The rulers of Brazilian football are men of such reckless daring that they have entrusted the national team to Luis Felipe Scolari, an unfettered soul whose tenure as coach is already notable for his publicly stated faith in persistent fouling as a means of reaching next year's World Cup finals.
Since two of Brazil's remaining three games in the South American qualifying group are on home soil against Chile and Venezuela, they are now expected to at least sneak through in fourth place but, according to people I sometimes consult in the course of my researches, little of the old brilliance will be seen from them in Japan and South Korea.
José Werneck, who was a leading football columnist and broadcaster in Rio de Janeiro until he took up employment with the American sports television network ESPN, considers this to be a dark age for football in his homeland with very little to suggest that values once held sacrosanct can be reinstated. "Scolari's appointment spoke of desperation because he represents a way of playing that offends Brazil's great tradition in the game,'' Werneck said when we spoke earlier this week. "Of course, there has always been more to our football than marvellous spontaneity. The best Brazil teams were intelligently coached, well organised and collectively cunning, although it is true to say that thrilling feats of imagination were in the blood. I have to believe this hasn't gone forever, but when they put a roughneck in charge of the team it makes you wonder.''
Scolari was appointed to arrest a decline in form that confronted the cash-strapped Brazilian football federation, faced with the possibility of failing to reach the World Cup finals for the first time. Chosen on the basis of success with Gremio, a club from the provinces who took Ajax to penalties in the 1995 World Club Championship, Scolari announced his intention to adopt a more European style of play. Since the Brazilian leagues are historically among the most brutal in world football, it was not the hardness that caused concern so much as a betrayal of principles.
Given a rough ride in newspapers and on television, Scolari is now known as Gutu Brucuta, the name given in Brazil to an American cartoon character Ally-Oops who is drawn in a pre-historic setting. The implication is obvious. "Scolari pays no account to criticism,'' Werneck added. "There are outstanding technical players in Europe but all he talks about is their strength and stamina. It's as though he is living in a time warp.''
Interestingly, you may think, this is not the first time Brazil have looked abroad for inspiration when in a period of self-doubt. Following the 1974 World Cup finals, when it was clear that the tremendous talent available to Mario Zagallo four years earlier had not been replenished, the team was handed to an army officer and former volleyball international, Claudio Coutinho, who had been in charge of security. Coutinho, who would lose his life in a scuba-diving accident, had his eyes firmly fixed on European football.
Together with one other British reporter, I fell into conversation with Coutinho shortly before Brazil were held to a goalless draw by England at the Macarana in June 1977.
Bets we had been prepared to strike on a handsome victory for the home team went out of the window when Coutinho announced that the coaching manuals he had been reading included one by an obscure English sportswriter who amusingly regarded himself as an expert on the game.
Predictably, Brazil flopped in the 1978 World Cup finals but hope was later restored with the appointment of Tele Santana, a true football man with a great tradition fixed in his mind. With such notables as Junior, Socrates, Falcão and Zico available, Santana would have won the 1982 World Cup but for the injuries that cost him the use of a brilliant centre-forward, Reinaldo. "If he is fit we are unstoppable, without him I'm not sure,'' I remember Santana saying one day in Rio.
Even the team that brought Brazil a fourth World Cup by defeating Italy on penalties in the 1994 finals failed to fulfil nigh expectations, the pragmatism of its coaches, Carlos Alberto Parreira and Zagallo, inviting the criticism of many former greats, including Pele and Tostão. "Where is the beauty, the imagination?'' Pele asked when the gifted playmaker Rai was left out after the first group game.
Finalists in France three years ago when their cause was disrupted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding Ronaldo's physical condition, Brazil are unlikely to be a force if they make it to Asia. "Apart from Rivaldo, we no longer have any great attackers,'' Werneck added. He blames that on the popularity of football academies. "Time was when players developed on the streets of deprived areas. Now they are coming out of soccer schools.
"Apart from Carlos Alberto, the key figures in 1970 were comparatively small men, Gerson, Tostão, Rivelino. Pele stands only five feet seven inches. Now they want tall, athletic players, few of whom even begin to represent the romance of Brazilian football.'' To be sure, Luis Felipe Scolari, known otherwise as "Big Phil'', does not.Reuse content