Tim Vickery Column: In the wake of the December 18th massacre, some thoughts on the essence of football
It is too early to identify the lasting benefits, but it seems clear that the massacre of Yokohama is giving a much needed shake up to Brazilian football.What Barcelona did to Santos is almost universally being recognised as a scathing 90 minute comment on the state of the contemporary Brazilian game. The much-hyped stars Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso were reduced to the role of bystanders. I don’t see the game as their failure, though. How can they shine if their team never has the ball?
This was a collective failure, the joyful and clinical imposition of Barcelona’s philosophy of play on that of Santos - coached by the king of the scene, Muricy Ramalho, Brazilian champion in four of the last six years, nearly the national team coach following the World Cup and the choice of many to fill the role - until Sunday December 18th 2011.
Outside his comfort zone, Ramalho cut a pitiful figure, thoroughly out of his depth. Taking place in front of his own eyes was a repudiation of the footballing ideas he stands for. His teams, even in their frequent successes, have tended to be grimly efficient, set piece and counter attack sides. “If you want to see a spectacle,” he says, “then go to the theatre.”
And then he finds out that at the highest level, with Barcelona setting the benchmark, football is spectacle. Can he adapt to a post-December 18th reality? We shall see. Can Brazilian football? Of course.
It will be fascinating to see which concepts are reviewed and rethought over the next few months. In a spirit of humility there is one concept I would like to submit for re-evaluation - the frequently expressed idea that the essence of football (and here I have to break into Portuguese) is ‘gozacao.’
Roughly translated, in the context we are dealing with this is a term that refers to the taunting or baiting of one set of supporters by another.. To my mind the importance of this activity can be wildly exaggerated, and in addition to the threat of provoking violence, in the current climate an emphasis on ’gozacao’ carries two specific dangers.
The first is the stress on localism, the idea that more than anything else the game is a backdrop for workmates and school colleagues to taunt each other on a Monday morning. And therefore that if there is no one local to taunt then the victory loses some of its flavour.
This is dangerous because it can lead to an isolationist position. With its size and linguistic isolation, Brazil has a tendency to gaze at its own belly button. The rest of the world can sometimes seem an abstract concept. But we are talking about the global game. And the evidence of 2011 is that Brazil has been left behind. “Brazilian football has never been so rich in money and poor in quality,” wrote ’Lance’ columnist Benjamin Back in the wake of the massacre of Yokohama. His colleague Eduardo Tirone welcomed Barcelona’s triumph. “A win for Santos would hide the fact that our football, of the ’exciting National championship’ and the ’lots of teams fighting for the title in the last round’ blah blah blah --- that our football is second rate. And without this reality shock would be parked on the corner thinking that everything is fine.”
But even before December 18th the warning lights were blinking fast. In theory Brazilian teams should be cleaning up in the continental club competitions. They now have much more money than their South American opponents. Instead in 2011 they were frequently outplayed in the Libertadores and the Sul-Americana. No Brazilian side came close to the compact, aggressive, attractive level of play of Universidad de Chile. Consistently Brazilian teams struggled against opponents who have embarked on the trend of fielding three strikers.
The danger now is that the focus of the debate might get lost. As the footballing world looks outwards, Brazil turns inwards upon itself in the appalling State Championships, where local rivalry is transformed into irrelevant fetish.
Barcelona are such a unique case that, in the short term at least, it is not possible to adopt all the aspects of their model. But what have Universidad de Chile been doing? This is the moment to broaden horizons, not wallow in the pleasures of a local derby win and go looking for some opposing fans to taunt.
There is a second argument against the importance placed on ‘gozacao‘ - that it assumes that the only pleasure in football comes from the victory. It even leads to the belief that the ideal derby win is 1-0 with a last minute goal that was clearly offside or punched in off the striker’s hand - the anger of the opposing fan adds extra spice to the taunting.
Over recent years the idea seems to have grown in Brazilian football that some contradiction exists between playing well and winning. “Where was the show?” ask the world’s press after a joyless win for the national team in some international tournament. “For us, winning is the show,” is the response from the players.
This kind of stuff is no longer good enough if you want to be judged by the highest standards - and the magnificent tradition of Brazilian football demands nothing less. Barcelona take the field primarily concerned with imposing their philosophy - with their collection of little players exchanging passes at pace (“as my dad and my grandfather told me Brazil did,” said coach Pep Guardiola in a pointed press match press conference comment) in the knowledge that they might not always win, but that in the long term the best way to win is by playing well. And if they lost, then at least they did it their way.
Because in a sport with as much potential for individual and collective self-expression as football, victory is far from the only pleasure. The essence of football is not ‘gozacao.’ It is spectacle. I’m hoping that Brazilian football comes to this conclusion in 2012.