Whatever Happened to Jogo Bonito?

This Brazil team doesn’t appear capable of playing the pretty soccer of legend

You don’t need statistical analysis to notice Brazil’s jogo is not so bonito these days. Against Chile, there seemed to be little attempt to keep the ball on the ground, sustain the short passing game, or to execute quick one-twos to unlock the defense. There were plenty of balls over the top from Brazilian defenders with the hope that Fred or Jô could somehow do something with them. There was some enterprising running at the defense by Hulk, but it was mostly head-down stuff, with few ideas.

So what’s going on? Can Brazil get its “mojogo” back? It seems like a long shot with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s conservative tactics. Scolari just might have picked a squad that simply can’t play beautifully, even if it wanted to.

Of course, it might help if Scolari’s lineup included Bernard or Willian from the start. Bernard would give the attack width and Willian would give the team more movement up front. But neither Bernard nor Willian fit into Scolari’s plans these days. You might wonder why they are even on the roster. Scolari probably wishes he had named a couple more defensive midfielders, now that Luiz Gustavo is suspended for Friday’s quarterfinal game against Colombia.

Writing in Lance!, Andre Kfouri said the midfield is supposed to meld the team but instead is dividing it into two units speaking different languages. Chile, he wrote, was the team with the jogobonito.

Veteran journalist Jose Inacio Werneck, who has been following the World Cup since 1950, is pragmatic in analyzing Brazil’s style. Werneck moved to the Boston area in the early 1990s and in conversations, he would always say there is nothing that makes Brazilian players more special than any others around the world. Werneck still believes this, while acknowledging that a generation of Brazilians will sometimes be better than others, sometimes worse. The current one, he says, is “no wonder generation.”

Werneck, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, says he never heard the term jogobonito before moving to the U.S. He maintains that it wasn’t until Pelé started talking about “the beautiful game,” which was translated into jogo bonito, that everyone started expecting Brazil to play that way all the time.

Brazil has won with jogobonito (1970) and lost with jogo bonito (1982). It has won with jogofeio, ugly soccer, (1994) and lost with jogofeio (1978). Werneck, writing for Gazetaesportiva.net, is skeptical the current Seleçao can produce anything close to beautiful. He wonders why there are no players like Zizinho, Didi, Gérson, Rivelino, Ademir, Falcão.

But beautiful soccer is a product of alegria, happiness, according to Werneck. And this Brazil team is simply under too much pressure to feel happy. Brazilian players are being criticized for being vulnerable emotionally. Several collapsed, some kissed the grass, feeling relief after a penalty kicks win over Chile at Estadio Minerão in Belo Horizonte. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar wept during a post-match interview. A newspaper headline urged Thiago Silva to “Stand Up, Captain!” as he was pictured on his knees in tears. Carlos Alberto, captain of the 1970 team, said he “wondered” about Thiago Silva’s reactions. On a Brazil television talk show, they were called “cry babies.”

The Brazil players are afraid of becoming the “Barbosa of 2014,” wrote Eduardo Tironi in Lance!. Brazil’s defeat in the 1950 Maracanãzo final labeled goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa as the symbol of failure, and he spent the rest of his life in disgrace. Barbosa’s story presents an ugly side of the game. And as long as Barbosa’s shadow hangs over this team, the prospect is slim of pretty soccer.