KOLKATA: There were two pictures from when Brazil played Honduras in the pre-quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup, that captured the struggle for the soul of Brazilian football.
The first was a goal, the one that put the Selecao ahead. Marcos Antonio, the diminutive midfielder surged to the touchline with ball, and then, without looking, pulled it back to the even-smaller Alan. Alanzinho, as they call him, opened up for a cross, but aborted it at the last minute. Instead, he gently caressed the ball backwards before a quick turn. The Honduran defender who was rushing in to block the shot that never was, recovered his footing and kept up with the Brazilian. But a couple of feints later, Alan pretended to cut in, changed track at the last possible moment and passed instead to the onrushing Wesley. By the time the latter had conjured up a magnificent through-ball, Alan's run had taken him clear of everyone but the goalkeeper.
There was one last act left in the magic trick though. The goalkeeper made himself as big as possible. The defender behind him lunged forward for a last-gasp block.
Then Alan opened up for a shot, feinted and squared the ball to Brenner who was standing around in the middle, ready to celebrate a goal. The pass appeared to have caught even Brenner by surprise, but the Sao Paulo player recovered just in time to have the ball bounce off his shin into the empty net. Somewhere, Garrincha would have smiled at that move and opened up a bottle.
Fast forward to the final quarter of the game. Brazil were three-nil up but Honduras had been threatening, going as far as hitting the bar on a couple of occasions. As the game meandered towards an end, their players showed little inclination to attack, instead passing the ball among themselves, waiting for the clock to tick down. It was a move straight out of Jose Mourinho's playbook. Why win 5-1 when you can win 3-0?
Talk Brazilian football and people will start throwing around a lot of exotic sounding Portuguese words. Joga Bonito, the beautiful game they play. Samba, the spring in their steps. Ginga, their soul. But to find all these on a football field, you will probably have to go back to the early 80s, when Zico, Socrates & Co, exponents of the kind of joyous, free-flowing football that their country known for, were knocked out by a methodical Italy in the 1982.
"There was a general feeling that their traditional and joyous samba-style was suspect to the more methodical approach of European team," writes Jimmy Greaves in 'The Heart of the Game'. When Brazil beat Italy in the final of the 1994 World Cup, they had little in common with the great Selecao teams of the lore. By the 90s, most Brazilian stars were developing in Europe and espoused a style that was more typical of continental players. "The lyrical soul of Brazilian football has been conspicuous by its absence in two decades of world football, and in all likelihood, will never return," Greaves laments.
But ever since the notorious Mineirazo, that 1-7 loss to Germany in the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, there has been a re-think of sorts, an urge to return to the good old days. U-17 Carlos Amadeu was quoted as saying as much during the last World Cup in Chile. "What the association have been striving to do since the defeat by Germany is to revive Brazil's style and attacking approach," Amadeu had said.
On Saturday, he was asked that question again, if this home-bred team would be the last glimpse of the great Brazilian flair of the old. His answer simply was "I don't want to compare generations."
There is perhaps little Amadeu can do, for once the likes of Alan and Paulinho move abroad, they will end up being more European than Brazilian, their games diluted with mundane effectiveness. But until that happens, we can maybe look at the U-17s, squint our eyes really hard and hope to see the ginga that Pele and Garrincha once thrived on.