Nothing beautiful about Brazil’s game as they exit on penalties to Paraguay

Copa América defeat was that of a mundane team built around grit rather than glitter

Brazil 1 Paraguay 1 (Paraguay win 4-3 on penalties)

It was not 7-1. It was not an epic humiliation. It was not a result that will reverberate through the generations. But in a sense, Brazil’s Copa América exit to Paraguay is all the more crushing for that. It was not some devastation to be written off as a freak; it was quotidian. Brazil went out of the Copa América by losing a mundane game because these days they are a mundane team; they no longer generate the emotional extremes they once did.

Four years ago, Brazil also went out of the Copa América on penalties against Paraguay, but this was worse, far worse. At least then there was talk of a new generation coming through, a sense that the likes of Neymar and Ganso were not quite ready but that they might be soon. If this tournament proved anything it is that Brazil are utterly dependent on Neymar and that he is uncomfortable – as anyone would be – with the pressure.

It’s been a long time since the notion of jogo bonito was anything other than an empty marketing slogan. The beauty has left the Brazilian game. The obsession with running and physicality that first developed – belatedly – as a response to a first-round exit in the 1966 World Cup has become dogma.

The dictatorship that took power in Brazil in 1969 imposed technocrats in all walks of life: it as an article of faith that everything could be measured and analysed. That is why a military PT instructor, Captain Cláudio Coutinho, worked with the team at the 1974 World Cup and was the coach in 1978. The eighties and Telê Santana brought a brief reflowering of the old way, a reignition of the myth, but since then the drift into pragmatism has been relentless.


There are no Gersons, Falcãos or Toninho Cerezos any more, just runners and battlers. Those who might once have sauntered in front of the defence, languidly setting the rhythm, are dispatched to the flanks to become laterals. Battle and grit and yards covered are the watchwords now.

That, of course, is Brazil’s right: they are not obliged to live up to a marketeer’s romanticising of the past, and they won two World Cups by combining a solid core with a handful of fantasistas.

“They don’t produce anything any more,” Arsène Wenger said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal even before the humiliation of Belo Horizonte. “Even in midfield, they’re good – but they’re not the great Brazilians of the past.” And those they do produce tend to be whisked away as soon as their talent emerges: 12 of this squad haven’t played 50 league games in Brazil, only enhancing the sense of disconnection.

What has emerged more recently, what has soured any notion of jogo bonito, is boorishness. It may be that hosting the World Cup, and the expectation that brought to bear, magnified the issue, but the slide from pragmatism into expediency has long roots. The reappointment of Dunga, the step back into a past that seems increasingly prehistoric, was essentially a rejection of the need for change, a retreat into the conservatism that had created the problems in the first place. The familiar may seem comfortable, but it also smacks of a complacency, an unwillingness to believe that the rest of the world might have moved on without it.

There was a Brazil youth team around the turn of the millennium that would wait in the dressing room until the last possible moment, leaving the opposition waiting in the tunnel, and then charge out screaming and spit on their rivals in a usually successful attempt to unsettle them. This was in a youth tournament, the purpose of which is supposed to be player development. Such was the lust for victory that abhorrent behaviour was at the very least condoned, perhaps even suggested, by coaches.

“The pressure to win will always exist in Brazil,” Dunga said before the tournament. “The national team must remain competitive and winning at any cost.” At any cost – that was the unpleasant edge to the hysteria that surrounded and ultimately overwhelmed Brazil last year, most obviously manifested in the tactical fouling.

Some of the sense of entitlement, perhaps, has gone, but Neymar’s petulance was surely born of a combination of the demands on him to drag this team to the heights its public expects and his frustration that opponents had the effrontery to try to stop him. The tactical fouling, meanwhile, has continued into this tournament. Before the quarter-final, Brazil had committed the fifth most fouls per game, which does not sound too bad until you consider they have had the third most possession. Fouls are usually a consequence of not having the ball; the two sides that have had more possession than Brazil, Chile and Argentina, have committed the fewest and second-fewest fouls per game.

Late on against Venezuela, Brazil had four centre-backs on the pitch, Dani Alves playing on the right wing and Elias as the advanced central midfielder. At one point, Elias received the ball in space in the centre-circle, turned, and – with no one ahead of him – launched a ball into the corner to run down the clock. It is cynical and almost wilfully ugly football.

It’s not even winning football any more. It took a brilliant pass from Neymar in injury time to beat Peru. They lost to Colombia. They wobbled horribly when 2-0 up against Venezuela. Then, here, having gone ahead after Robinho converted an Alves cross – the two thirtysomethings were probably Brazil’s best players – they contrived to let a very ordinary Paraguay back into the game. Robinho’s finish was their only touch in Paraguay’s box in the first half.

What was most striking was the lack of fear about Paraguay, even while they were just humping balls into the Brazil box. No longer protected by the carapace of their reputation, what remains of Brazil is weak and unsightly. By the end, the largely Chilean crowd was hooting its derision. It’s a sound that should live with Brazil, the overture of their collapse. The beauty has gone, the aura has gone, and with them the respect of the continent has gone.

(Guardian service)