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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brazil to play Iran, Ukraine and Argentina in upcoming friendlies

The Confederation of Brazilian Soccer (CBF) recently confirmed two October friendlies for the Brazilian national team. The Selecao is scheduled to the play Iran and the Ukraine in the second week of October, and Argentina in November.

The friendly schedule is as follows:

Brazil v. Iran: Abu Dhabi, October 7, 2010
Brazil v. Ukraine: Pride Park, Derby, England, October 11, 2010
Brazil v. Argentina: Doha, Qatar, November 17, 2010

International friendlies such as these are vital for the Brazilian national team's preparation for the 2011 Copa America, 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2014 World Cup because, as hosts in 2014, Brazil is not required to participate in the grueling South American qualification process.

The matches offer a mouthwatering opportunity for Brazilian fans to see how coach Mano Menezes takes charge of the Selecao with a group of highly talented players such as Andre Santos, Dani Alves, Robinho, Carlos Eduardo and Philippe Coutinho who have yet to fully gel together within the national team.

Coach Mano Menezes has begun to assert his authority on the team as a relaxed but visionary leader committed to allowing players to express their creativity on the field. Well known as a football addict and student of the game who views multiple matches a week from several different leagues, Mano showcased the depth of his tactical understanding of the game and ability to field multiple formations on the pitch in his coaching debut against the USA in a way that suggestively recalled Mario Zagallo's ability to transform a 3-5-2 into a 5-3-2 with Brazil's great team of 1970. Of course, the current Selecao has a long way to go to come anywhere close to Pele, Jarizinho, Tostao, Gerson, Clodoaldo and company, but Mano's squad selections and performance against the USA suggests that samba soccer may have begun to return to the Brazilian national team for the first time since 1982. Brazil have never played Iran and the Ukraine so both of these matches will pose a keen test of Mano's tactical acumen and preparation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mano's Renovation Continues

Brazil coach Mano Menezes continued his radical restructuring of the Selection, better known as the Selecao, by dropping Santos teenage sensation Neymar from the national team for two international friendlies scheduled for October. Citing Neymar’s recent outburst at former Santos coach Dorival Junior, Mano noted the importance of defining the kind of professional conduct deemed acceptable for the national team. Neymar’s omission and Ganso’s knee injury pave the way for Carlos Eduardo and Philippe Coutinho to take charge of the offensive component of midfield alongside Robinho. Meanwhile, Mano’s squad continues to omit players from the World Cup 2010 such as Luis Fabiano, Maicon and Lucio in what many view as a refreshing “selection” that will be difficult to scout against given its youth and lack of a history of playing amongst one another. A close look at the roster reveals that Mano’s defensive back four is starting to take shape with Thiago Silva and David Luiz anchoring the center of midfield, and Andre Santos and Dani Alves taking the place of left and right back respectively. But the midfield and strike partnerships remain a revolving experiment both in terms of players and the precise formation that gets played on the pitch, even though Mano has historically favored either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1.

Squad for Brazil's October friendlies, with opponents TBD:

Goalkeepers: Victor (Grêmio), Jefferson (Botafogo), Neto (Atlético PR)
Fullbacks: Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Mariano (Fluminense), André Santos (Fenerbahçe), Adriano Correia (Barcelona)
Central Defenders: David Luiz (Benfica), Alex (Chelsea), Thiago Silva (Milan), Rever (Atlético MG)
Midfielders: Lucas (Liverpool), Ramires (Chelsea), Sandro (Tottenham),
Elias (Corinthians), Carlos Eduardo (Rubin Kazan), Philippe Coutinho (Inter Milan), Wesley (Werder Bremen), Giuliano (Internacional)
Forwards: Alexandre Pato (AC Milan), Robinho (AC Milan), André (Dynamo Kiev), Nilmar (Villarreal)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Deadly Striker Partnerships: Romario and Bebeto (Part 2 of 2)

“We understood each other really well, the moves came off naturally, I always seemed to know where he was on the pitch and he also always knew where to find me. It was perfect.”

--Bebeto on his strike partnership with Romario at the 1994 World Cup

It was the fourth of July, 1994. Brazil had drawn their lot against team USA, on the U.S.’s home soil at the Stanford Stadium, Stanford University in the second round of the World Cup. Even though the U.S. lacked the international experience of the Selecao, coach Carlos Alberto Parreira and the Brazilian team knew it would be a difficult match given the blistering heat, the fitness of the U.S. team, their keen competitive spirit and home field advantage. As the first half unfolded, the U.S. defended well and in numbers. To make matters more complicated for Brazil, key winger Leonardo uncharacteristically received a red card for an elbow to the face of Tab Ramos in the 43rd minute. But despite Leonardo's red card, Brazil quickly began to dominate possession and create high percentage goal scoring opportunities as the team surged forward in numbers down the center and through both flanks. In Bebeto's words, the team went from “strength to strength” following Leonardo’s dismissal and continued to create chances despite the U.S. tactic of defending in numbers and waiting for opportunities to counter-attack. In the second half, Romario dispatched several dangerous shots on goal that either narrowly missed the mark or were deftly denied by a posse of U.S. defenders. But in the 70th minute, Brazil finally broke the stalemate. Romario picked up the ball yards ahead of center circle and dribbled toward the penalty box, attracting a cluster of defenders in the process. He then proceeded to dish off the ball to Bebeto who was steaming down the right flank in a play that recalled Pele’s famous pass to Carlos Alberto in the fourth goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final. The sprinting Bebeto struck the ball past Tony Meola from a narrow angle to score the winning goal that would send Brazil into the quarter-finals against Holland.

Romario’s dish to Bebeto epitomized the beautiful understanding they developed and displayed throughout World Cup 1994. Brazil opened its scoring account against Russia with a Bebeto corner that Romario toe poked into the bottom right corner of the net. And in Brazil’s second group match against Roger Milla’s Cameroon, fans witnessed a similar interplay between Romario and Bebeto with Romario charging forward amidst a swarm of defenders toward the goal mouth, only to encounter a sliding goal keeper that deflected the ball away from Romario, leftwards into the path of the opportunistic Bebeto who made no mistake in putting the ball in the back of the net.

In the quarterfinals against Holland, it was Bebeto’s turn to assist Romario by steaming down the left flank on a counter-attack and crossing to his leaping strike partner, who timed his jump to perfection by volleying the ball home for a 1-0 lead. Ten minutes later, with 27 minutes remaining, Bebeto latched onto a magnificent through ball that split the Dutch defense, side-stepped the keeper and soundly dispatched the ball into the bottom right corner of the net. In one of the more memorable goal celebrations in soccer history, Bebeto approached the goal line and rocked his hands together in the motion of rocking a cradle in celebration of the birth of his son Mattheus of two days ago, the only child for whom he had been unable to be present at birth. Within seconds, Romario and Mazinho joined Bebeto in imitating the rock the cradle celebration. Any rumors of a rivalry or ill will between the two strikers quickly evaporated in the face of the glorious image of this deadly strike duo rocking the cradle to celebrate the birth of Bebeto’s child, the emerging World Cup champion Brazil and one of the deadliest strike duos in the history of international soccer.

In a post-tournament interview, Bebeto touchingly reflected on his partnership with Romario as follows:

“The partnership with Romario brought great results for the Seleção. We won everything together; we had a really good understanding. Look, in football there's always the possibility of disagreements between players, but there was none of that between us. On the contrary, we understood each other really well, the moves came off naturally, I always seemed to know where he was on the pitch and he also always knew where to find me. It was perfect. However, it would be very unfair to mention only Romario. We were the strikers and scored almost all of the goals, but it would be unfair of me to ignore Taffarel, Jorginho, Aldair, Marcio Santos, Leonardo, Zinho, Dunga, Mazinho and Mauro Silva. The entire group was crucial to winning that title. Romario and I wouldn't have achieved what we did without the help of the rest of the team. The same goes for all the rest of the delegation, from the kit-man to the masseuse. All of these people were important in helping Brazil get back to the summit of world football after a 24-year wait.”

Instinctively, Bebeto knew where Romario was and vice versa. Bebeto rightly gives credit to all of the other members of the team in bringing about Brazil’s 1994 World Cup victory. Dunga, for example, played more than a few killer passes to the pair of strikers and orchestrated attacks while commanding an almost impenetrable midfield. At the same time, Bebeto’s remarks hint at a certain “perfection” between his understanding with Romario that Brazilian soccer has yet to witness again, even in the face of such illustrious pairings as Rivaldo and Ronaldo or even Romario and Ronaldo. Given the increasingly common 4-3-2-1 formation used in modern soccer, it will be interesting to see if Mano Menezes and the Selecao of 2014—or any international team, for that matter—can resurrect a strike partnership with power and precision comparable to the deadly strikeforce of Romario and Bebeto.

Sources cited:
Bebeto's FIFA Interview

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Deadly Striker Partnerships: Romario and Bebeto (Part 1 of 2)

The evolution of modern soccer increasingly features a 4-3-2-1 formation marked by 4 defenders, 3 midfielders, 2 wingers and a sole target striker. Brazil used this formation at the World Cup 2010 with Kaka and Robinho playing behind Luis Fabiano. World Champions Spain similarly relied on a 4-3-2-1 formation in the World Cup final match as it became clear that Fernando Torres was struggling to find his form. In the final against the Netherlands, Vincent Del Bosque positioned David Villa as the lone striker behind Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro. Argentina’s Maradona fielded a 4-3-2-1 with Messi and Tevez behind Higuain while Germany opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Ozil, Muller and Podolski behind Miroslav Klose.

Even at the club level, the 4-3-2-1 formation is increasingly supplanting the traditional 4-4-2 formation that we see most commonly in the British Premier League. AC Milan now features Ibrahimovic in front of Ronaldinho and either Inzaghi, Pato or Robinho, while Inter Milan typically plays a 4-3-2-1 with Samuel Eto and Wesley Sneijder playing deep behind Diego Milito.

All this is to say that memorable strike partnerships, as we used to know them, are increasingly rare in modern soccer. Some of the more deadly strike partnerships in recent memory include the following:

Club teams

Drogba and Anelka: Chelsea, 2009-2010
Morientes and Raul: Real Madrid, 1998-2002
Del Piero and Inzaghi: Juventus, 1997-1998
Rush and Dalglish: Liverpool, 1982-1983

National teams

Rivaldo and Ronaldo: Brazil, 1998-2002
Zamorano and Salas: Chile, 1997-2002
Romario and Ronaldo: Brazil, 1995-1998
Romario and Bebeto: Brazil, 1993-1994

But Romario and Bebeto are, without any question, the most accomplished and lethal strike partnership soccer has witnessed in the last 20 years. Within the tiny space of 3 group matches at World Cup 1994, they created the stage on which World Cup 1994 revolved despite rumors of rivalry and ill will that involved their confrontations in Spain's La Liga. Romario scored 30 goals for Barcelona in 1993-1994 in comparison to the 29 scored by Bebeto for Deportiva La Coruna the season before. Prior to the 1994 World Cup, Romario famously called a press conference prior to Brazil’s departing flight to the U.S. in which he insisted he would not sit next to Bebeto on the plane. And it was Romario who nicknamed Bebeto “crybaby” for his tendency to pout to referees after calls had not gone as Bebeto had wished. But as the World Cup unfolded, like lovers, Romario and Bebeto displayed both an inherent and cultivated understanding of their partner’s moods, position on the pitch and likely mode of play in any given situation.

For more on Romario and Bebeto, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game. Deadly Striker Partnerships: Romario and Bebeto (Part 2 of 2)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Maradona Interested in Carlos Queiroz's former position as Portugal coach

Diego Maradona has emerged as one of the leading candidates for the position of coach of the Portuguese national football team after Carlos Queiroz was fired on Thursday September 9, 2010. Alejandro Mancuso, one of Argentina’s assistants during Maradona’s tenure as coach, confirmed Maradona’s interest in the position, noting that he would be delighted to coach Cristiano Ronaldo and a slew of other highly talented Portuguese players who failed to find their form for the national team. Maradona has yet to be contacted by the Portuguese Football Federation but is considered the strongest candidate amongst a trio of Latin American coaches including Argentine Jose Pekerman and former Mexico coach Jose Aguirre. Meanwhile, Real Madrid coach and Portuguese national Jose Mourinho has backed the candidacy of former Sporting Lisbon coach Paulo Bento, who is widely considered the front-runner for the position given his in depth knowledge of Portuguese football and the national team. Former coach Carlos Queiroz was fired after Portugal’s dismal start to Euro 2012 qualifying with a 4-4 home draw to Cyprus and a 1-0 loss to Norway. Queiroz’s departure was hastened by a six month ban imposed on him by Portugal's anti-doping agency for obstructing drug testers at a pre-World Cup training camp.

For more on Diego Maradona, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: Maradona: "Tell Fidel I Love Him"

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Robinho Debuts for AC Milan in the Rossoneri's Shock 2-0 Loss to Cesena

Silvio Berlusconi's decision to sign Robinho from Manchester City for AC Milan at the 11th hour of the transfer window may well have inadvertently done Mano Menezes and Brazil's Selecao a huge favor. By allowing Robinho to play alongside compatriots Ronaldinho and Alexander Pato, Berlusconi's surprise move enables Robinho to garner much needed experience playing alongside Rossoneri star Pato, the 20 year old sensation who is likely to shoulder the weight of the Brazilian number 9 jersey. What role will Robinho play at the Rossoneri given its surfeit of attacking talent, now featuring recent acquisitions Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kevin Prince Boateng? Is Robinho likely to warm the bench and trade places with Ronaldinho as a left sided winger? Or will coach Massimiliano Allegri play all of Berlusconi's cards by featuring an ultra-attacking formation 4-2-3-1 formation with Ronaldinho, Pato and Robinho sitting behind Ibrahimovic in the role of the target man and lone pure striker?

Rumor out of Milan has it that it’s unlikely we’ll rarely see the quartet of Dinho, Robinho, Pato and Ibrahimovic on the field at the same time, since 4 strikers would leave room for only 2 midfielders. And the Rossoneri is bursting with quality midfielders such as Massimo Ambrosini, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf, Mathieu Flamini and Kevin Prince Boateng. In AC Milan’s 4-0 victory against Lecce on August 29, Massimiliano Allegri retained former coach Leonardo’s 4-3-3 formation but opted for a tighter 4-3-3 that more closely resembled Milan under Arrigo Sacchi, with the midfield and attacking trios clustered more tightly in the central channel of the pitch in a formation that leaves less room for Seedorf and Ambrosini to stray from their original positions and expose room for attacking full backs from the opposition.

Ibrahimovic and Robinho debuted today in AC Milan’s shock 2-0 loss to freshly promoted Cesena. Robinho came on for Ronaldinho in the 56th minute but failed to impress as the Rossoneri encountered a frustrating night featuring a missed Ibrahimovic penalty in the 86th minute and 2 goals by Alexander Pato that were disallowed. Coach Massimiliano Allegri called for more hard work and sacrifice from the entire team and stressed the need for forwards to track back in defense.

Allegri remarked: "This loss will only help us, because it shows that games need to be won on the pitch, with sacrifice," he said. "It doesn't matter how many champions you have."

Robinho may do well to learn from Allegri's advice and follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Ronaldo, who claimed he learned to defend only when he came to Italy and "suffer for a result", as the famous Italian football phrase goes.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor: Nicknames in Brazilian Football (Part 2)

The Hulk
Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as the Hulk because of the green suit he wore for Tokyo Verdy, in the J-League in Japan. Also nicknamed the Hulk for his physiognomic and bodily resemblance to the Marvel comic hero, The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk lived up to his name by losing his temper and assaulting a match steward in December 2009, incurring a 4 month suspension for his club team Porto in the process.

The Beast
Júlio César Baptista who currently plays for AS Roma as an attacking midfielder. Was used by Dunga as a replacement for Kaka in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Member of the 2010 World Cup team in South Africa. Known as The Beast for his strength and instinctive ability to find his footing amidst a tangle of defenders.

The Emperor
Adriano Leite Ribeiro, better known as Adriano, is an AS Roma striker for known for his physical strength. Nicknamed the Emperor for the way his power and strength commands submission from defenders. Member of the 2006 World Cup attacking quartet composed of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and himself.

The King
Pele. Winner of the World Cup for Brazil in 1958, 1962 and 1970. The most complete player in the history of football. Scored over 1000 goals in his professional career, including 77 goals for the Brazilian national team. Known as the King because he widely believed to be the ruler amongst all football greats.

The Phenomenon
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, better known as Ronaldo, is the greatest pure striker of all time. At his peak in 1996 and 1997, Ronaldo averaged a goal a game and was virtually unstoppable by even the most disciplined defenders. Known for coming back deep into the center of midfield and running at the center of defenses with awesome speed, strength and dribbling ability. Nicknamed the phenomenon because he created a phenomenon in the world of football unseen since Diego Maradona. Two time World Cup winner in 1994 and 2002. Owns the record for the number of World Cup goals at 15. Scored 8 goals in Brazil's 2002 World Cup victory in Japan.

Mozart
Mozart Santos Batista Júnior, better known as Mozart, is a defensive midfielder for the Italian football club Livorno. Plays both a defensive and attacking midfield role. Known as Mozart for dictating the tempo of the game and orchestrating lethal counterattacks from a deep midfield position.

The Grave Digger
Jenílson Ângelo de Souza, better known as Júnior, played for Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, scoring one goal in Brazil’s 5-2 rout of Costa Rica in the group stages. Currently plays for Goias in Brazilian Serie A. Called the grave digger because he supplemented his income as a grave digger when he thought he was not going to make it in professional football. Junior is also known to have dug a grave for many a defender in Brazil with his dribbling skills on the left side of the field.

Tostao (the Little Coin/Penny)
Eduardo Gonçalves de Andrade. Brazilian striker and key member of the great team of 1970. Known as the little coin for his ability to turn through and around defenders. Scored 2 goals in Brazil's victorious 1970 World Cup campaign in Mexico.

The Goose
Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima, commonly known as Ganso, is an attacking midfielder for Santos who recently suffered a torn ACL injury. Expected to play a key role in Brazil’s 2014 line-up in the attacking part of central midfield. Tagged by Socrates as the most gifted player in Brazil. Nicknamed the goose for his lanky gait and uncanny ability to shuffle by defenders.

The Animal
Edmundo Alves de Souza Neto, better known as Edmundo, is a retired Brazilian player who won the Campeanato Brasileiro Serie A for Vasco da Gama in 1997 with 29 goals in one season. Played on the 1998 World Cup team in France as a substitute striker. Called the animal for his volatile temper and habit of picking up red cards for rough play.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor: Nicknames in Brazilian Football (Part 1)

Nicknames are part of the culture of Brazilian football more so than in other countries. The origins of calling Brazilian soccer players by a nickname instead of their given name remains somewhat of a historical and anthropological mystery. Many sports journalists argue that nicknaming enables Brazilian fans to connect to their players with a greater intensity of connection than through their given names. In a football culture that prizes individuality more than teamwork, nicknames enable Brazilian fans to enjoy a more focused form of admiration or idolatry with respect to their favorite players because fans are on a first name, friendship level basis with their players. That said, the practice of nicknaming in Brazil pertains not only to football, but all spheres of life in Brazil more generally. President Lula Inacio Lula da Silvo is globally known as Lula, for example. Similarly, in Brazilian corporate circles, it is common to refer to your boss by either a nickname or Mr./Ms. followed by a first name or a nickname.

Part of the popularity of the use of one name to refer to a person may simply involve the reality that Brazilian names often feature four names: two first names (one of which is usually the name of a saint), the mother's last name and the father's last name. One name is easier to deal with than four. And then are there other, more elaborate explanations of nicknaming amongst Brazil: that the gentry began playing the sport in the 1920s and 1930s, and when the aristocracy discovered its popularity, they wanted to play too, albeit without being identified with the gentry, thereby adopting one name that enabled them to preserve their anonymity. The practice spread to the gentry itself and eventually, almost all Brazilian football players took one name or, minimally, a transformation of their given name. Another explanation attributes nicknaming to the history of slavery in Brazil and its convention of referring to slaves by either their first name or their first name followed by the region in Africa from which they were imported.

In the context of Brazilian football, nicknaming occurs at two levels insofar as almost every player has a nickname of a certain kind.

The first level is simply a transformation of a player's given name into something else. Pele, Tostao, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka are all nicknames, for example, admittedly, of different kinds and variations. In his autobiography, Pele claims not to know from where his nickname originated, although some scholars associate it with his childhood mispronunciation of his favorite goalkeeper, Bile. Kaka is the name coined by his younger brother Digao, for Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, as a result of his inability to pronounce his brother's name "Ricardo".

For more on the history of nicknames in Brazilian football, see Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos.

Part 2 features a particularly evocative selection of nicknames in the world of Brazilian football. The names in this selection titillate the imagination and create a bond between the fan and the player rooted in the fan's experience, outside of soccer, with names such as The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor. The bold text in Part 2 denotes the nickname while the description that follows tells something about the player.

For specific examples of colorful nicknames in Brazilian football, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor: Nicknames in Brazilian Football (Part 2)