Brazilian football has moved from poetry into prose

Image of Simon Kuper

“It’s just like watching Brazil,” English supporters sing when their club produces a brilliant moment. Well, watching Brazil is no longer like watching Brazil. We all have in our heads past Brazilian sides playing jogo bonito, the beautiful game. Watching the current side puff and grunt against North Korea, on a freezing Johannesburg night on Tuesday, felt more like watching Blackburn Rovers. By the final whistle, Ellis Park was half empty.

Bashing the manager is football’s version of the human sacrifice, and Brazilians are blaming their coach, Dunga, for their dull team. They should blame the modern age instead. Jogo bonito with its dribbles, tricks and goals was the product of a particular era. It’s now gone forever. To expect its return is like waiting for the revival of Byzantine art.

Jogo bonito climaxed in 1970 when Brazil won its third World Cup. Brazilians have been trying to catch up with tactically more advanced western Europe ever since. Often they have achieved dourness. At their best, in the World Cup of 2002, they have found synthesis: European grit with moments of Brazilian beauty. In 2006 they attempted a bit more jogo bonito. They fielded five great dribblers, not all of them slender workaholics, and lost in the quarter-final. That buried jogo bonito.

It lives on only in people’s heads. At kick-off on Tuesday, flashlights popped around the stands: Brazil have become an experience, a tribute act, as much as a football team. What spoiled the experience was the match. Only Robinho, whose muttonchop beard evoked Abraham Lincoln, had licence to dribble. His job was to play jogo bonito. His teammates’ job was to back him with dour western European football, which is the new international style. Even the North Koreans and New Zealanders have learnt it. They have gone from incompetence to hyperorganisation. Brazil have gone from brilliance to hyperorganisation.

Blaming Dunga for this is silly. Eleven-man jogo bonito is simply no longer feasible. You could dribble in the 1960s, when the average player ran perhaps 4km a game. If you beat a defender then you were usually free, because his colleagues hadn’t come across to back him up. If he dispossessed you it didn’t matter much, as his team then took forever to move the ball forward. You could assemble your defence at leisure.

Here in South Africa, players run perhaps 10km a game. A beaten defender will tackle you again a second later, and he probably has two teammates covering him. Even the Brazilians of 1970 would struggle to dribble against today’s North Korea. Defenders here have memorised opponents’ tricks from DVDs. And teams now break instantly on winning the ball.

Dribbles are reserved for special occasions, to be performed by one specialist near the opposition’s penalty area, while his teammates lend cover. Dribblers now scare their own teams. Even Robinho failed in European club football.

Beautiful football still exists. Barcelona play it, and Germany did against Australia. But their fast passing game isn’t the Brazilian way.

At breakfast the morning after the game, I put it to the Brazilian sports minister Orlando Silva Junior that jogo bonito was dead. He loyally denied it, and quoted the dictum of the late Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini: Europeans play football in prose, and Brazilians in poetry. But Pasolini said that decades ago. Surely Brazilians have since learnt prose?

Silva pointed to Argentina’s glorious failure at the last World Cup. “In the first round they entertained the Europeans. Then they watched an all-European final,” he said. “Don’t ever expect that from Brazil again. The first phase of this cup has shown the need for a very solid defence.” Then he offered what sounded like a new formulation of Brazilian football: “We might be eliminated, but always while playing a jogo bonito e duro” – a beautiful and hard game.

When Brazil play Ivory Coast ton Sunday night, we should expect a game more hard than beautiful.

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