RIO DE JANEIRO: The Brazilians’ dribbling is mesmerizing, the passing laser-like, and the final shot on goal ruthless. Pity then these players aren’t the 11 of the national team but a bunch of kids on Rio’s Copacabana beach.
As the Brazilian “selecao” heads Thursday into its first 2018 World Cup qualifier, football lovers gathering on the beach each evening could not be more downcast.
The team that collapsed 7-1 to Germany at its own tournament last year, then hit a new low crashing out against lowly Paraguay in the Copa America, has all but lost the aura that once made Brazil synonymous with footballing genius.
Coach Dunga’s squad — missing Barcelona superstar Neymar — may yet overcome Chile on Thursday and Venezuela on Tuesday.
But citing everything from corruption to changes in playing styles, Brazilians say the future of football in a country that won a record five World Cups is bleak.
“A lot fewer people dream of becoming footballers now,” said Eduardo Oliveira, himself once an aspiring player, as he kicked a ball about with his sons, aged six and four, near the Atlantic waves crashing on Copacabana.
“That’s connected to everything that’s happening — to the disillusionment,” he said.
The gentle sweep of Rio’s most iconic beach is a showcase for footballing skills that seem to be in Brazil’s DNA and which for years were at the core of what they call the “jogo bonito,” or beautiful game.
On weekends and every workday as the sun sets behind jungle-covered mountains, players of all ages race around the sand, demonstrating impressive levels of control over the ball.
At one school-age session on the beach this week, the ball remained nearly constantly in play within the small boundaries as boys and girls completed short pass after short pass or dribbled, never resorting to the classic unskilled playground hack up the pitch.
Organized adult leagues on Sundays feature fiercely fought, full games, while even friends casually messing about on the firm sand at low tide often display dazzling footwork.
“Playing with both feet is what we teach. The physical side is not what we focus on,” said Felipe Soares, 27, who works with Centro Esportivo de Praia Geracao, a government-backed program for teaching poor children beach football.
“What matters is the moving and the playing — the essence of Brazilian football.”
A walk along Copacabana makes the decline of the national team in a country of 204 million and brimming with talent seem baffling.
But fans say the main problem is not on the pitch.
Most at fault is the corruption riddling management of the sport, just as it has poisoned politics and business in Latin America’s biggest country.
Oliveira, a defender who got as far as a trial at Rio club Botafogo, says corruption in the governing Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), is the main culprit.
“We have great talent in Brazil, but sadly there is so much corruption,” Oliveira, 31, said.
“We have great players, but because of the corruption, people’s careers get decided on personalities and personal interests, just like everything here.”
Another factor, fans say, is a general shift toward greater physicality and away from the skills that still remain the focus in Brazil.
“Football has evolved a lot and the physical side has become much more important, and that has hurt us,” Soares said.
Out of love?
Further along the beach, where adults were playing the fiendishly tricky game of foot volleyball — using the feet and head but not hands — Leo Lindoso agreed.
“Football used to be very technical and now the physical is taking over, just like in tennis and other sports,” Lindoso, 34, said as players volleyed and headed over the net, occasionally diving or doing scissor kicks to reach the ball.
Between corruption, the changing style and a setup geared toward exporting talented youngsters to lucrative contracts in Europe, rather than helping the game evolve at home, many Brazilians say they are falling out of love with their own team.
“It’s not like before when I knew every single player. Now they’re all playing abroad,” Lindoso said, sadly.
“People don’t feel a connection to them.We suffer here and meanwhile those guys earn millions.”
The affair may not be completely over.
Asked whether Dunga’s “selecao” will vanquish Chile and Venezuela, Soares didn’t skip a beat.
“Brazil is always the favorite,” he said with all the self-assurance of footballing aristocracy.
“Even when they play badly.”