Manuel Luiz de Lopera, the then president of Real Betis (a Seville based football club that plays in the Spanish La Liga) had famously kneeled on his knees for a full hour and prayed at Los Salesianos de la Trinidad church in Seville before signing on the dotted line. He was, after all, making the biggest decision in his club’s history. The year was 1998 and Real Betis had paid a whopping 21 million pounds to Sao Paolo for a then world record transfer fee to get Denilson de Oliviera, or popularly known as just Denilson to play for the club.
Denilson, arguably the greatest winger on the right to have come out of Brazil since the bow-footed Garrincha in the 1950’s was considered as a magician at Sao Paolo for his breath-taking dribbling skills. His left foot was virtually a human magnet to which a football would stick and never came unglued no matter what tricks the defenders tried.
A few months after the Real Betis signing, Denilson was expected to be a star at France 98 for World Champions Brazil. As fate would have it, a conservative minded Brazilian coach, Mario Zhagalo, simply never deployed Denilson in the tournament and relied heavily on the famous R-trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. Denilson never flowered after the 1998 World Cup and Real Betis lost all its wealth and power to be relegated to the Spanish second division.
That Denilson story is a precursor to what is happening to Latin American football in the 21st century. Europe is now heading for an unprecedented 4th successive World Cup victory tilting the balance overwhelmingly away from South America; in fact, of the last 8 world cups, Europe has won 6 while Brazil managed to win 2 in between. Latin American flair seems to be simply no match to European pace of football.
How are Brazil and Argentina reacting to this crisis? This is actually the dismaying part. Tactically, most South American coaches are now just poor imitators of their European counterparts trying to induce as much pace as possible and bring in defensive organization. This idea of defensive soccer with long balls and crosses simply goes against the very philosophy of Latin American football. For instance, Tite, the Brazilian coach in the current world cup learnt his lessons in Europe and tried to bring defensive organization to his team with disastrous consequences. Similarly, Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentinian coach tried to bring in a form of Bielsista system wherein the wingers are expected to run for their lives and share both defensive and offensive burden equally which left Argentina completely clueless against Kylian Mbappe’s blistering sprinter like pace in the round of 16 match against France.
Ever since that master tactician Marcelo Bielsa created the back-3 Bielsista footballing revolution with a high defensive line, Argentinian football has suffered immensely because fast running football is not in the Latin American DNA. Yes, Pep Guardiola, arguably the best (and most famous) disciple of Bielsista philosophy has been immensely successful at Barcelona and elsewhere in the European club scene, but that is mostly because of strong European players at the wings combined with attackers from South America. Whenever coaches like Jorge Sampoili or Coco Besile or (to a lesser extent) Jose Peckerman have tried to apply this same high defensive line to the Argentine national teams, the results have invariably been calamitous.
The irony really lies in the fact that this battle between pace and slowness should have been won decisively by one man at the start of the new millennium, but fate and bad tactical (read as coaching) decisions altered the history of the game. Ask any unbiased footballing pundit as to who was the greatest mid-field general to have walked a footballing pitch in the last two decades and mostly the answer would be unanimous. No, not Xavi or Iniesta or even a fading Zidane, but the greatest mid-fielder (of the last 2 decades) was a virtually trophy-less Argentine genius known as Juan Román Requelme. A classic number 10, he mastered the act of “Pausa” that beautiful way of pausing fast moving game in the midfield and creating magic out of thin air.
For instance, who can forget the 2006 world cup when Argentina with artistically brilliant football had peaked with a 6-0 drubbing of Serbia, a match in which one of the finest team goals ever was scored with a breathtaking record of 24 passes woven together by the master puppeteer Requelme. And then there was the 2007 Copa America where Requelme’s midfield control of pace and Messi’s creativity had shown the world that this glorious game of football can still be so much fun to watch. But alas, Requelme never achieved true greatness and shall remain an unheralded genius mostly because of silly coaching decisions like Peckerman replacing him in the 72nd minute against a struggling German team in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup or Maradona never even naming him in his squad for the 2010 edition due to personal differences.
To be sure, Latin American soccer is not dying purely because of coaching/tactical misadventures, the malaise goes much deeper. European clubs have all the moolah and there is hardly any money in Argentina or Brazil. Great clubs like Boca Juniors and Sao Paolo are now reduced to being just grooming grounds for young new talents whom the richer European clubs want to harvest at the right time. Most money is in producing strikers for the tough European competitions, so most South American clubs want to cash in as quickly as possible by harvesting as many fast attacking players as possible. The middle is literally empty. Once great midfield play of South American variety, home to such greats as Maradona, Socrates, Garrincha etc. now hardly produces any talents there. The shortage is so acute that Lionel Messi, arguably the most gifted player of this generation, had to play a role of a midfielder and playmaker in the last 3 world cups instead of playing the role of a “false 9” (which he plays so perfectly in Barcelona) simply because Argentina haven’t had a midfielder worth mentioning since Requelme.
If you were a kid born in the 70’s or even early 80’s India you would still remember how your Mamas and Chachas (uncles) would ride on their Atlas cycles over the weekend with a hockey stick attached to their backseat carriers. Before Kapil Dev won the Cricket world cup in 1983, field hockey was India’s most loved mass sport. We produced some of the greatest magicians in that sport who won us a whopping 8 Olympic Gold Medals. While Pele was winning 3 world cups for Brazil in the 50’s and 60’s, Udham Singh was winning 3 gold medals for India. In the 30’s, Dhyan Chand was a wizard whose hockey stick was constantly checked for magnets because the ball simply remained glued to it no matter how many dribbles did he create.
Then, suddenly in the 80’s, field hockey died as synthetic artificial turf was introduced and the beautiful dribbling game gained European pace, long passing and penalty corner conversion tactics. Ever since then, India has struggled to produce great hockey players (with the possible exception of Dhanraj Pillai) because we are trying hard to adapt and imitate the European style.
Football today is in a similar quandary as Europe is trying to gobble up Latin American flair. The solution to this problem is not imitating European pace through organized defense but to bring back the free flowing attacking football. Can Latin America embrace her core philosophy of flair, slowness and individual skills to reinvent the glorious game? Maybe it is already too late, for the Gotterdammerung on the football pitch may have already become a reality.