Ondrive with Sham Samaroo
Welcome to Doha! 32 nations are arriving in the beautiful kingdom of Qatar to vie for sport’s biggest prize – soccer’s World Cup.
In the game of soccer, the ball cannot be held and manipulated with the hand. It can only be controlled using the legs, head, body – somewhat like a dance with the ball being a delightful, yet slightly shy partner. Often a country’s culture flavours the dance. For Brazil, its balletic samba, “jogo bonito” – the beautiful game: a dance beholden to attack. Brazilians play soccer the way the once great West Indians played cricket – with sublime skill, passion, perfection, and panache. Both teams understood that their game is a sport, and like any sport, its purpose MUST be to entertain. In fact, to ask Brazilians to play defensive soccer is like asking cricket’s Rohan Kanhai to play for a draw!
Soccer generates an incredible degree of passion, more so perhaps than any other sport. For many, soccer is a welcome escape from the daily monotony; for the spiritually inclined, it’s a religion; and for the progressives, a capitalist ploy to control the working class. Still others see soccer as a bore – as 22 men kicking a ball. But, alas, to take such a view is to say that the Moonlight Sonata is just notes on a paper.
Samba soccer burst onto the international scene in the 30s with the breathtaking Brazilian Leonidas, affectionately known as the “Black Diamond”. Cricket’s equivalent was Panamanian-born George Headley aka the “Black Bradman”. Okay race theory Nazis, take a chill pill. But I digress. In the late 50s and 60s, though we had the GOAT, Pele (cricket’s analogy would be Gary Sobers), it was the flair, the dashing elegance of Pele’s teammate, Garrincha, the “little bird” that mesmerized the world. In fact, Garrincha’s signature play was his amazing footwork, often leaving the opposition dizzy with his brilliance before passing it on to a teammate for the mop up job, a la cricket’s Rohan Kanhai, the “little master”.
Soccer fans worldwide come to expect samba soccer from Brazil, and Brazilian fans are hardest to please. It is not enough for Brazil to win; they must win playing jogo bonito. The last time the world saw true samba soccer was in the 1980s: in Spain 1982, and Mexico 1986. Brazil did not win either of those two editions, but their effervescent style and delightful footwork are what we remember to this day. Who can forget the likes of Falcao, Doctor Socrates, Junior, Zico. The mere mention of such names still sends chills down the spine of every soccer fan. Oh that Junior!
Then came the 90s with unprecedented financing and sponsorship, and winning at all cost became more important than the game itself. Coaches bought into the theory of playing not to lose instead of to win. Though subtle, for soccer it’s a radical change that is taking the very heart and soul out of the beautiful game. This theory is founded on a defensive rather than an attacking mindset, and it goes something like this: if we do not give up a goal, then we cannot lose. God forbid that a player should try to be spontaneous or creative. Entertainment? Perish the thought. Today it’s the corporate approach. How dare the fans mix business with pleasure? Poor me, and I thought this was only a game – my sincerest apologies! In the 90s even the Brazilian coach, Lazaroni, began talking defense first. At Italy 1990 vice-captain Dunga boasted that there would be “no more jogo bonito”, that “this is the Brazil of sweat and sacrifice”. Say what? Pele was furious. He felt that Brazil had “betrayed their fans” and “would lose the moment they played a top team”. They did.
Will Qatar see a return to samba soccer? It’s very difficult for attacking teams when the opposition embraces a defensive mindset rather than a goal-scoring one. Here the first priority is no longer to score goals, but to stop your opponent from scoring. Attacking players, the ones who dazzle with artistry and flair, are fouled repeatedly, sometimes ferociously, and coaches have even glorified it with a name – the tactical foul. Tactical who? There is no such animal. A foul is a foul is a foul. In Qatar, Brazil’s coach Tite will employ a hybrid style of attack and defense in hopes of preserving Brazil’s attacking flair. With such awesome talent in Neymar, Pedro*, Marquinhos, Vinicius Jr., Paqueta, Casimiro, they might just pull it off. But they must keep their tempers in check and not lose the plot in the face of being deliberately fouled. As I shared with pal, Tony Ramcharan, if Venicius Jr. and company can curb their juvenile, showboating antics long enough to come to the big dance, it just might be party time in Qatar! Starboy seh: Ladies and gentlemen, put on your dancing shoes, here comes the Merrymen: Olé ole – olé olé. Me mind on soccer – Me soul on fire – Feeling hot, hot, hot. And Starboy aint chanting the weather in Doha!
* Brazil has still not named its team. Pedro, unknown in Europe, is an electrifying talent that plays for my fav club Flamingo.