Monday, June 21, 2010

On Beautiful Beasts

I was planning to write a post on Brazil following the match against Côte d'Ivoire, but one of the most anticipated matches -- at least for me -- had to be skipped due to unplanned events. I had to travel out of town and back to drop off a friend at the airport. Even the choice of restaurant, while we stopped for lunch, couldn't have been worse: no TV!

Meanwhile, due to some legalese that I will never quite understand, replays of matches telecast on ESPN's sister (parent?) network, ABC are not allowed to be up on until the next day. So I've decided to write about Brazil anyway. Read on.

Populist pre-world cup predictions have an unhealthy relationship with reality. In 2002, an awesome Argentina squad -- with Veron at the peak of his powers -- was everyone's darling. So were France. Brazil limped its way through qualification -- and went by their business almost by stealth.

Brazil was the buzzword in 2006 -- and in case you missed it, Nike made sure they told you about Joga Bonito [more on that later] -- whilst Italy were clambering out of a match-fixing swamp that threatened to suck Serie A (and Italian football) into oblivion.

2010: Spain and Brazil are everyone's favourites and for good reason. Spain, for the purposes of this post, are irrelevant.

Following international football has been a largely neutral vocation for me with a soft corner for sides that play good, attractive football. It's simple really: it's the joie de vivre version of the game that made me fall in love with it in the first place. Also, I'm far too invested in club-level loyalties to enjoy football at that level without anything but a looney red-tinted lens.

This Brazil, however, is a strange thing. It's frustrated purists for good reason. More accurately, Dunga has. Even as late as the eve of the World Cup, the popular emotion from the Brazilian public was for a return to their "Samba-style, beautiful football". I'm sure the Brazilians crave for that kind of football genuinely. But Brazil have slowly but surely, under Dunga, eschewed all such pretense to play football with the intent to win: beauty if it manifests would be wonderful. But it's incidental.

But there are two myths about Brazil, that I seek to debunk. The first is easy: the myth that Brazil are somehow the last guardian angels of the beautiful game; or as we've been told by snooty observers from anywhere but England: football played the right way. The fault, for that perception, isn't Brazil's. It's in the marketing, and perhaps, partly the Brazil FA's willingness to cash in on this positive worldview on their brand of flair football. [Case in point: Nike's endless reels of commercials showing Brazil players goofing around doing silly things with the ball, and Ronaldinho's rise (and fall?) to a mascot. Also: Brazil charging princely fees for playing friendlies against 'lesser' nations.] But the greater fault lay at the almost ubiquitous lazy writing and ignorant punditry that continued to assign adjectives such as free-flowing and Samba-style a good decade after they last played such football for a sustained period. So in the words of Penn & Teller: Samba style? "Bullshit!"

The other myth, which sort of works against the backdrop of debunking the first one, is this: Dunga is playing boring, negative football.

This is especially something his harshest critics love. They don't like what they see on the pitch: football is not being played like those pretty boys from Barcelona or Spain's national team, or heaven forbid, even like those (recently) schizophrenic Argentinians. So it's a very powerful stick to beat Dunga with, when he fails; or, should we say, if he fails. To their disbelief, Brazil lost just one match back in October 2009 which ended a 19 match unbeaten streak. They got back from 2-0 down to the USA in the Confederations Cup final in June 2009 to win 3-2. But they just found a way to win.

Dunga's Brazil on the surface may be ugly, but they're not your usual ugly. They're like that giant, intimidating, grumpy man you saw in your neighbourhood, who, Gran Torino-style threatens to shoot a trespasser, but secretly helps out poor and destitute kids in his spare time on weekends. Brazil aren't exactly the grumpy-old-man-with-a-heart-of-gold metaphor I've tried to create here, but they probably are more like you don't know if it's the grumpy old fart or Jesus who's going to show up. Either way, they get the job done. You get to see the grumpy, menacing (almost beastly) face more often. In the rare occasion, you'll see Jesus in all his glory -- and everyone loves Jesus. I suppose people who saw the match yesterday saw Jesus, live.

In Maicon, in Lucio, they have machines who can run up and about the pitch for 90 minutes, like they have ten lungs. In Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva, they have the creaky, boring functional heart of the Brazilian midfield, that somehow works -- presumably held together under the 'evil' gaze of Dunga. They have a tower up top in Luis Fabiano. But their soul, often overwhelmed by the machinery surrounding him, is Kaka. The part that's human, beautiful (especially while working in tandem with Robinho and ably supported by Elano) and also flawed.

His form is the switch that lights up Brazil.

They're almost always in control, even when they're playing poorly. Which is perhaps a little different from negative football. This is a much more European-looking Brazil than any of its predecessors: tactically astute, hard to be bullied and constantly under the gaze of a man with questionable sartorial sense. Vulnerable, sure, like all of its contemporaries, but beastly too.

That's Brazil, and I suspect the same Brazil that turned up against the Ivory Coast.

Now off I go to watch the game.
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