Beauty and the beast

Brazil may always have a reputation for fancy flicks and tricks, but Cris Freddi believes they have added a more physical element to their play in recent generations

Throughout their World Cup history Brazil have been torn between their traditional image of ‘the beautiful game’ and a compulsive need to match the Europeans at getting stuck in. It is surprising to discover which of the two has come out on to.

The schizophrenia didn’t start till after the Second World War. In the three World Cups before it, Brazil conformed to the image some people still have of them: carefree ball jugglers but iffy defenders. Their first ever World Cup match against Yugoslavia in 1930, was their first full international since 1925; they fielded ten new caps, looked good on the ball and lost 2-1. In 1934, eight new caps and defeat by a physical Spanish team. In 1938, Leônidas and Romeu combined cleverly in attack but the defence conceded five goals in one match, had two players sent off in another, and gave away three penalties in all. Oh, and the manager left out Leônidas to save him for the final (true story). Brazil lost 2-1 to defending champions Italy.

In 1950 the emphasis on all-out attack reached some natural conclusions: dazzling wins by huge scores, shock defeat by a massed defence. The inside-forward trio of Zizinho, Ademir and Jair destroyed Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1 with some breathtaking goals, and Brazil needed only a draw in the final match against Uruguay, at home, in front of the biggest crowd to watch any football match. The 2-1 defeat was traumatic in the extreme.

So much so that the 1954 squad included no more Mr Nice Guys. Actually, Didi and Julinho were brilliant up front, but the emphasis had shifted towards the rear: big strong boys like Pinheiro, Brandãozinho and the world-class Bauer – an approach that culminated in two more sendings-off during the defeat by Hungary, after which Ferenc Puskas brained Pinheiro with a bottle and the Hungarian changing rooms were littered with broken glass. Whatever ‘samba football’ means, it probably wasn’t this.

Since then, Brazil have twice reverted to their traditional ways (style gurus in attack, a hilariously crap keeper) only to switch back at the very next World Cup – once, bizarrely, after winning it. The 1970 team we all know about: six wins out of six, some stunning goals, Pelé’s Indian summer. So why would the same manager adopt much harsher methods four years later?

Well, the early Seventies were an era of aggressive defence and lots of it, the tackle from behind a staple weapon. Zagallo feared for his team’s health in Europe – and anyway the 1970 squad was something he’d inherited from João Saldanha rather than one he’d picked himself. His 1974 side was so short of strikers he had to use Jairzinho at centre-forward, but the defence was good: Leão in goal, Zé Maria and Francisco Marinho, Luis Pereira. As in 1954 it ended with defeat in a red mist: Pereira sent off against Cruyff’s Holland.

For 1970 read 1982: Sócrates, Zico, Falcão, the shooting of Eder, the almost casual destruction of Scotland and Argentina. But then that defeat by Rossi & Co, when again a draw would have been enough. Since then, Brazil have turned their back on the beautiful game and played the one that doesn’t concede goals.

In fact they’ve been doing it for 40 years, on and off: it won them the World Cup for the first time. The great forward line of 1958 was buttressed by a defence that didn’t concede a goal till the semi-final. In 1962 virtually the same team, with an average age of 30, leaned even more on their back four after an early injury to Pelé: 1966 was an aberration, old men and boys crushed by Hungary and Portugal. In 1978 they would have reached the final but for Argentina’s malodorous 6-0 win over Peru and were unbeaten in seven matches – the kind of statistic that’s dominated their most recent appearances in the finals.

Brazil are the only country to have taken part in all tournaments. In the last three, they’ve played 16 games, losing two (one on penalties) and conceding only five goals. The 1994 triumph was based on four reliable defenders, four solid midfielders, and the economic genius of Romário. The 1998 model seems to be made of the same stuff, especially with the 66-year-old Zagallo back at the helm. Pace and industry in place of walking football: Denílson instead of Djalminha or Juninho, Ronaldo replacing Bebeto, Dunga and Romário still there. Oh, and somewhere in a country with a reputation for skilful forwards, there’s a conveyor belt for left-backs: Nilton Santos, Francisco Marinho, Júnior, Branco, Leonardo, Roberto Carlos.

More evidence in their defence: Brazil meet Scotland in the opening match of France ’98. Scotland have scored only twice in the two countries’ eight meetings, winning none. Their last match in the finals was against Brazil, a 1-0 defeat that eliminated them in 1990.

In their third group match, Brazil play the similarly no-nonsense Norwegians, the only country to beat them in their last 60-odd matches, including the longest undefeated run in history. The rematch should be a full-blooded affair, if not always a pretty sight. But that’s Brazilian football for you.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month