I would like to kindly introduce Mario, he is a reader and commenter on the blog who decided to email me with an idea. His idea was to use his Brazilian background to help shed some light on the issues surrounding the risk of signing a Brazilian player, their transition to Europe, and ultimately their value to AC Milan. This piece will run for the rest of the week in four parts so enjoy.
Before I tackle the question of discipline among modern players, it is first necessary to understand why Brazil has historically overlooked defending prior to the evolution of the modern game. I, like many other soccer fans, strongly believe that national styles of play are greatly influenced by the culture of their respective countries. Stereotypes such as “Germans are efficient,” “Italians are very tactical and bend the rules (furbizia),” and “South Americans are tricky” are more often then not based in truth. Therefore, to understand Brazil’s infatuation with dribbling, flicks, and the attacking side of the game, one needs to look no farther than the country’s culture. Brazilian’s are generally very happy, energetic people. This attitude shines through in many Brazilian traditions and arts. Search google for Brazilian art, and the pieces you will see are brilliantly colored and display a relaxed, almost cartoonish style of composition. Take a step further and look at the fast-paced, rhythmic dance of the samba, and what you will see is an expression of joy through the movements of the body, the sounds of the music, and the colorful costumes displayed in performances, parades, and larger events such as Carnaval.
Once you understand Brazilian culture and traditions, it is very easy to see where the fluid play, and encouragement of individual skill and creativity comes from. The average fan in Brazil cares more for a player’s ability to twist, turn, and “dance” on the ball than for his placement, tackling, and defending. From a young age, Brazilian players are taught how to dribble, how to nurture and love the ball, and how to move with it. Those who do not do this well become defenders, or god forbid, goalies. A young Brazilian defender’s dream is to play as a striker and score, and so they continue to practice the dribble, the pass, and sometimes overlook defending in the hopes that they will become good enough to eventually play further up the pitch. After reading his autobiography, I learned that even Pele as a young child was made to play as a goalie. He would try to play with the older boys, and so they would put him in the goal since he was small and young, which led to his desire to develop his touch and dribbling skills to an inhuman level in order to prove them wrong.
Before players are old enough to play for a club’s youth team, they often play in a soccer school. After regular school time is over, they go to the soccer school and spend 2-3 hours a day being taught soccer. Once they are old enough to try out for a team, they leave the school.. In the 2 years I played for a soccer school, I was a first hand witness to this philosophy that those who are not good enough attackers become defenders. Beating opponents on the run has never been my forte, and so I was played as a right back. I, like all other defenders on my team, dreamed of becoming skilled enough to maybe one day be a right mid, and eventually a striker. During practices, the focus was always on the attackers. They would be coached on how to break through defenses, and we (defenders) would be thrown out on the pitch and told to take the ball from them; instructions never really went further than that. Occasionally, we would receive some advice in the form of a tired Brazilian expression- “em jogo de campionato, chuta a bola pro mato.” In english- “in a championship game, kick the ball to the woods.” Those were our instructions. Get the ball back, and if you can’t pass or dribble, just kick the ball as hard as you can and let the attackers take care of everything else. Meanwhile, they were taught how to make runs, how to find combination plays, and how to trick defenders.
Once you make it onto a club’s youth team, you are finally taught how to defend. For the longest time however, this was too little too late, and helps explain why up until recent times Brazil has never been known for its defense. This lack of focus on defense inevitably leads to the reason why Brazilian players lack defensive discipline. Instead of working on defending, Brazilians are more interested in working on feints and tricks, defenders included. This also explains why Brazilian defenders are almost as good at said feints and tricks as their attacking players. A disclaimer: I realize that today Brazilian defenders are some of the best of the world, but even so, you can still see in all of them a tendency to try and do to much on the attacking side of the ball or make as many runs forward as possible (Lucio, Dani Alves, Maicon, etc.).
It is a well known fact in human development and psychology that praise is a much better way to nurture skills and abilities than criticism. So why should a young Brazilian player work hard on defense and learning to defend if they receive little praise for being a good tackler and a lot of criticism for getting beat on the run? It is only natural that any young boy hoping to one day be a famous soccer player (which in Brazil, means all of them) will therefore gravitate to working much harder to beat players, dribble, and create space as they know they will receive 10 times more praise for being good at that. It is for this reason that aside from true defenders (center backs, outside backs, etc) many Brazilian midfielders and strikers have very poor defensive discipline. Players like Gilberto Silva, Felipe Melo, and Dunga back in the day all receive constant criticism of being boring players as they play in a midfield role but prefer to focus on the defensive side of the game. Why would anyone want to work their entire life towards playing a role that they will receive constant criticism for, no matter how much they excel at it and how much it is needed for team balance?
Now that I have reasoned, to the best of my abilities, why Brazilian players work a lot harder on the offensive side of the game than the defensive, I will try to explain why in modern times they have garnered a reputation of not only being undisciplined defenders, but also of being undisciplined behaviorally in the next post. As always, direct any questions my way in the comments section and I will try to answer everyone I can.