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Grudging admiration for La Roja


PLAY BALL! Youngsters brush up skills on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month

The beer glasses are full to the brim and the boteco has spilled over to the sidewalk, with a few cane chairs and wooden tables even crowding a part of the high street in Rio de Janeiro. The lone waitress, balancing a tray full of chilled drinks in her left hand, is almost dancing about the tables. Even as she throws glances at the 52-inch TV on the wall, she goes about plonking the mugs in front of her mildly sozzled customers. The television is about to show the semi-final of Euro 2012 - Spain versus Portugal - in faraway Ukraine. The match may begin in a few minutes, but the commentary is already on. On the screen, seasoned hacks are busy dissecting Cristiano Ronaldo's curling free-kicks and Andres Iniesta's sublime passes on Fora de Jogo, the show that begins a couple of hours before the match and continues for an hour or so after the final whistle has been blown.

But the crowd in the boteco - rich blokes, fashionable girls, students, a bunch of oldies and a few men of streets - has little patience for the words of "overpaid motormouths" on TV. They have their own views. For every argument, they have a counter argument. "What do you think of Spain?" you ask a man who has just taken a short break from a fiery discussion on a table. "Boring, " he says, even before you could finish your question, and he jumps back to his group which is busy making mincemeat of Renato Mauricio Prado, a veteran football writer who in his blog from Ukraine has criticized the speed of Brazilian players as compared to Europeans. "Speed? What about joga bonito? Can they dribble the ball like us?" asks one. "Can they play an open game like us?" answers another, rhetorically.

Then a football hack on TV drops a bomb. "Spain now plays like the way Brazil used to play in the 1950s. They control the ball all the time and are yet artistic. This is what Brazilians used to do - dribble and pass, dribble and pass, " says the journalist on the Fora. Suddenly, the din in the boteco drops to silence. "We also scored many more goals then the Spanish can ever do, " shouts a young man at the TV and walks out in a huff. For most in the crowd, the suggestion from the tube is outrageous, though some old heads nod in agreement.

Probably, there is no country in the world where football - playing and talking about it - is taken as seriously as in Brazil. Here, it's not just a game. It's not even a religion. It's a marker of history;the country's collective memory progresses with the performance of their national team - Selecao Brasileira - on world stage. Football is their dance - samba. Football is their food - feijoada. Football is their drink - caipirhinha. That's why the Braziilans can't watch the games in Eastern Europe with any detachment. At stake, for them, is not the Euro title. They are worried about the "real" title - the best ever football team, something the Spanish are about to snatch from them.

Talk to a Brazilian - lay or expert - about the current Spanish team and chances are that you might hear words like "boring", "dull" and "monotonous", even as they do not try to hide their admiration for La Roja. But then too much is happening at home to "waste" time talking about the Spanish. The local league is in full flow. In Rio, Flamengo and their Flumenense - known for their Fla-Flu rivalry - are trying to climb to the top of local tables. In Buenos Aires, Brazilian club Corinthians has drawn their Libertadores Cup final with Argentina's Boca Juniors 1-1, and now they are both heading to Sao Paulo for the second leg of the final. "It was a cracker of a game, with the ball constantly moving from one half to another. This is real football - so different from the safe and negative style played by the Spanish, " says Patricia Mendes, an avid football fan who has been switching channels to catch action at home and in Europe. "The Spanish always win their matches with a low margin because they just keep the possession with their tiqui-taca passing. "

Things changed on Sunday as La Roja changed gear and slammed Italy 4-0 in the final. Suddenly, with two Euro titles and one World Cup in their bag, they began to look like the "best team ever". Of course, in Brazil, the team built around the midfield axis of Xavi and Iniesta is being compared with the Selecao of 1970, which won six games at the World Cup to become three-time world champions - averaging 3. 2 goals per game. Of course, Spain's claim for "best ever" team is being taken with a pinch of salt, with even Pele who was part of the 1970 winning team 42 years ago, saying his team was "better" than the new Euro champions. "Each generation has its preferences but without doubt, if we are comparing, the 1970 generation was better, " Pele said this week before the Corinthians-Boca final. "The 1970 Brazil team had many more (great) individual players than Spain, which has two or three excellent players, " said the Brazilian great even as he admired Spain's "free-flowing, attacking football style" in the final against Italy.

Known for their sheer horsepower combined with trickery learned on the narrow streets of ghettos they came from, the Brazilian team of the 1970s was a bolt from the blue for Europeans who had no experience against that kind of football. But the Brazilians know they can't live on past glory. "In next month's Olympics, if the Spanish beat us and clinch the gold, that will be the end of the debate, " says Mendes.

Going in with a squad that boasts names like Chelsea's David Luiz, Milan's Alexandre Pato and Santos' Neymar, Brazil are currently William Hill's favourites to take home the gold at London. As far as 2014 is concerned, the Brazilians know that history is on their side. No European side has ever won the title in the Americas. But not everybody is taking comfort in history. After the Spanish took the Euro title again, in his blog Prado warned the Brazilians about the challenge in 2014. "The European teams perform almost all compact, while our teams play frayed, with defense, midfield and attack scattered. We stopped in time and space, " he said in his column from Kiev.

No wonder that in the botecos of this city where people don't differenciate between football and samba, Prado is a much disliked figure.

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