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Brazil: The New Italy

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June 24th, 2010 was a great day for soccer. For on this hallowed day tiny Slovakia -- a small eastern European country with an otherwise insignificant soccer history -- defeated the mighty and evil Italians. The ignominious 3-2 defeat knocked the Azzurri out of the World Cup at the Group Stage for the first time since 1974. Although Slovakia took all the glory, the victory was one the world could rejoice in because it meant that Italy, the defending champions of the World Cup, would no longer subject the world to their cynical brand of soccer.

And it was good.

There remained just one small problem. While Italy is done and dusted at the World Cup, their dreadful style of catenaccio football lives on. In what can only be described as a nightmare to the average soccer fan, Brazil has drastically altered their strategy and now carries the banner for defensive, ugly soccer.

What is already a soccer tragedy of the highest order is made even worse by the fact that these ersatz Brazilians look like favorites to end the tournament as Champions. Nothing could be worse for the great game of soccer than for the country of Brazil, which practically invented artistic and rhythmic soccer, to win the World Cup trophy playing counter-punching soccer.

It wasn't always like this for Brazil. Starting in the 1994 World Cup, Brazil made it to three consecutive World Cup championship games playing poetic and exciting football. Unlike today's Brazilian team, which is built from the back up, the Selecao of yesterday were structured around their forwards. Brilliant strikers like Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario and Bebeto carried Brazil to two titles (1994 and 2002) and one second place finish (1998).

It all changed for Brazil in 2006, when an offensively talented Brazilian team staggered through the tournament before losing to France in the quarterfinals. A potentially potent strike force of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka and Adriano failed to materialize, and as a result Brazil stumbled to worst performance at a World Cup since 1990. It was a national disaster of epic proportions for the soccer-mad country and drastic measures were taken. Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 championship, was ousted and replaced by Dunga, a former national team defender who captained the 1994 team. A tenacious defender, Dunga immediately overhauled the Brazilian team, scrapping the offense-first strategy of his predecessor and implementing a lamentably defensive counter-attacking system.

Brazil is still armed with talented attackers, such as Kaka and Robinho, but those players seem more like role players on a team built around defense. Dunga has given the captain's armband to central defender Lucio, and it is around this player that Brazil is built. The standard formation for Brazil is a 4-2-3-1. Two midfielders sit back and assist the defense, while the three high midfielders push forward on the counterattack and link up with the lone striker.

Brazil's offensively-minded players are usually employed by top club teams around the world, but of the four attacking players on Dunga's team, only Kaka can claim to earn a check from a first-tier European team (he plays for Real Madrid). Luis Fabiano, Brazil's striker, plays for second-rate Sevilla in Spain, while Elano and Robinho toil far away from the European limelight in Turkey and Brazil, respectively. Dunga chose to leave Ronaldinho at home, as the coach favors of more defensive and versatile players. Talent, it seems, is only a secondary concern to the coach, while an emphasis is placed on teamwork and two-way play.

The new Brazil was firmly on display in their 3-0 thrashing of outclassed Chile in the Round of 16. After Chile made a go of things early on, Brazil scored off a corner in the 34th minute. Prior to that first goal, they hadn't created much of anything offensively. Unfortunately, the game was essentially over once Brazil found the net. Chile pressed, trying to find an equalizing goal, and Brazil used their counterattack and ruthlessly exploited the exposed Chilean defense. Fabiano scored Brazil's second goal just four minutes after their first. Although there was more than 50 minutes left on the clock, Chile's time was up. Scoring two goals against Dunga's Brazil is simply not possible.

Up next for Dunga's team is a quarterfinal match against the Netherlands, which operate in a more offensively minded 4-2-3-1 formation than Brazil. The Dutch have struggled against defensive sides like Brazil (their history against Italy is torturous at best) and the Selecao are strong favorites to reach the semifinals. Make no mistake though, most soccer fans will be firmly rooting for the Dutch. Cheering on this Brazil team would be like rooting for Italy, and no neutral soccer would ever commit such a blasphemous act.

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