Moving forward by winding the clock back: Why Brazil could win back friends at this summer’s World Cup

It is an attractive myth, and many intelligent people have fallen for it. But there is no truth whatsoever in the idea of Brazilian football being some kind of carnival in boots, everyone trying to express themselves, no one bothered with defending, everyone looking for pleasure and no one caring too much about the result.

Results are everything. I once saw the director of Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, explain the club’s philosophy to an audience of Brazilian coaches. The focus was always on development. Results were never a priority, all the way to the B team. Then Brazil coach Mano Menezes replied that things in Brazil could never be that way, since results – the demand to win – were always in first place.

This way of thinking explains why Brazil became so successful as a consequence of leading the world in defensive organisation. In 1950, on home ground, they fell at the final hurdle, Uruguay coming from behind to beat them 2-1 and silence the Maracana stadium. Brazil were unable to cope with opposing right winger Alcides Ghiggia, and defeat proved the catalyst for a rethink.

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At this point, Brazilian football was wonderfully open-minded. In addition to their pioneering spirit in physical preparation, they were also soaking up tactical ideas. Coaches from Uruguay and Argentina were important in the early decades of the Brazilian game, and now, with the influence of Hungarian coaches, they developed the back four. An extra man was withdrawn to the heart of the defence, giving Brazil the cover they had badly lacked against Ghiggia.

The back four was unleashed in 1958 – the first time Brazil won the World Cup and still the only time they have won it in Europe. They did not concede a goal until the semi-final. Fielding an extra defender pushed the full backs wider, giving them a corridor in which to burst forward. At that World Cup, Nilton Santos raced upfield to score from left-back – almost unheard of in those days. And this became the template for the golden years of the Brazilian game.

There was always the chance that, in a system with two wingers, fielding a back four would leave the team dangerously light in midfield. Mario Zagallo provided the solution. He was the team’s left winger but he also doubled up as a midfielder, working tirelessly up and down the flank. Zagallo was ahead of his time. And after featuring in the the World Cup wins of 1958 and 1962, he was the coach in 1970.

Zagallo took over just three months before the tournament. In qualification, against weak opposition, Brazil had lined up in a very open 4-2-4. But Zagallo was adamant: there was no way  they could win the World Cup like that. He radically changed the shape of the side, ensuring a balance between attack and defence. He is more than happy to see the 1970 side as a pioneer of the contemporary 4-2-3-1.

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Those three triumphs in four World Cups left so many golden moments, so many flashes of individual genius, that it was easy to draw the wrong conclusion – that it was just a question of hauling 11 Brazilians off the beach and sending them out to play. But a general rule applies in football: the stars shine when the collective balance of the side is correct. The focus on individual genius made it easy to overlook the process that Brazil had gone through in order to achieve greatness. In fact, it proved all too easy for Brazil to forget some of that process.

The Brazilian game became inclined to believe its own mythology. It was all a matter of individual Brazilian brilliance tipping the balance. If the Brazilian star was in a state of grace, then he was unstoppable. These kind of myths, skilfully woven by writer Nelson Rodrigues, proved extraordinarily powerful.

Of course, there were those in Brazilian football who continued to think about the tactical aspects of the game. They tended to be very influenced by the Netherlands of 1974, who put intense pressure on the ball, and by the failure of the old-style romantic Brazil side of 1982. And so they came to certain conclusions; as a result of the physical development of the game, possession-based football was dead. Central midfielders should be six-footers capable of closing down space, and the game plan should be based on quick counter-attacks down the flanks.

All of this, of course, was proved wrong by the Pep Guardiola revolution at Barcelona. But Brazilian football refused to react. Coach after coach lined up to say that there was nothing new in football. Former national team boss Vanderlei Luxemburgo commented that Guardiola was all marketing.

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Luxemburgo did have a brief adventure in European club football, with Real Madrid. But like Luiz Felipe Scolari at Chelsea, he did not last long. Neither seemed to have mentally left Brazil. They looked to attack with the full-backs, and once that avenue was closed by the opposition, they had little to offer. No other Brazilian coaches came across the Atlantic to take charge of top European teams. The country’s footballing culture complacently continued to gaze at its own navel. Where Brazilian football became great through being curious, now it seemed dangerously isolated.

This is the importance of current coach Tite, who has brought about such a dramatic change in the fortunes of the national team. The key phrase of Brazil’s recent progress is his: “I’ve learned how to learn,” he said during one press conference.

Once a 3-5-2 specialist, he has carried out an intensive study of top level European football. The main lesson – how to keep the team compact, using the ball as a reference; compact in defence, and hard to play through; compact in attack, leaving the man on the ball with plenty of options for a pass.

Brazil have moved forward by turning the clock back. A coach with a curious mind has implanted a modern model of play – and as a consequence the stars are shining. They may not win the World Cup in Russia this summer. But they should remind some of us of why we fell in love with those yellow shirts in the first place.

Moving forward by winding the clock back: Why Brazil could win back friends at this summer’s World Cup
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