation – seem absent in Gaudí, whose work distorts but does not rupture that interdisciplinary cocoon of bourgeois comfort that we call art nouveau.

Barcelona has much of Gaudí in it – homogenous continuity between opposites (defense and attack, high and low, vegetable and mineral); dispersed energy in all its parts, with no pauses (there are no corners in Gaudí’s work, nor does Barcelona change its speed when it plays); provincial strength; self-centeredness of identity. Of course Gaudí has a sort of scandalous nonsense to him, one that his work traverses and dominates (the fusion of Gothic with the Mudéjar sense of space) which the methodical, monotonous Barcelona lacks. But I see a libertarian provincialism in them that surges until the placenta is burst and both are born.

There’s much to learn from this – this incarnation of Barcelona probably represents the biggest experiment in football in recent decades. But it would be a shame to let Medusa freeze us to the point of confusing Barça with football itself. As Le Corbusier’s architecture, in all its cosmopolitism, spread itself across the whole word, it profoundly marked our own culture through its influence on one of our greatest artists, Oscar Niemeyer, and his squire, Lúcio Costa. I think that we are in large measure heirs of this line, and, no matter how forced my reasoning may be, I’d like to end on this note.

“Condemned to modernity,” as Mário Pedrosa put it, I think that we Brazilians access a sort of basic structure in football – a “pilotis, free façade, roof garden” – that our official football culture, when it reduces us to our basic skill with the ball, disguises and ends up losing sight of. We can, as a matter of fact, play in many different styles, perhaps with greater ease than others, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past few years. That is why we’ve been winning. In our understanding of football, we need to leave the ’58-’70 model behind. Not to diminish it, but to extend it. The classic fluctuation between different moments and spaces of the game, the pleasure in discovering the field and the trajectories of the ball, the sort of free-floating curiosity typical of the champion mutt, aren’t limited to a single game anymore, but rather take place between different cultures and styles. We can inhabit them, fuse them, let ourselves be carried away by them. The extraordinary 2002 team had much of that.

But in order to develop this, we’ll have to take a long, hard look at what we have – and what we don’t. I think that Muricy sized up the Santos team badly, reinforcing its strengths (attack) and minimizing its innumerable flaws, probably influenced by the 2010 team (which he never coached). We need to understand the role that less-than-brilliant national teams, like the ’94 group, had on our history; we even need to settle our scores with Dunga, who took on the 2010 World Cup as if it were still the 2009 Confederations Cup, but probably didn’t let victory slip through his hands by far – if we’d gotten over our panic attack after Holland’s first goal, a timid, counterattacking team like ours would have had a good shot against Spain.

But we would need to develop this project with persistence and clarity (the opposite of what Mano Menezes has been doing), worlds away from the “true Brazilian football” exalted by the commentators. And leave the sphinx alone, forgiving its mysteries. After all, is there anything sadder than seeing Ronaldinho Gaúcho playing so poorly and still being called up to the national team? Better to leave him where he is, parked on the left side of the field and lifting the ball with his eternal smile (a sad smile, like a clown outside the ring), and, at long last, build a new team.


[i] Galvão Bueno is easily the best-known Brazilian sports commentator working today, an omnipresent personality in the Globo network’s sports coverage.

[ii] Tostão is a retired forward who played principally for Cruzeiro and the Brazilian national team (hailed as “vice-king” alongside Pelé). He left football in 1975 for medicine and has been a fixture as a sports commentator in print and television for the past two decades.

[iii] Nelson Rodrigues was a playwright and columnist whose colorful, dramatic prose painted uncharacteristic portraits of games; he joined a televised sports roundtable in the 60s and 70s.

[iv] Mário Filho was an iconic journalist who pioneered Brazilian sports coverage; after his death in 1966, Maracanã was officially renamed the Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho.

[v] Armando Nogueira was a prolific sports journalist and columnist who helped create and direct Brazil’s first live nightly news program, the Jornal Nacional.

[vi] “Dar uma pedalada” is literally to dribble in such a way that one “pedals” around the ball, feinting to the left and right and confusing the opponent. Robinho became notorious – and was egged on by Galvão Bueno – for this move.

[vii] Joaquim Cruz is a retired middle-distance runner who has set records in the 800m and 1000m and took gold in the 800m at the 1984 Olympics.

[viii] Nelson Piquet is a retired Formula One driver and three-time world champion (1981, 1983, and 1987).

[ix] Falcão is a football and futsal player. Futebol de salão, as it’s played indoors and on a small, hard pitch, allows for much greater control of the ball and, inevitably, showmanship.

Nuno Ramos

Nuno Ramos é artista plástico e escritor. Publicou, entre outros, os livros Ó e Sermões, ambos pela Iluminuras

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