Latin flourish vs European rigidity

ROHIT BRIJNATH

CARLOS has an identity crisis: in truth he is a taxi-driver in Melbourne, in manner he is a one-man orchestra who does no good for my blood pressure. His voice rises sharply, then falls dramatically to a whisper; his arms wave wildly with a conductor's flourish, for all debating points must be dutifully illustrated. He is supposed to be driving me home, and hands on the wheel would help, but there are far more pressing issues at hand than oncoming cars or staying alive. Like soccer, for instance.

Carlos is South American, though that hardly requires saying. To be precise he is Chilean, has watched Puskas and Pele live in his youth, and has an opinion on everything from David Beckham's fractured metatarsal to Sven Goran Eriksson's love interest. Rides home with him are less conversations than they are impassioned soliloquies. But it is worth listening.

Some nights ago, he told a tale of his favourite goal, of a Chilean player slaloming down one wing, rounding defenders, and then scoring a goal. But it was not so much the run that mattered, it was the manner of the goal. As he put it, his voice teetering at the edge of hysteria, "UNBELIEVABLE, he slipped the ball through the goalkeeper's legs."

For Carlos, the beauty of a goal, and in fact soccer itself, is determined by the degree of difficulty. A simple header into the corner, a ball struck sweetly from outside the box, are interesting. But to drop a shoulder, feint and round the keeper, to score with a bicycle kick, to back-heel the ball in... to slip it through the goalie's legs... that is, well, "unbelievable."

For him, soccer is not a game, it is an art form, an indulgence, a conclave of inventors, a magician's symposium. Players are not so much athletes as they are illusionists, a host of David Copperfield's in colourful shorts. He does not add the obvious corollary: they are all South Americans.

It is the way it has always been, a clich� that has survived despite some evidence to the contrary: Europe is tactical, Latino's are teasing. European football appears like a treatise in mathematics, as if through 3-3-4 or 4-4-2 some brilliant and effective equation will be arrived at; Latin American soccer seems less rigid, more fluid, more like an unfolding ballet. There is a suggestion that one continent constructs move, the other composes them; carpenters faced off against sculptors.

Europe's football is ordered, played in straight, solid, convenient lines, as if strategy is mapped out the day before with set squares and protractors, much like an expedition. Or so it is said.

In Latin America, much of the same occurs, except the feel is different. Their play is more sensuous than it is clinical, given less to order and more to abandon. As if 11 men have been given paints (the ball), ushered onto a canvas (the field) and told to draw a 90-minute picture of imagination and beauty.

Carlos has his own theory. That in the favelas of Brazil, the alleys of Argentina, the laneways of Santiago, it is not who wins that matters but how. That trickery is appreciated, sorcery encouraged, creativity promoted, and that in the mere controlling of tied newspapers and rolled-up socks a certain inventiveness becomes instinctive.

Perhaps too it is the natural rhythm of a continent that infests their soccer. It follows, almost, that from these lands of the lambada, the tango, the samba, the salsa (even if some origins lie elsewhere), this passion for music and dance, this natural grace and chic movement, is carried into soccer. It is, one presumes, as it is most sophisticated, an expression of a people.

It is a joyousness, an exuberance, which when in full flow draws us into its gravitational pull. It is not hard to fathom. For all the attractiveness of speed and power in sport, it is the artistic that most captivates, as if such men are the true interpreters of their art, fully conversant with the language of their sport.

We find it in John McEnroe, in Prakash Padukone, in Michael Jordan and in their improbable flights of invention. Borg, in contrast, was majestic, but seemingly so European in manner, all efficiency and organisation. So what if as a summation it is a trifle glib.

Predictably, at World Cups, if Brazil is playing China and Italy taking on South Korea, we are driven to the former. We can recollect more names from Brazil in 1982 (Eder, Falcao, Junior, Zico, Socrates, Cerezo, Leandro) then we can from their victors Italy (Rossi, Conti, Tardelli, Zoff...). In 1990, barring Lothar Matthaus' driving runs our memory is absent of German adventure, yet Maradona's one stroke of wonder against Brazil rests at the forefront of the mind.

When we speak soccer genius, we start at Brazil's 1970 triumph and end with Maradona's maverick brilliance of 1986. Rossi is passed off as a mere opportunist, Klinsmann as a clinical finisher.

There is, or was, too an attitudinal difference, a chasm in philosophy. Europe seemed to resemble its fortified castles, prepared to repel all invaders, their soccer stoic and sturdy (though Roberto Baggio might argue with that). Chances are not so much created as opponents broken-down, and risk deleted from the lexicon.

To Latin America, defence was the option of the timid, an articulation of negativity, and their focus seemed tuned to attack. For the spectator the choice was easy, for it is only in full forward flow that sport finds its aesthetic pinnacle. But not all of this exists, much of what remains is an illusion.

The fact is South American soccer is roguish, littered with brutality, fluency constantly interrupted by muscle. Brazilian football is warped, passion coated with ugliness, for they have the highest fouls per game of any league.

The fact is even Brazil flirts heavily with European tactics, gradually convinced that flair on its own has its limitations in the modern game. As Mario Zagallo said before the last World Cup: "I would rather win playing ugly football than lose playing attractive football".

Both in 1994 (where inexplicably they required a penalty shoot-out to win, so much for their ability and desire to score goals) and 1998, there was little about Brazil's style that stirred the senses. Argentina's flamboyance too, though men like Ariel Ortega still own a formidable dexterity, has been muted.

The fact is too that there have been offensively inclined, subtle and charming European teams, from Ferenc Puskas' Hungarians to Johann Cryuff's Dutch magicians to Michel Platini's flying Frenchmen to Ruud Gullit's elegant Holland side. But, to us, they appear but aberrations, and the mere coincidence that none of those teams won the World Cup strengthens our belief that they were imitations, however impressive.

But to diminish Europe is dangerous. In their organised skills lies a science and discipline, a method and purpose that is attractive in its own way. They do more than provide a contrast, though that itself is vital. After all, how would we view the romantic D'Artagnan without the silent and tough Athos?

At this Cup, once again we will edge more towards Argentina than Germany, and not merely because the former are favourites and the latter in some disarray. It scarcely registers that Brazil is a struggling team for we will follow them with a schoolboy's awe, so what if the echoes of their once delicate and supernatural play are almost faded. In a sense, we are captives of history. In a sense, we are also captives of our own flawed memories. After all, in the 16 World Cups held till now, South American teams have won eight, but Europe has won eight too.

You think, it's a statistic Carlos will casually dismiss with a conductor's wave of the hand. But under his breath he might well mutter: "unbelievable."