As the 2018 World Cup begins, Brazil and Germany are the two favourites to lift the trophy come July. That should hardly be a surprise, given that they are the two most successful footballing nations of all-time. They have won nine World Cups between them, and amazingly only three post-war World Cup finals have not included either team (1978, 2006, 2010).
A slight slip-up for either team could see a last 16 encounter, but if both teams finish top of the group as expected, then they cannot meet until the final. That is the stage where they met in the 2002 World Cup final, surprisingly the first match between the two sides.
That day the players had read the script, and stuck faithfully to the historical narrative. The dull, efficient Germans had made their way to the final with three typically Teutonic 1-0 wins. Meanwhile, the fluid Brazilians had beautifully bulldozed a trail to the final showdown with the creative talents of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
The sequel to the Maracanazo in Belo Horizonte had the Germans not only giving the Brazilians a lesson in how to win a football match but giving them a lesson in how to do so in style.
When it came to the final, Germany were intent on containing the opposition with stoppers like Carsten Ramelow and Jens Jeremies, and were unable to make up for the absence of their creative and dynamic young star Michael Ballack, suspended from the final. In the end, Ronaldo overcame the monstrous goalkeeping of Oliver Kahn, scoring twice to complete his return to football’s pantheon, as Brazil won their fifth World Cup. A victory for football and joga bonito in full flow.
In 2014, Brazil and Germany reconvened, this time in the World Cup semi-final. The traditionally exciting Brazilians entered the game having committed a record number of fouls in the previous game. They had laboured through the tournament. Fred, a far cry from the classic Brazilian number nine, was supplied by second-rate attackers.
Neymar was the only forward who could hold a candle to the Holy Trinity of forwards 12 years ago but a fractured vertebrae sustained in the quarter-final against Colombia ensured his absence. Like Germany 12 years ago, without their main attacking outlet, their chances were severely restrained. Samba football? Barely.
The real surprise though came from the complete and utter meltdown from Brazil. In case you were on Mars for the summer of 2014, there is a 4,700 word summary on Wikipedia for you to decipher, but in short, Brazil were so bad that it looked like Germany stopped trying to score as if not to embarrass them further. 5-0 down after 30 minutes, Brazil were humiliated in a truly bizarre and incredible way.
Not nearly enough credit is given to Germany’s attacking verve in that game, however, as few teams would have enough belief in their ability to score seven goals against Brazil at home, no matter how poorly the South Americans played.
This was a German team who were also missing their best attacker, Marco Reus, who had been ruled out of the tournament through injury. But this time they had added style to their strength.
Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer progressed outside of the average goalkeeping purview, by showing the sweeping and technical ability of a top-class libero. Mats Hummels and Philip Lahm were titans at the back but superb, attack-minded footballers too. Offensively, Joachim Löw chose between the prolific international goalscoring of Miroslav Klose and Thomas Muller, the elegant playmaking of Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos and the dynamic running of Andre Schurrle and Sami Khedira. Boring Germans? Not a chance.
The sequel to the Maracanazo in Belo Horizonte had the Germans not only giving the Brazilians a lesson in how to win a football match but giving them a lesson in how to do so in style. It was the ultimate insult to the Brazilians. How had the roles reversed in twelve years?
Ultimately, the nirvana for Brazilian football is ‘joga bonito’, the beautiful game played with a panache that only great Brazilian teams can reach. Some Brazilians trace back the end of bona fide ‘joga bonito’ way back as far as the 1982 World Cup where Zico, Socrates, Falcao et al. all combined to create one of the most awesome displays of teamwork and skill ever seen on an international stage.
Unfortunately for the dream team, their tactical naivety and blasé defending were exploited by Italian nous, and they lost 3-2. The 1982 experience initiated a negative trend in Brazilian coaching that has lingered ever since. To compete with the European giants, the emphasis in training switched from smaller, more technical players to focus on bigger and more physical players.
It worked for a while, the compromise between containing physical football and creative attacking football brought some great success from the early 1990s to the 2000s. For every Ronaldo, there was a Dunga-type player to cover for him.
This move away from attractive football and the failure of the Brazilian system manifested in this traumatic experience for Brazil. Since it last won the World Cup, Brazil has had its fair share of difficulties domestically. More and more players are leaving for the riches of Europe, Eastern Europe in particular, for additional zeros on their pay-slips.
There are high hopes that Brazil’s wake-up call came at the last World Cup, and they will play in a more positive fashion than previously.
This births players that are not in the Brazilian mould. Some have questioned the desire of young Brazilians. Brazil legend Zico stated that “Brazil cannot simply believe their history will win games”, raising the question of whether there is a certain amount of delusion in the Brazilian game.
Phil Scolari stuck with his favourites in 2014 and left winger Lucas Moura and successful Atletico Madrid pair Felipe Luis and Miranda at home. The 2014 World Cup side was certainly not a special Brazilian generation, Neymar had been the only player nominated for the final 23 of the Ballon D’Or. There were cynical fouls; there were dives, it was football lacking the joie de vivre that is usually associated with the Seleção.
After Euro 2000, Germany got their wake-up call. A dreadful showing had convinced the German football association to overhaul their youth football system. Six members of the victorious starting eleven that beat England 4-0 in the final that day started in the World Cup final. (Özil, Boateng, Höwedes, Khedira, Hummels, Neuer). Their win was a celebration of their philosophy.
There are high hopes that Brazil’s wake-up call came at the last World Cup, and they will play in a more positive fashion than previously. Roberto Carlos has said that Brazilian football has “lost its essence” under Tite in favour of defence, but within the squad, they are more confident that they can play with style.
Partiu Rússia, partiu buscar o nosso sonho! ✈️🇷🇺 pic.twitter.com/yVm1MMPmWF
— Neymar Jr (@neymarjr) June 10, 2018
“Tite is the one who changed a lot of things,” says Willian. “That’s why Brazil now play great football. With the ball. Without the ball.”
Brazil scored 41 goals in 18 games in a difficult South American qualifying group. Under Tite, they scored 30 goals and conceded just three. Cesar Luis Menotti, whose teams always played with panache, remarked after Brazil beat Argentina 3-0.
“He has brought the defensive line 20 metres higher and brought the team together,” he said. “It’s like the Brazil of 1970.”
With Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus in the team, and the likes of Roberto Firmino, Willian and Douglas Costa in the squad, Brazil have the players to play Joga Bonito again. Regaining that style will be key to banishing thoughts of 2014, and succeeding at this World Cup.