The Copa Libertadores returns this week, and with Brazilian clubs having won the last three editions and the recent Club World Cup, brace yourself for a wave of Samba Football platitudes in the media. The truth is rather more prosaic though, and while the languidly louche delights of Socrates and his contemporaries appeal to aesthetes seeking a template for modern Brazilian football, its true father is a very different figure, embodying a completely different set of principles.
He had no formal link to the club, and his sensibilities were the opposite of those which gave birth to the Corinthians Democracy, but Claudio Coutinho was the unwitting author of a process which ended in their ultimate triumph.
Coutinho was a key figure in introducing to Brazil the model of pragmatic football which propelled Corinthians to the trophy, and thus creating a tension between the aesthetic and the practical which has dominated the nation ever since. Far from being a creative artist, he embodies the most underused, yet crucial, of Brazilian football stereotypes. Far from being a joyous advocate of carefree ball-playing, he was something much more significant: a technocrat.
Coutinho was not a professional footballer; he was a soldier. He progressed through the bureaucracy of the Brazilian army, rising to the rank of captain while focussing on the physical conditioning of the troops. His work took him to the USA, where he helped pioneer a range of tests to measure physical condition, his pre-eminence reflected by a stint at NASA.
His career profile would turn out to be a perfect storm: with a military dictatorship taking over, his face fitted. After the dismal failure of the 1974 side to defend the World Cup so gloriously claimed by Pele and his glittering cohorts, the junta demanded a sea change if the propaganda value of a successful Seleção was to be exploited and the international humiliation of defeat avoided.
Here, Coutinho got lucky. He’d actually been part of the conditioning team taken to West Germany for the tournament (as he had been four years earlier in Mexico, as assistant to Carlos Alberto, who was in charge of physical preparation and would go on to manage Brazil’s World Cup success in 1994). His minor role in the side’s failure was conveniently ignored by a regime predisposed to look kindly on him.
It’s hard to imagine João Havelange being outmanoeuvred, but the ultimate political animal was unable to influence the bigger picture of Brazilian politics, and paid for 1974 by losing his role as head of the Federation. His replacement, Admiral Heleno Nunes, was the leader of ARENA, the puppet political party established to offer the junta a veneer of democratic respectability. His credentials for taking on the job were essentially a fanatical support of Vasco de Gama and his elevated military and political status. It was therefore perfectly logical that he should select a military man with no coaching experience to speak of but an established philosophy of discipline and strength through unity as his national coach.
His progress is crucial if one is to understand the true framework of Brazilian football. Forget the clichéd notion of creativity for the sake of it: Brazilian football, even in its most dazzling incarnation, has been underpinned by a disciplined structure. The great sides of the 1950s, 60s and 70s were helped by support teams which were far ahead of any other nation. Brazil would travel mob-handed with dentists, psychologists, doctors and any number of staff devoted to ensuring the preparation of the side was as good as possible. Ignore the lurid (albeit true!) headline tales of delegation psychologist Joᾶo Carvalhaes recommending that Pele and Garrincha be left out of the 1958 World Cup squad after scoring poorly on his personality tests: the substance behind that tale was a meticulous preparation which enabled the team to win three World Cups out of four.
Coutinho was a theoretician: in these days of systems football we’d have loved him! However, he stripped the romance out of the Brazilian game, creating a side which played to a pattern rather than expressed itself.
The result was an insipid campaign. They staggered through the first group stage, drawing with both Sweden and Spain having survived close shaves in each match. After those cautious performances they needed a win from their last match and got it. Just. A 1-0 win over Austria was enough to claim a place in the next round, but didn’t satisfy the aficionados.
In the second round, a group of four teams, Coutinho’s timidity would be fatal. They started promisingly, beating surprise team Peru 3-0, but the coach entered the following match, a crunch encounter with hosts Argentina, cautiously. Rather than set up a team with swagger, Coutinho dropped Zico, who had scored in the previous match, in favour of the more workmanlike Chicão. The result was a goalless draw which handed the initiative to Cesar Menotti’s team. Their controversial 6-0 win over Peru, widely assumed to have been fixed, put them in the final and Brazil in the 3rd place play-off.
Clutching at straws, Coutinho claimed after his side had claimed third place that they had been the moral winners, having gone through the tournament unbeaten. It was a specious argument.
Repressive regimes are a little like Russian oligarchs: nearly succeeding isn’t good enough. Coutinho inevitably paid for his side’s performances with his job. He would scratch around for coaching work in the USA and was about to head off for a post in Saudi Arabia when, swimming off Ipanema Beach, he drowned in 1981.
Despite his limited success and the briefness of his time in charge of the Seleção, he would cast a long shadow on Brazilian football. The desire to match the Europeans who had outplayed them in 1974 remained. A struggle for the soul of the game appeared to have been won by the dreamers, aided perhaps by the success of Cesar Menotti in 1978 as he showed that South American flair and fantasy could defeat the Europeans, when Telê Santana was appointed coach. His sumptuous 1982 side are feted across the world, but that reverence has been met with bemused surprise in Brazil, where a side which failed to emerge from the second round is seen as a failure.
The aesthetic of the early 1970s was permanently stored in the closet, along with the loon pants, and it wouldn’t even be granted a post-modern opportunity to return. Brazilian football became a grim affair, dominated by athletic sides, the domestic league characterised by violence rather than creation. While a smattering of ball-playing talents continued to light up the Seleção, they were underpinned by a double pivot. We might all remember Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, but the players who really symbolised the Brazilian way were Mauro Silva, Gilberto Silva and Emerson.
Perhaps the embodiment of modern Brazilian football is Dunga. Some players undergo a Damascene conversion, and reinvent themselves with a coaching approach which is the opposite to their playing personas. George Graham, who went from cavalier creator to roundhead organiser, is the best example. Dunga held firm to his principles. He was the archetypal midfield anchor in his playing days, parsimonious in possession and cruel in the challenge: the side he coached was ruthlessly efficient, and its successes were achieved not by the rapier but by the steamroller. His rejection of the cerebral was inevitable; his name ought to have been a clue. Dunga is one of the seven dwarves: Dopey.
Corinthians embrace this utilitarian approach to the game wholeheartedly, as South America has known for some time and the world has now seen. Organised and sound at the back, they get the basics right first and trust to their forwards to come up with a dash of magic on the break at the other end. Their counter-attacking game led them to a first Copa Libertadores triumph with performances garnering admiration for their pragmatism but no marks for style.
In fourteen matches they conceded a mere six goals, with just two coming in their eight knock-out matches, and kept ten clean sheets, incredibly shutting the opposition out in each of their seven home games.
At the other end, they scored more than once in just four games. Revealingly, nine of their twenty-one goals came in the last two group games, when they had already qualified and clearly decided to release the handbrake. Hardly the Beautiful Game.
That their strength lay in the collective rather than the individual is reflected in the fact that a player of the round award is handed out throughout the competition. Of the fifteen players honoured, none were from the eventual champions.
In the Club World Cup semi-final, when they took the lead against Al-Ahly and decided to sit on it rather than look to dominate the Egyptians, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Equally, nobody should have been shocked when Chelsea were unable to penetrate their defensive shell once they went behind. Taking the world title with two 1-0 victories was absolutely what the script suggested.
Fascinatingly, before the Club World Cup began there was a very public manifestation of the tension between the Brazilian game’s conflicting philosophies. The dismissal of Mano Menezes as national coach appeared to be a set-back for those who hankered after a more expansive style of play. Surprisingly liberated by the Olympic final defeat, he was beginning to take more tactical risks as his side showed increasingly encouraging signs of coalescing into an attractive, effective unit.
For a brief, tantalising moment, his departure might have turned into something remarkable. Lance! reported that Pep Guardiola had announced the sole job he was willing to cut his sabbatical short for was coaching the Seleção. It turned out to be baseless, but it lent focus to a debate which has raged in Brazil since the last edition of the Club World Cup.
That tournament served as a wake up call to many. Santos, having won the Libertadores with a swagger, were touted as having a serious chance of upsetting Guardiola’s imperious Barcelona side. Having watched the Catalans from afar, South America felt it had a champion capable of showing them that, while they might be credited as the world’s foremost artists, the beautiful game originated further west.
The outcome made Brazilian football face up to some harsh truths. Santos, who had coasted through the second half of the year, their one focus being the showdown in Japan, were humiliated. The thrashing was dubbed “The December 18th Massacre” by Tim Vickery, who described it as “a scathing 90 minute comment on the state of the contemporary Brazilian game.”
Even the most stubborn loyalists had to admit that the baton of attractive football had been passed to Spain. A great deal of soul-searching was provoked by Pep Guardiola’s comment that his side had played “as my dad and my grandfather told me Brazil did.” And in the other corner, his philosophy destroyed, was Santos coach Muricy “If you want to see a spectacle, then go to the theatre.” Ramalho, winner of four out of the last seven Brazilian titles and a serious contender for the role of Seleção coach until two hours earlier.
A lobby has grown up since which is pushing for a return to the Joga Bonito, and they were able to raise their voices in support of Guardiola’s fake candidacy. Corinthians coach Tite and the 20,000 fans who travelled to Japan are not among them though. They achieved their goal in a more pragmatic fashion. As Coutinho would have advocated.
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