On 16th January 2018, the world woke up to the news of the retirement of one of the most famous footballers of all time. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira or more commonly known as ‘Ronaldinho’ called it a wrap on his illustrious career which spanned stints at some of the biggest clubs of Europe, namely PSG, Barcelona and AC Milan.
However, post-retirement of the world cup winner, there is a bigger question, a question that pertains to a key philosophy of football and a philosophy that helped Brazil achieve the status of the sole footballing superpower for decades. Is this the end of Joga Bonito?
Now you might have some questions at this point: What is Joga Bonito? What does it represent? Well for the sake of the uninformed, Joga Bonito literally translates to “Play Beautiful”. And the Brazilians did exactly that. They dribbled, faked and feinted with fluid artistry towards 5 World Cup trophies, the highest any country has won as of 2018.
However, in recent times things have gone astray for the Selecao. Three consecutive failed World Cup campaigns came to a head in the semis of Brazil 2014 where the team was humiliated by eventual winners Germany. The writing was on the wall for quite some time, the Germans just made sure everyone read it.
Brazil always has had great players that played the game in a natural way. Beautifully and with finesse. In the 50s and 60s they had Pele, Garrincha, Revillino & Jairzinho. In the 70s and 80s another generation of Brazilian Samba stars took the world by storm with flicks, tricks and sublime footwork; namely, Socrates, Zico, Falcao and Junior. The flow of Brazilian players committed to playing football Joga Bonito style was relentless. The 90s saw the grooming of yet another crop of talented, glory seeking Brazilians this time led by their inspirational Captain, Dunga, followed by talents such as Romario, Bebeto, and Cafu. At the dawn of the 21st century, the holy trinity of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho took the footballing world by storm. The assault of such Brazilian talents on International football was relentless and continued for half a century.
According to Greek mythology, the Titans were greater even than the gods. They ruled their universe with absolute power. Well, that football field was the universe for the Brazilians for so long. They ruled it like Titans. However, the constant flow of such direct and soul-stirring footballers has it seems, unfortunately, and finally come to an end. Except for Neymar, no one in the Brazilian team set up comes close to some of their much-revered predecessors. The question is why? How did the home of 'The beautiful game' suddenly stop making players of such ilk?
The answer lies perhaps at the end of the 1982 World Cup where Zico, Socrates, and Falcao combined to form one of the most formidable national sides ever. However, the team’s emphasis on attacking free-flowing football often led them to forget their defensive duties. Their tactical naivety and arrogance were exploited by the ever cunning Italians, and they lost 3-2. This experience of one of their greatest ever teams falling prey to the pragmatism of the European game initiated a negative trend in Brazilian coaching and stratagem. To compete with European giants, the emphasis in training switched from smaller, more technical players to focus on bigger and more physical players.
The results are for all to see. Today, the Brazilian national side has players with great physical prowess such as Paulinho, Firmino, Fernandinho and Hulk. But these are not the sort of players who win you World cups! Yes, they will put in an industrious performance week in, week out. But what Brazil really needs is to go back to it's roots, to ask its teams and players to play in a way that comes much more naturally to them. Yes, there will be bumps and obstacles along the way, but they will at-least be comfortable with the idea that they are not being unoriginal, that they had the courage and belief to bank on their own strengths. One thing is for certain. Brazilians play beautifully only when they are happy and when they feel loved and wanted. The higher-ups in the Brazilian footballing governing body need to understand this and trust the players and coaches with their philosophy. Because Joga Bonito is slowly dying, and its period of reversal is slowing escaping us. In the 2017 Ballon d’Or, Neymar was the only Brazilian player nominated out of twenty-three potential players. In 2002, six players were nominated.
After a disastrous Euro 2000, the German Football Association decided to implement overall reforms in its youth structure and programs. The new system relied more on technical ability and development of home-grown German players across Germany. While it took Germany some years to bear the fruits of their toil, the team that annihilated the Brazilians at home in the World cup had stars that have graduated from the reformed structures of German football that were implemented post-2000. (Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Mueller, Kroos, Ozil, Khedira, Hummels, Neur). The Brazilian people watched on in disbelief as the Germans cut them to shreds time and again. Bizarrely, it was just like watching Brazil of ages past. Bizarrely, it was just like watching Brazil playing with Joga Bonito.