Football is a sacred religion in Brazil. Children are brought up to love the game, play the game with passion and produce entertaining skills that will one day light up the world stage. For decades, the South Americans have produced some of the greatest footballers. Players like Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Kaka, Romario and Ronaldinho have all been named FIFA Player of the Year since 1991 and the latest superstar, Barcelona’s forward, Neymar, came third in this year’s Ballon D’or awards. All of these players have one thing in common… flair.
However, changes in modern football and a variety of new systems have demanded more positions within the game. The ‘DM’, the defensive midfielder, is a common feature in many Premier League teams and has become a crucial position for most top sides. Chelsea and Manchester City play with this new type of midfielder almost every week and Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all have options in the defensive role. The Capital One Cup final, which showcased a contest between Manchester City and Liverpool, had five Brazilians in the starting line-ups but only two possess the traditional styles of South American flair which have made Brazilian football so famous.
Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Phillippe Coutinho are agile, creative and entertaining attackers who epitomise the style of play famous in Brazil. Liverpool’s number 10, Coutinho, was voted the club’s best player for the 2014-15 season and is still regarded as one of Klopp’s most influential players. It was his equaliser in the last ten minutes of normal time which saw Liverpool through to the penalty shoot-out of the cup final. Firmino, who moved to Merseyside in the summer after the Reds secured a £29m transfer from Hoffenheim, was voted Liverpool’s best player throughout January. He’s produced some brilliant performances after settling into life in Merseyside and now has four assists and six goals to his name so far this season. It was a shock when it was announced he’d been left out of the recent Brazil squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers as his team-mate, Coutinho, was included.
In contrast, the other three Brazilians who took to the pitch are part of a new breed of footballer coming out of South America. As a result of the physical demands of the Premier League, a huge rise in defensive midfielders has occurred and the two cup finalists had three ‘DMs’ on show. Liverpool’s versatile player, Lucas Leiva (who has been at the club for nearly 10 years) has adopted a number of positions on the pitch including the popular defensive midfield role. On Sunday, he started in the centre-back position as cover for the injured Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel. Lucas, unlike his attacking team-mates Coutinho and Firmino, is a strong, physical and abrasive player who provides protection for the back four, allowing his Brazilian team-mates to produce entertaining football in attack. So different is his style of play, that it’s easy to forget he’s Brazilian.
If it wasn’t for their South American names, Manchester City’s Fernando and Fernandinho could also be mistaken for nationalities other than Brazilian. The two defensive midfielders have been crucial to Manchester City’s campaign this year and allow Pellegrini’s side freedom when going forward. Yaya Toure is often supported by one, or both of these players in midfield and they act as a shield in front of Manchester City’s strong back four. However, like Lucas, the physicality and simplicity of their play is unfamiliar to Brazilian football culture and is a new style of play emerging from the South American country.
Natives of Brazil are used to seeing players with flair and creativity and their love for Barcelona’s star; Neymar, is proof of this. Football is seen as entertainment and freedom and these are qualities encouraged by the national set-up. Although Manchester City’s Brazilian stars are strong squad members and played a crucial part in Sunday’s Capital One Cup final, is it a sign that the future of Brazilian football is about to change?
The Premier League is just one of a number of European leagues which have seen a dramatic change in football styles since the turn of the millennium and teams competing around the world have had to adapt to these new changes. Football is more tactical these days and after a period where physical midfielders were few and far between, the need for defensive players has increased and if Brazil are to keep producing world class players, they have to train and practise new styles of play to adapt to these changes.
But are these changes detrimental to Brazilian football? The last time a player in yellow was named the world’s best player was back in 2007 when Kaka was crowned the number 1. Since then, the dominance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi has taken over world football, with Brazil’s Neymar only recently challenging the duo. It’s been almost 15 years since Brazil last won the World Cup, when Ronaldo’s double gave them victory over Germany in 2002. That squad, which contained the likes of Carlos, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Rivaldo, had a number of world class players and would dominate any side in the competition even now.
Rio 2014 was meant to be a celebration of Brazilian football in the FIFA World Cup but they were humiliated in the semi-finals, losing 7-1 to eventual champions, Germany. The squad was criticised for its lack of creativity, loss of entertaining football and lack of passion. Although it’s crucial Brazilian football continues to adapt to the changes in the global game, it’s equally as important that the identity of their South American flair isn’t lost and the recent improvement in form of Liverpool’s attacking duo, is a positive way forward for the national side. For the sake of football, and for Brazilian natives, we can only hope to see players like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho take to the stage once more.