The plain truth about the beautiful game: winning

For Brazilians starved of success away from the pitch, results far outweigh playing with flair, writes Tim Vickery in Rio de Janeiro
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The Independent Football

Brazil are a worldwide brand, standing for happy-go-lucky football that piles forward with reckless disregard for defence. They call it jogo bonito, beautiful game. But check the history books: Brazil's defensive record in World Cups stands comparison with anyone.

They started winning after they invented the back four, and as far back as 1970 they had discovered 4-5-1. Brazil have always sought a balance between attack and defence. The idea that Brazilians would rather have fun than win is a monstrous misunderstanding. There is far too much at stake for such levity. In a country stacked with problems, winning the World Cup is by far the single most important affirmation of national self-esteem.

So while the global marketing stresses style, back home the team are synonymous with success. The contradiction emerges in every post-match press conference. Again and again their coach Carlos Alberto Parreira is asked to explain the absence of spectacle. The answer is always the same. For Brazil the definition of giving a show is winning.

The streets of Rio back him up. Thousands are wearing replica shirts bearing the numbers 58, or 62, 70, 94 or 02 - the years Brazil won. There are no shirts emblazoned with 50 or 82, when Brazil enchanted the world but lost.

The international press are unable to hide their disappointment, but all Brazil's wins in the current campaign have been celebrated with street parties. Even after the laboured victory over Australia, Rio resembled a winter carnival.

This is not to say there is total satisfaction. Knocking their idols is a favourite Brazilian pastime. Initially Ronaldo was in the firing line. The current target is Adriano. For the moment, at least, Ronaldinho is escaping the heavy artillery, which seems only fair, as he is paying the highest price for the confusion that exists at the heart of the side.

The source of that confusion is the coach. Over his long career the defining characteristic of Parreira's teams is normally the emphasis they place on patient possession of the ball.

This was how his Brazil side were playing when he took over shortly after the last World Cup. The side he built had Ronaldinho in the forward line alongside Ronaldo, Kaka operating behind them and a midfield trio of Juninho on the right, Emerson holding the fort and Ze Roberto on the left.

Two things happened. First, the team were struggling to break down determined defences. Perhaps there was a lack of penalty area presence. And second, Adriano catapulted himself into contention with a sensational 2004 Copa America and imperious form for Internazionale.

And so Parreira had a rethink. He decided to "take advantage of what we've got". A midfielder was sacrificed, Adriano came into the starting line-up and the "magic quartet" was born.

So the new Brazil were now a midfielder light. The idea was clear. Fewer midfielders inevitably meant the ball spending less time in midfield. Instead they would get the ball forward quicker, out to the full-backs and then to their supremely talented front four. They would win the game on transitions - those moments when possession changes hands and a rapid counter-attack can reap dividends.

It was an unusual approach from a Parreira side, but soon there was no doubt that Brazil would take this system to Germany 2006. In the final of the Confederations Cup it worked like a dream. Argentina, understrength and exhausted, tried to attack. Brazil picked them off. "Every time you lose the ball, Brazil kill you," said Argentina's coach, Jose Pekerman."They are not what people think. They don't dominate you. They're a counter-attacking team."

Soon afterwards in a World Cup qualifier against Chile they scored their perfect goal, the ball moved from one end to the other at dazzling speed in a move involving all four attackers.

And then came the World Cup, and a stumbling block. The opposition had not read the script. They were less attacking than Argentina, and smarter than Chile. Opportunities for the quick counter were rare. Instead, the team would have to show more patience and play their way through - which presented an obvious problem. The two central midfielders Emerson and Ze Roberto have many virtues, but not an imaginative range of passing.

Ronaldinho has tried to supply the solution. At Barcelona he plays high up the field, on the left flank. The ball arrives at his feet some 40 metres from goal, which gives him a chance to cut in and hit the penalty area. For Brazil he has been operating much deeper, receiving the ball earlier in the move, and acting as supply line for the strikers.

It is a remarkable display of selflessness and team spirit from the world player of the last two years. He is sacrificing individual glory for the sake of the collective. And he is not doing badly. He set up goals against Australia and Japan, and produced a superb pass to put Roberto Carlos through against Ghana.

But the role is taxing him because it makes requirements he never usually faces. Further forward at Barcelona he concentrates on the goal. Deeper, the options are more complex. He now has to think not just vertically, but also horizontally. When to try the quick forward pass? When to slow the game? How should he dictate the game's rhythm? Having to find his feet in the role in the World Cup, in a congested midfield, it is unsurprising he is not living up to expectations.

The probability is that the poverty of Brazil's first-half display against Ghana will clear the confusion from Parreira's mind. When Brazil play France today, Adriano may go, Juninho come in, Ronaldinho move further forward with the team concentrating on possession. This system was not a spectacular success before, but at least it would seem to give the best chance of Ronaldinho hitting form, which is probably necessary if in future years Brazilians are to walk in Rio with 06 on the front of their shirts.