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Aug 30, 2005

O Jogo Bonito

In the wake of the Confederations Cup and the all-Brazilian Copa Libertadores final over the past summer, Brazilian futebol (foo-chay-bol in the land of the Samba) has continued to reassert its position at the top of the world game's hierarchy. Brazil's success lies not only in the quality of player produced, arguably amongst the best in the world, but also in the manner in which those players are employed. The triangle, nature's strongest shape, is the key to Brazilian play. Players are taught on and off-ball passing angles rooted in the triangle from an early age. Running for teammates is the expectation; players failing to run to open spaces to provide support for teammates find themselves relegated to the sidelines. Brazilians run off the ball so effectively some argue they actually play the ball to space rather than to feet. In any case, its probably safe to say that passing is a large part of what constitutes Brazilian jogo bonito (the beautiful game).

Brazilian football minds must have listened to Lenny Bruce's railings on possession being nine-tenths of the law. Possession of the ball is Brazil's first line of defense and an effective one at that. Again, Brazilians are schooled from a young age; this time in the football philosophy that advocates the ball as the player's best friend. One characteristic stereotype of the Brazilian is that of always having the ball on their feet during training sessions. (Anyone else subjected to Brazilian circuits in their youth will know what that means.)

To add to this, many Brazilians play futsal and other indoor variants, often in the youth development programs of the country's multitudinous professional clubs. In this case, the close quarters and smaller ball help enhance the players' ball control and dribbling skills, facilitating an ease with the same movements on the larger pitches of the outdoor game. This training provides for the flair often associated with the Canary, but is ultimately rooted in pragmatism. These same skills allow for the possession oriented game.

On the defensive front, the goalkeeper tends to be the traditional Achilles' heel of the Brazilian national side. With Dida between the pipes, however, and the emergence of Júlio César (Inter Milan) and Heurelho Gomes (PSV Eindhoven), Brazilian keepers are rapidly expanding their games to become more than just excellent penalty stoppers (a limiting reputation which seemed to follow ex-national team keeper Claudio Taffarel his entire career). Back in Brazil, Rogério Ceni (São Paulo FC) and Marcos (Palmieras) have excelled domestically, both earning spots on the 2002 World Cup squad, and the former leading his São Paulo teammates to the aforementioned Libertadores championship. Lest we forget, Ceni was also tied for the team lead for Libertadores goals with five tallies.

Once the keeper has been selected, the typical Brazilian side will line up in a 2-4-2-2 or 2-3-2-1-2. In essence, the formation is a highly developed variant of the 5-3-2 favored by many South & Central American sides. Under this system, the two center backs (zagueiros) function as dual sweepers cleaning up whatever trickles through the midfield. A pincer action is often employed allowing the center backs to cover some of the flanks should the full back have pushed too far up the field. In that case, the holding midfielder will support the back line, filling in the open spaces. The zagueiros also provide the best defensive and offensive options on set pieces due to their size, which like any center back tends to be on the larger side. One other characteristic typical of the best Brazilian center backs is the ability to knife through opposing midfields with ball on foot. Lucio (Bayern Munich) and Alex (PSV Eindhoven) are currently two of the best in that respect.

Zaguieros can be found in all the major European leagues. Two teams in particular, Olympique Lyonnais and Bayer Leverkusen (Juan and Roque Junior), rely on Brazilians to anchor the back line. Cláudio Caçapa, the side's captain, and Cris, undoubtedly one of the best kept secrets in football, are so effective they allow for the offense-oriented play the French champions utilized under former coach Paul Le Guen.

The back line is rounded out with the left and right wing backs. While not necessarily unique to Brazil, the wingback (lateral in the local Portuguese) is the defining characteristic of the traditional Brazilian formation. The wingback is the key player on the flanks as he is solely responsible for both the offense and defense on a given byline. The resulting amount of running, stamina and fitness required for this position are incredible, to say the least; consider the playing styles of Cafu, Roberto Carlos, or Belletti, (MLS fans, Frankie Hedjuk's running and overall hustle on the right flank for Columbus) as examples. Each pushes into the attack with a fervor matched only by their ability to recover an effective defensive position after the run forward. As a result of this uniquely versatile style, Brazilian wingers are in demand throughout the footballing world. Look no further than the Italian Serie A for proof, where Roma, Inter, AC Milan, and Lazio, to name a few, list them on their books.

While other South American countries employ wingbacks, Ecuador and Columbia, for example, it's the Brazilians who seem to have mastered the position. Quality wingers are churned out to the extent one would begin to suspect they're literally grown on trees somewhere in the Amazon rain forest. The position is a stark contrast to the typical full back in Europe who has some offensive responsibilities, but mainly holds the flanks, enabling the wide midfields to provide service to the forwards. In essence, the formations generally favored in Europe -- 4-4-2 and 4-5-1, which becomes a 4-3-3 in attack -- call for two men to perform the task for which the average Brazilian side can rely on one. The 3-5-2 formation is the closest in Europe to this mindset and coincidentally is the system currently in favor with Jose Peckerman, coach of Argentina's national side.

Dedicating just two wingbacks to the flanks leaves room for additional players in the midfield, the most crucial area of the pitch, the area where the game is won or lost. Brazil rarely concedes the midfield battle, the 3-1 slump in Buenos Aires being an obvious exception. Four players, an attacking player, a holder, and two utility midfielders compose the typical Brazil midfield.

The holding midfielder (volante) in the Brazilian system situates himself as a buffer between the rest of the midfield and the two center backs. In some systems, namely those employing three in the back, he will actually play as a third center back with another midfielder assuming what would otherwise be the holding slot. The holder must have a high soccer IQ in order to perform the role effectively as an ability to read and react to the opposition's passing movements is paramount to the interception of counter attacks and the constant harassing of opponents in possession. In fact, it's often this player who switches the point of attack laterally - his main offensive responsibility is providing an outlet for teammates. Emerson of Juventus and Arsenal's Gilberto Silva are two of the current Brazilian national side's holders. Each player's adeptness in smothering a counter attack before it fans to life has cemented their slot on the Seleção (the Brazilian national side).

Gilberto's nickname, "the Invisible Wall", speaks to his defensive prowess and hints at the player's predilection for halting offensive movements without fouling opponents, or, in most cases, actually touching the ball. In fact, it's often said the less the holder's name is called the better the game he's having. For an MLS example, Shalrie Joseph of the Revolution is a solid comparison in spite of his far more physical defensive approach. Anyone who's played against the Grenadan battler could hardly accuse him of invisibility. They'd more likely compare him to Dunga, former Seleção hardman and captain.

With the volante and zaguieros committed almost exclusively to defending, the midfield is then able to commit an additional man to attack. This midfielder typically dons the renowned ten shirt, which has become synonymous with playmaking round the footballing world. Ronaldinho, Kaká, and reigning Bundesliga player of the year, Marcelinho (Hertha Berlin), are all examples of the Brazilian number ten. While each has his own style, they are all the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for their respective sides. This player can function as a third forward, tucked in behind two strikers, or as a more traditional midfielder, pulling the strings from a deeper-lying position.

Generally speaking, the number ten is the most technically astute player for his side. He is responsible for making his teammates better: directing traffic, recognizing and rewarding runs -- essentially, unlocking the opposing defense. Felipe (Internacional) or Diego (FC Porto) -- for someone closer to home, Claudio Reyna -- are examples of the classic ten shirt, players who distribute, setting up while rarely scoring goals themselves. Ronaldinho and company are of the new breed, a hybrid combining the playmaker and goal scorer a la Samba great and current Olympiakos man Rivaldo.

The Seleção, due to the vast talent pool at its disposal, at present employs the 2-4-2-2 with two attacking midfielders, Kaká and Ronaldinho, and two volantes, usually Emerson and Gilberto. Of late Zé Roberto (Bayern Munich) has paired with Emerson. Carlos Alberto Pereira's wisdom in fielding the two attack-minded players together whenever possible has met little criticism, and rightly so. This is an instance where the system has been modified to accommodate talent, rather than the typical mistake of modifying the talent to fit within a given scheme (in the vein of once-vaunted Dutch coach Louis van Gaal). This type of flexibility is only part of the reason Pereira has established himself as what essentially amounts to the default selection for national team coach.

Club sides in Brazil tend to favor the more traditional 2-3-2-1-2 system, utilizing one attacking midfielder and one volante. Under this scheme, the remaining midfielders (meias) function in a more traditional role, occupying the area just left and right of center for both offensive and defensive purposes. These are the true two-way players of their side as both offensive and defensive acumen are at a premium for the position. To use an example, they function in much the same manner as Cesc Fábregas or Patrick Vieira (formerly) for English side Arsenal, clogging the midfield, shutting down passing lanes, while getting the ball to and providing support for the attackers (atacantes).

As far as striking, no difference here from the rest of the world, except the anticipated elevated skill level. Typically, Brazilians rely on guile rather than brute force to unlock defenses. A target man isn't a necessity for this style of play, but with the emergence of players the like of Adriano (Inter Milan) and Fabrício Carvalho (São Caetano), it probably won't be long before they're incorporated to a greater extent. However, one has only to look at Ronaldo for an example of the prototypical Brazilian striker. The majority of his strikes leave his boots, not his head. His diagonal running unsettles defenders and leads to many of his goals. It's his running, rather than the poaching style associated with many other South American nations that's to note there. Creativity and one-on-one ability (at a sprint for Seleção members) are the order of the day.

Eleven players working in unison to maintain possession -- running off the ball, switching, providing passing angles, etc.-- can be a very beautiful sight indeed in this often otherwise disjointed world. In the case of Brazil, eleven highly skilled athletes of the first order strive toward, and often achieve, that very end. Maybe its the flash of illusive unity in the passing movements, or the idea of eleven players of individual brilliance melding into a cohesive unit, that attracts so many to see the men in canary wherever they travel. Maybe that's why so many unaware of the sport in this country are familiar with Brazilian dominance of the world game. Perhaps, this is why the game is known as the beautiful game in the land of the Samba. Then again, maybe people everywhere like to see flashy soccer.

Jim Kopcak is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. He covers European and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet and currently lives and works in Providence, RI. He can be reached at JimKopcak@hotmail.com