The boys from Brazil

NIRMAL SHEKAR

FOOTBALL needs a Jurassic Park. And with just a few days to go for the kick-off of the 17th edition of the world's most celebrated and popular sports show - the World Cup of football - the most fervent wish of every soccer fan will be that the 2002 fiesta will turn into a huge laboratory that will bring soccer's extinct breed to throbbing life.

The artistic giants of football, not long ago a dwindling breed, may well be extinct now, like the dinosaurs. The odd virtuoso conductor of the orchestra may be the exception that proves the rule.

"Our football comes from the heart, theirs comes from the mind," said Pele, many, many years ago, talking about the essential difference between South American and European soccer.-AFP

Football, which is nothing if not an intimate romantic affair involving the ball, the players and the audience, has been drawn away from its roots by mindless coaches preaching rough-house tactics and mediocre hackers who belong in grid iron football's NFL in the United States and not in a game which has traditionally valued and celebrated artistic creation and flourish - doing things in style - on the playing field.

The trend towards the aesthetic poverty of grid iron football - so pronounced when West Germany beat Argentina on a dubious penalty in the 1990 World Cup final in Rome, a tournament that was a very poor advertisement for the great game - was indeed arrested by the popular triumphs of teams such as Brazil (1994) and France (1998).

Yet, not much has happened in the last decade to conclusively suggest that the great game has been helped back on to the pedestal again. But football, artistic football, romantic football, creative football, is a survivor. It has survived petty, defence-minded coaches, short-sighted administrators, muscle-flaunting hackers and, most of all, Time itself.

At the time Pele said that, the world of soccer was ruled by the hearts rather than the minds. And Pele himself was the king of hearts.

But that seems so long ago now. For, today, the man who spoke those words is an immensely wealthy 62-year-old who is mobbed by television commentators for his expert comments just as assiduously as desperate rival defenders used to stalk him, mostly unsuccessfully, in the penalty area in his playing days.

And, for the most part of the last decade and more, we have been wondering, too, if the South Americans themselves have lost touch with their roots. If the gap was never as big as between the heart and mind as suggested by Pele in another era, then, the point is, modern football itself - whether in Europe or in South America - appears to be lacking in artistic quality.

You can debate endlessly about whether football is an art or a science without arriving at any definite conclusion. But football is such a fascinating sport only because it makes room for total artistic freedom while still showing the capacity to accommodate scientific evolution in methods and techniques.

And the history of the World Cup will reveal that successful teams have always blended art and science superbly for a winning mix, although the artistic content is bound to outweigh the laboratory aspects in the Latin teams just as discipline, endurance and strategic sense will push art to the background in European teams.

But all along, the style of performance has always counted for something and the game's fans have always proved that football is not first and last about winning. It's about class. It's about flourish. It's about invention. And above all, it's about romance.

And this is the simple reason why the whole world wept when Brazil crashed out of the 1982 Finals in Spain, beaten by the heroics of one man, Paolo Rossi. And this is the reason why any number of people, erudite football critics, coaches and managers among them, still maintain that Brazil in 1982 was one of the most attractive World Cup teams of all time. Maybe not in terms of winning, but certainly in terms of playing the game like it should be played.

"The Brazilian approach to the game is unparalleled," wrote the most famous Brazilian of them all. "It is musical, galvanising, joyful and not at all violent," Pele wrote in his column two decades ago.

And so it was as the team of '82, led by the physician-turned-midfielder Socrates and served wonderfully well by Zico, Falcao, Junior and Eder orchestrated a perfect symphony in Sevile, the Spanish town that gave birth to the enchanting art form Flamengo.

Drums banged out a steady samba as the Brazilian sorcerers mesmerised the Soviets, Kiwis and the Scots with their metronomic passing, at once imposing a complex architecture on the field.

"Give our lads a paintbrush, and they'll got to work on the back fence. Hand one to a Brazilian, and he'll make like Leonardo (da Vinci)," said a bemused Andy Roxburgh, head of the Scottish Football Association.

The Argentine team of 1978, and not the least in 1986 when, more than ever before, the destiny of the Cup was decided by one man - Diego Maradona - the Dutch teams of the 1970s and Franz Beckenbauer's Germans, each showed wonderful capacity for invention, great ball skills and a fine blend of technical expertise and tactical sophistication. Their was art in their game, there was science too and overall it was a fine winning blend.

Yet the alchemy was just as irresistible as when Zico and his Brazilians danced rings around their opponents in 1982. For a matching aesthetic high, you may have to look back to 1970 and Pele's incomparable side.

But why? Why do you always have to go back to another Brazilian side to compare with the team of 1982? The answer is not far to seek. There have been other great players, great national sides capable of a level of artistry that would perhaps match the Brazilians on a superficial plane. But none can really equal it.

Again, the reason, like Brazilian football itself, is simple. Give the microphone to a Brazilian and he will sing a captivating number. Give it to a German and he will bark out stern orders. Hand it to an Englishmen and he'll probably lecture you on Dos and Don'ts.

In much the same way, throw the football at a Brazilian's feet and you can be sure that, with his charming nonchalance and state-of-the-art wizardry, he'll scorn caution and create baroque patterns.

Most of all it is the devil-may-care attitude, the willingness to throw caution to the winds, the native sense of art and the vision to reach out for the seemingly impossible that makes Brazilian football transcendental.

Sadly, it is this special magic that seems to be dying in an age which seems to celebrate the famous words of the American grid iron football coach, the irrepressible Vince Lombardi who said, "Winning is not everything, it is the only thing."

In the event, as the Brazilian team management and the players swore allegiance to the logic conveyed by those famous words to win the Cup for a fourth time in 1994 in the United States, I for one could never accept that the Romario-inspired team was truly Brazilian in heart and soul.

This takes us back again to the heart of the matter: the heart and the mind. It would appear that after testing samples of various brands of football, different approaches and game plans, the lab scientists of football have coldly decreed that sacrificing caution for aggression can be disastrous. Don't believe the heart, go by the mind.

Mindless as the argument may seem to the purist, it has often paid dividends. The list of great players who have been penalised on the field for their surpassing skills is endless. Zico in the 1982 World Cup is a particular example and Maradona himself had to live with butchers all his life, ever since he was proclaimed Pele's successor.

"Football became popular because it was considered an art. But now too many pitches have become battlefields," lamented Socrates.

Then again, when stakes are as ludicrously high as they are today in a high profile sport like soccer, who gives a damn for art?

Art for art's sake? You must be kidding. They don't make 'em like Zico and his boys anymore.

For, truth to tell, you cannot ever play with that kind of freedom and expect to win the Cup that matters.

But, then, winning is ordinary, pedestrian stuff. You see it every day. Art is transcendental, sublime, the glorious few moments of pleasure it offers unrecapturable.

This is precisely why, I would much rather dream of a team that would play the brand of football that Socrates, Zico, Falcao and Junior played in three matches 20 years ago than anything else I have seen on a World Cup stage since then.

Will the dream turn into a reality in Japan and Korea? Highly unlikely. But dreamers seldom draw a line between the possible and the impossible. And I won't too!