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Losing their religion

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SOCRATES

The national football team is known as the selecao (selection), verde-amarela (green and yellow) and most often prefixed with the five-time world champions-tag, or Pentacampeao. No other football team in the world has been able to create so many myths, give substance to so much folklore, spur on such exciting dreams and extreme emotions all across the globe as Brazil, since they first played against Argentina in 1914.

As a realistic spectacle, it may seem strange that India, where the sun rises half a day earlier, gets caught in this web of ecstasy and disappointment whenever the canary yellow shirts take the field.

It all started with the exploits of Pele and Garrincha that filtered through newspapers and magazines in the pre-cable television era. It got the fodder of conviction when the World Cup became a quadrennial TV phenomenon.

Not one World Cup has gone by since 1982 when a major section of the neutral world hasn't reposed faith in one, or a group, of Brazilian stars. It seemed that Brazil enjoyed a god-given right to the title and the converted auriverde sect only wanted to see how.

The right to title emerged from the continuous flow of superbly skillful players who never failed to stretch the borders of imagination. Brazil were always marked by one great era after another, just like historical progression.

The Pele era, the Zico-Socrates era, the Romario-Bebeto era, the Ronaldo-Rivaldo-Ronaldinho era. Even though Zico and Socrates failed to lay their claim to a World Cup title, they displayed such a brand of soccer that they remained indelibly etched in memory as the best team "not to have won the Cup".

Even as losers, they earned so much.

Post-2002, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a name to mark an era. Currently, there is not one Brazilian attacker who commands unanimous selection to any topflight club in the world. The venerated No. 9 shirt has no takers to justify its history and tradition.

In the ongoing Copa America, Brazil have played three games so far against Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, with a team for the future. Coach Mano Menezes was given the unenviable task of bringing the team back to the Brazilian way after Dunga's pragmatic approach generated a lot of disgust in South Africa, apart from a defeat in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands. Menezes has given the team a completely new look with Neymar, Ganso, Alexandre Pato and the likes.

The first impression has not been exhilarating at all.

Captain Lucio, a remnant of the old guard, lashed out at the youngsters on their lack of commitment. "I think the badge on the shirt is more important than the name on the back, " said the 33-year-old central defender, a World Cup winner in 2002 and one of the few survivors from Brazil's 2010 team.

Paul Henrique Ganso, one who's expected to take charge of the central playmaker's role, has come out apologetic after the first two encounters. "I'm the first to criticise the way I'm playing when things are not working. I try to look at what's wrong, at what needs to improve, and then I try to fix it so I can start playing well again, " he went on record as saying. "I've looked at the match numbers and I'm making too many passing mistakes. I'm not being able to make that last pass to put the strikers in a position to score. "

When was it last heard from a Brazilian creative midfielder about passes being riddled with errors? All we have discussed over the years was craftiness.

For Simon Kuper, the reputed writer and follower of the game, the malaise is rooted deeper. Talking to TOI Crest, Kuper said, "The rest of the world has caught up with Brazil. They started playing earlier and produced players of unmatched excellence. But the Brazilian know-how was exported and copied the world over following globalisation. Western European nations have the best tactical game where the Brazilians are lacking now. They are still very skillful, but they got left behind tactically. "

Kuper evoked the example of Robinho, 27, a senior statesman of this Brazil squad. "He had rather unsuccessful stints with Real Madrid and Manchester City because he was tactically not good enough. "

So is it the end of a long and fantastic tradition? Kuper is not ready to pass judgment so fast. "The Brazilians still love their football. Just that they have to improve the tactical ability to match the Western Europeans. "

The silver lining is Santos' triumph in Copa Libertadores, Latin America's equivalent of the Champions League. And Pele's club did it with all homegrown players, the most famous being Neymar, Ganso and Elano, who make the core of Menezes' team for the future.

As celebrations broke out after the final, a journalist asked Pele, "Can Neymar ever go on to eclipse Pele?" The greatest Brazilian footballer quipped, "If he can score another 1, 280 goals. "

Perhaps all is not lost yet. After Pele's retirement, Brazil spent 24 years hunting for a World Cup. In that hunting party, players like Socrates strode like colossus. In an interview to the BBC, Brazil's captain of the 1982 World Cup said, "To win is not the most important thing, football is an art and should be showing creativity. If (painters) Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas had known when they were doing their work the level of recognition that they were going to have, they would not have done them the same. You have to enjoy doing the art and not think, 'Will I win?'"

It is this absence of art in Brazil's game that is raising questions.

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