The Exceptionality of Brazilian Football

Fernando Diniz na Seleção

You wake up, get up, go to work, pause for a minute on your way, then have lunch, and life goes on. You are always in motion and don’t know what will happen in the next second – it’s the time of the unexpected, the clash between expectation and reality. However, you get up and continue because you see meaning in the midst of chaos. This meaning is discovered through words.

Life is in motion, but language is identity. The word IS one thing, and it IS NOT another thing. Language saves us from the flow of time by giving identity (creation) to things. However, it does so without abandoning its fragility because a concept never exhausts the vitality of life and the unexpectedness of time.

You look at a tree and know that it IS a tree and NOT a shoe because it contains within it an idea of a tree translated into phonemes and syllables. The word mediates the relationship between the self and the object. However, the world’s movement continues. For example, the tree is – in potentiality – a chair or a pencil. Words are precarious because they operate on the logic of identity, but they weave meaning in the midst of chaos.

Football is flow because the next second is always the realm of the unexpected. Yet, we try to explain it, argue, give meaning to what is transient. Football is movement, but what we know of football is made by words (identity). What we call tactics is a way of communicating, an attempt to make sense of the chaos of the game.

Therefore, tactics are hermeneutics. It’s interpretation (hence, identity) of the flow of the game. Those who cannot handle a concept cannot build explanations; they merely reproduce sterile imitation. This is what we later call, in education, functional illiteracy: the reproduction of verbal norms without the ability to manipulate them.

I provided this preamble to introduce a series of responses regarding the misuse (intentional or due to unpreparedness) of the term ‘functional attack’ (or relationism). Most people who opine on the topic have not read the texts and reflections I have produced on Medium or in threads, but they are dealing with a precarious idea – poorly reflected upon – of its meaning.

MISTAKE 1: “THE CONCEPT DOESN’T EXIST.”

They say that if you present the word ‘dog’ to someone who claims ‘functional attack doesn’t exist,’ the person runs away in fear of being bitten. It makes no sense to say that a concept exists or doesn’t. A concept exists from the moment it is pronounced to try to make sense of the flow of existence. You can deny that it is a good explanation and try to deconstruct it. That’s what we call the history of ideas.

MISTAKE 2: “FUNCTIONAL MEANS WHAT IT WORKS.” 

Functional is the adjective corresponding to the adjective phrase ‘of function.’ Positional is the adjective corresponding to the phrase ‘of position.’ In terms like ‘functional autonomy,’ ‘functional right,’ ‘functional badge,’ and hundreds of others, the word ‘functional’ is an adjective that corresponds to the phrase ‘of function’ (the function being performed). No mistake is more accurate and anecdotal than a lack of preparedness in handling concepts.

MISTAKE 3: “POSITIONAL PLAY ALSO HAS FUNCTIONS.”

You watch a game, identify and say, “Walker performs the role of a “build-up fullback”, attacking through the inside rather than the up wide areas.” But then, Walker moves through the corridor, Sterling goes into the half-spaces, KDB ends up staying in the base of the play. Now, Walker is occupying a different zone in that play. In this type of game, what is fixed, what structures and gives meaning to offensive organization, is not the idea of function but spatial sectorization (position). The zones and tracks to be occupied are relatively fixed and determined, and the players’ positions in these zones vary. All of this is a tactic related to a training method, where its ESSENCE is in spatial sectorization.

In a game like Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo, you cannot determine pre-fixed and symmetrical zones, but you can understand the players’ movement based on the idea of function. For example: the full-back makes a defensive diagonal on the opposite side of the ball and attacks the channel on the ball side; the second midfielder starts from behind to provide the initial pass and then project to create support, mobility, and “staircases” to receive the ball ahead; the attacking duo has a complementary function like the full-backs, when one provides support to the ball, the other attempts a breaking run to receive the ball, etc. In all these cases, the essence of the movement is based on the idea of function related to the ball sector, not pre-fixed and symmetrical zones. The idea of function does not disappear in positional play. The idea of position does not disappear in functional play. All of this is a precarious way (language) to give identity to the chaos of the game, to interpret the MEANING, the SUBSTANCE of what coaches demand, train, rehearse, mediate between coaches and players.

In a style of play like Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo, you won’t be able to determine pre-established and symmetrical zones, but you can comprehend the movement of the players from the idea of function. For Example: the fullback does the defensive diagonal on the opposite side of the ball and the other attacks the corridor on the side of the ball; the “second midfielder” (number 8, Gerson) starts from the back to give the first pass and then projects himself to create support movements and “escadinhas” to receive the ball ahead; the attacking duo has the function to complement with the fullbacks, when one gives support on the ball zone, the other tries a break run behind the defense line, etc. In all these cases, the substance of the movement is based on the idea of function and its connected to the ball zone e not to pre-established and symmetrical zones. 

To have depth, symmetry in positional play is fundamental, creating width and space for movements within offensive zones through ball progression. To have depth, asymmetry in functional play is fundamental because moving forward to receive the ball is what creates “crossings” and “staircases” between players to receive the ball ahead. Attacking space is essential in football, but each offensive organization seeks to attack space differently. Many differences can be developed between typologies without exhausting human creativity to navigate between types.

MISTAKE 4: “DISTINCTION DOESN’T EXIST BECAUSE I CAN’T APPLY IT TO EVERYTHING”

Language is a precarious attempt to give meaning to the flow of time. Classifications are made so that we can understand the possibilities of the world at its extreme, at its limit. When we talk about charismatic power, we have obvious cases of charismatic power, obvious cases of power that are not charismatic, and an infinite variety of debates and combinations between propositions, even with the predominance of one or the other here or there. Guardiola himself is becoming increasingly heterodox in setting up zones without giving up his positional essence.

Classifying offensive organization in this way means opening up imagination to its possibilities. If no one had explained defensive organization through the general distinction between individual defense and zone defense, intermediate concepts like “long marks,” “zone with marks,” “short marks,” etc., would not have emerged. The division between “positional” and “functional” exists to open awareness to the field of possibilities of offensive organization, not to classify everything and everyone. As an archetype, we could mention Van Gaal’s Ajax as positional play and Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo as functional play.

My intention in constructing the concept of “functional attack” (or relationism) was to explain other traditions of play—different and equally virtuous in the face of positional play. I don’t care about the name you’ll give it. I explain why I call it functional. Each organization has its advantages and disadvantages. I’m glad that the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) has already internalized this idea in its courses under the title of “mobility play” (https://www.cbf.com.br/cbfacademy/pt-br/cursos/63-jogo-ofensivo-a-escola-brasileira-e-as-tendencias-inspiradas-nela).

MISTAKE 5: “I SAW IN A MANUAL THAT POSITIONAL ATTACK IS SOMETHING ELSE”

Words didn’t fall from the sky. Concepts are redefined and reconstructed. In fact, the history of the concept tells the social and human thought history. Manuals treat positional attack as offensive organization because the study of tactics coincides with the rise of positional play. I’ve mentioned thousands of times that Guardiola himself calls “positional attack” zone attack (making this correlation with zone defense). Between manuals and Guardiola, I prefer Guardiola. Positional is an adjective that qualifies the type of attack. I don’t see the point in calling offensive organization “position attack” or “positional attack” because it limits the variety of ways to organize for attacking in the history of the game. Positional is one of the ways.

MISTAKE 6: “THE HUNGARIAN TREATS FUNCTIONAL PLAY AS INNATE TO BRAZILIANS”

Anyone who has been a teacher knows that the mediation between the subject and the object of knowledge is elaborated in two layers of existence: a) the first layer is a blank sheet, in potential, where the subject is available for learning and change; b) the second layer is a nature internalized in each individual because people are not ready-made clay to be transformed into anything. In a class, you identify the variety of human behavior. There are the shy ones, the extroverts, those who have an innate facility with numbers, others who write well from an early age, others who are excellent communicators, etc. There are players who will not be better at positional play. It’s not a lack of time, but a characteristic. Guardiola didn’t need twelve years of teaching Ibrahimovic about positional play to conclude that the Swedish player’s style of play. We change many things throughout our lives; however, other things always remain.

MISTAKE 7: “THE HUNGARIAN SAID THAT YOU CAN’T WIN IN BRAZIL WITH POSITIONAL ATTACK.”

We’ve reached the most interesting point. I never said it wasn’t possible to win with positional attack. Brazil won the 2019 Copa America. Many clubs can win the Brasileirão with this style, or the Libertadores, or the Copa do Brasil, or the state championships. It’s not about that. I’m talking about something called EXCEPTIONALITY.

In general, the rule in sports is clear: developed countries have better results than underdeveloped countries. Due to money, training infrastructure, business structure, educational level, etc. If Germany and Nigeria have equal love for football, Germany tends to have better results and greater tradition because it is a developed country. Take the Olympic medal standings by quantity and see the clear correlation with the size of the economy. Of course, other factors are influential, so we have exceptions.

Brazil’s superb dominance in world football between 1958 and 2002 is an exception. Brazil won five World Cups in twelve, produced incomparable talents for decades, and didn’t win more tournaments due to discipline problems, physical preparation, and tactical details. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows the extent of the devotion to the Brazilian national team built overseas. Indians, Nigerians, Israelis, Palestinians, Algerians gather in front of the TV to support Brazilian football in the World Cup. Brazil was identified as the homeland of beautiful, well-played football, admired. Brazil, an underdeveloped country, competing against developed countries, created a dominance in the world’s most popular game through its titles, technique, creativity, and symbols.

Looking in perspective, only Argentina managed to maintain this track of exceptionality, as Eastern European countries fell alongside their economic, social, and political problems. The crisis in Brazilian football is not a crisis of results. We didn’t just lose championships; we lost the world’s admiration because we no longer have the most dazzling and creative players, and our game has become boring. But what made Brazil an exception? Why did an underdeveloped country dominate the world’s imagination in the most popular sport for decades?

HOW DID WE BUILD OUR EXCEPTIONALITY?

Brazil conquered the dominance of world football for a few reasons: street football, positive aspects of trickery, physical aspects of miscegenation. Street football – outside conventional language – created a game that escapes linearity, exploits the unexpected in its favor without trying to tame it. To attract and deceive has always been the logic of the Brazilian style.

The skill and technical dazzle were slowly learned by boys playing on the streets and away from institutions. The rule of the street ball game varied as much as it demanded creativity. Who teaches or explains how Nelinho struck the ball? Who teaches or explains how Zico spinned? Who teaches or explains the naturalness with which Pelé chipped, performed fantastic dribbles, nutmegs as if he were drinking water game after game? Who teaches and explains the pause, the indecipherable timing of Garrincha’s dribbling? Who teaches and explains the ball being providence for Romário in the penalty area, as it always ran to him? Who teaches and explains how Ronaldo could control the ball by hiding it between two feet when he started sprinting? None of this was learned by the players who symbolize our football in an institution, but were things they discovered in street games over time, with the maturation of their consciousness, their intuition, an intimate relationship between the individual, space, and time.

The position play can improve various of our players (like Marinho, for example). However, when we talk about Brazilian EXCEPTIONALITY, dominance, and admiration for Brazilian football, we are talking about specific players – our great players. Brazilian football created a way of playing and expressing itself. It drew from the sources of the Danube, the Portuguese, and other peoples, but digested, performed anthropophagy, and built its own sensitivity.

Football does not accept imposture. You cannot play well without being comfortable with yourself and others. Brazilian EXCEPTIONALITY (like Argentina’s) was the result of a virtuous mediation between the individual (and their being and culture) with the world, potentiated in a state of art.

HOW DID WE LOSE OUR EXCEPTIONALITY?

The first challenge was practical. With new technologies, boys play less on the street and more on their phones. With urbanization and the verticalization of big cities, pick-up fields and street games disappeared. With violence and the degradation of large cities, it became more dangerous to interact outside institutional meetings (school, clubs, etc.). Without street football, the development of our football suffered a lot.

The second challenge was cultural. We gave up reinventing street football with new perspectives and started sterilely imitating the new trends coming from Europe. All of this can be useful for winning championships at the youth or professional level, but it won’t bring Brazilian football back to the path of exceptionality.

The third challenge was social. We are a society in turmoil. The innocence of our great players’ game disappeared along with certain characteristics of Brazilian society.

The fourth challenge was technical and tactical. We went through a major transition at the youth level – and now at the professional level – towards a mirage of modernity. The point should not be to imitate positional play and rigidly sectorize our boys, but how can we recreate street football within the club’s institutional activities (training and methodology)? We should start from the premise that without street football, we are destined to lose to developed countries with the same love for the game as ours. Street football is the cornerstone of our exceptionality.

Brazilian football – what it symbolizes – will not be better than a developed country like Germany by sterilely imitating what they do well (vertical play, technical precision, strength, the touch-pass-shoot style, etc.). Brazilian football – what it symbolizes – will not be better than a developed country like Spain or the Netherlands by sterilely imitating what they do well. In this sense, I affirm that positional play may bring some good things to Brazilian football in general, but it will not maintain our exceptionality. We will improve, but we will be doomed – for a few generations – to be below European powers.

We should draw from all sources and learn from them. However, our exceptionality was not the result of sterile imitation but the virtuous construction of our culture and sensitivity through street football. No one can explain or reproduce that, but they can rebuild street football into activities that promote discovery.

REBUILDING STREET FOOTBALL?

The reduction in field sizes was a harsh blow to Brazilian and Argentine exceptionality. The dimensions of the field and the evolution of physical attributes allowed football to become almost a court game like basketball and handball. Limited space not only facilitates rationalization but also grants greater importance to physical imposition. You depend less on creativity and intuition and more on the consistency of executing technical gestures. A team can easily reach the goal today in four strong and precise first-touch passes, finished with a shot on goal. In this “robotic football,” attacks are becoming limited to lateral triangulations followed by an attack into the box with several players. It’s important to be aware that if the field dimensions were increased tomorrow, we would see a significant shift in tactical trends. This alone proves how the evolutionist discourse of the new commentators hides power relations. The field dimensions were fixed to create a game more connected to the numbness of the spectacle, the constant shocks of consciousness (just as one of the reasons for VAR is the spectacle, the wait, the frisson of the expectation of the decision, which creates another event during the game, another shock of events for the viewer’s consciousness) rather than the artisanal refinement (the importance of the detail that only intuition captures) that has always distinguished football from other sports.

I make this reflection because rebuilding street football is not an easy task. Not only because of the spaces but also because of the little artisanal characteristics of our society and the game today.

In recent years, I’ve seen four positive examples of rebuilding this style in Brazilian football:

I) Tite’s Brazilian National Team until the draw at Wembley with England: Why didn’t the 2019 Copa America champion Brazil (with some big wins) generate the same passion from the public that we saw with the national team during the qualifiers? Two friendlies after winning the Copa America, and we were already hearing unjust calls for the coach’s (Tite’s) dismissal. My thesis is that the Brazil of the qualifiers, with its functional, more mobile style, without total width in attack, generated greater identification from the public with what they were watching. The exquisite goal against Paraguay, with Neymar and Coutinho starting everything with a one-two and ending with Marcelo, Paulinho, and Renato Augusto moving in progression, around the ball, will be its ultimate symbol. I don’t see a coach insensitive to these points in his transition to a more positional game. Brazil has been playing in a more positional organization but gives more freedom (beyond offensive zones) to Neymar and Coutinho.

II) Renato Gaúcho’s Grêmio: More than veterans, Renato is a master at improving young players. Young players lack experience, but they also don’t carry the vices of existence. Renato has not only developed the technical aspects of his young players but sharpened their intuition in the process of self-discovery in the face of the game and the world. In particular, the midfielders can give meaning to their game through the support they provide to the ball sector (Arthur is very misunderstood in Europe because of this functional sensitivity to the game), and the forwards sense the play that will be built to position their bodies and start at the right time to receive.

III) Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo: Gather technically gifted players, each in their best role; enable an offensive organization with the appropriate methodology for it, and the result is a beautiful symphony. Jorge Jesus’ Flamengo didn’t need width to be deep; it just followed that old rule of Brazilian functional football: whoever asks, receives; whoever passes, has preference. Filipe Luis passes the ball and moves to receive. Gerson passes the ball and moves to receive. Arrascaeta passes the ball and moves to receive. The progression was so unexpected, fast, and creative that it was impossible to defend against when the players found the right rhythm between them. Jorge Jesus provided memorization and some mechanization to this functional style, without removing the priority of intuition. In other words, he did an impeccable job of adaptation without being archaic.

IV) Fernando Diniz, except for his work at Athletico: The São Paulo of Diniz still needs to transition and defend better, but its offensive organization is top-notch, not only in terms of trained and memorized mechanisms but also in developing the intuition of its players. I didn’t expect what I’m seeing in Brenner and Gabriel Sara. Players who are far from being geniuses but have developed a greater understanding of the team’s rhythm and individual players, and have started expressing themselves based on such specific aspects as technical gestures. They feel the game, the team’s development on the field, and know what they need to do and how to do it. Much of Brenner’s improvement in scoring is related to how he’s intuiting not only where to move but how to position his body according to the unfolding play. In several situations, he anticipates how the play will develop and positions himself instinctively to finish it well.

TEXT WRITTEN IN 2018

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