08 May 2024, 10:52

Is Brazil still the land of football?

SAO PAULO, May 8, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - With its famed "jogo bonito" (beautiful
game), iconic stars and record five World Cup titles, Brazil has long been
known as the "land of football".

But is it still?

The country of Pele, Garrincha and Ronaldinho, which once wowed the world
with its "samba" style, has not won the World Cup since 2002. Nor has it
produced a Ballon d'Or winner since Kaka in 2007.

With the "Selecao" currently struggling to book its place at the 2026 World
Cup, many in Brazil and beyond wonder why.

"We're at a low point. We used to have more top-quality athletes," the late
Pele's eldest son, Edinho, told AFP recently.

Even President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has joined the national soul-
searching, admitting Brazil "doesn't play the greatest football in the world

So what happened?

- Disappearing pitches -
One answer could be the decline of street football, where some of Brazil's
all-time greats started out, such as Rivellino, Zico and Romario.

"Nobody plays in the street anymore. You don't hear stories about that kick
that broke somebody's window," said amateur footballer Lauro Nascimento, his
jersey stained with orange mud after playing on one of the few dirt pitches
left on Sao Paulo's north side.

Nascimento, a 52-year-old finance professional who plays for local side
Aurora, broke several toes playing football barefoot as a boy.

Today, the district of Vila Aurora is covered in concrete sprawl. Two
buildings stand on what was once a field used as a football pitch.

"Any open space used to be enough for kids to get their start in football.
Now, they're seen as prime development real estate," said sports historian
Aira Bonfim.

Nascimento and his friends pay $160 a month to rent the battered scrap of
land where they play matches, but that kind of money is a barrier for working
class families.

To access a pitch today, poor kids in Brazil often depend on school, social
programs or a football academy.

Just one in five such academies is free, according to a 2021 study.

And many of those pitches are synthetic, a surface some say develops players'
technique less than the rough, rocky fields of yesteryear.

- 'Mechanical' style -

The decline in time spent playing the sport has had "a giant impact on our
football", said researcher Euler Victor.

"We have a huge number of Brazilians playing in Europe but very few stars."

Brazil's latest great hope, Neymar, shone at Barcelona, but struggled to lead
the national team to championships in a career bogged down by controversy and

Brazilians now have their hopes pinned on 23-year-old Vinicius Junior and
young phenomenon Endrick, who is set to join Vinicius at Real Madrid when he
turns 18 in July.

Brazil is still the world's top exporter of footballers, but they are
bringing in less money.

According to FIFA figures, clubs paid $935.3 million in transfer fees for
2,375 Brazilian players last year, down nearly 20 percent from 2018, when the
number of players was smaller -- 1,753.

Part of the drop is because teams are paying less to hire free agents and
younger players.

But there is also a shortage of standout stars.

"Our technique has suffered," said Victor Hugo da Silva, a coach at
Flamengo's youth academy in Sao Goncalo, outside Rio de Janeiro.

"The playing style changed and that ended up taking away some of our
creativity. Our football used to be so joyful. Now it's become more

On a synthetic pitch, he trains seven to 10-year-olds dreaming of following
in the footsteps of Vinicius, the academy's most famous graduate.

The next generation still has football in its veins, but has "difficulties"
with training, a problem Da Silva attributes to their sedentary lifestyles
and "addiction" to screens.

Brazil, population 203 million, has more cell phones than people. More than
one-third of children aged five to 19 are overweight or obese, according to
the World Obesity Atlas.

Robson Zimerman, a talent scout for Sao Paulo club Corinthians, said emerging
footballers today face tougher conditions, including the ability to play
multiple positions and outsize expectations from family and the media.

"Before, they just had to worry about playing football," he said.

But Leila Pereira, president of cross-town rivals Palmeiras, the reigning
league champions, insists Brazil will never stop being the country of

Brazilian teams have claimed the past five Copa Libertadores South American
titles with Palmeiras claiming two of those.

The club is the cradle of Endrick -- whose sale to Real Madrid brought in a
reported $65 million with bonuses -- as well as rising prospects Estevao and
Luis Guilherme.

"I disagree with those who think (Brazilian players) have lost quality. Look
at the astronomical sums they bring in," said Pereira.

- Favela party -

For many people, Pereira, one of Brazil's wealthiest people, is the face of a
new brand of Brazilian football -- more like Europe's, with lavish salaries,
by South American standards, and expensive ticket prices.

"With the absurd salaries they pay the players, clubs have to raise ticket
prices, which excludes fans like me," said Flamengo supporter David Santos.

In 2019, he founded a fan club for Flamengo die-hards like himself from the
impoverished favelas.

From atop the hillside slum that overlooks the trendy beach neighborhoods of
Copacabana and Ipanema, they recreate the ambiance of the Maracana on match
days, decorating an old pitch with flags, grilling barbecue and belting out
chants as the match plays on a giant screen.

"The 'country of football' thing -- we're losing that," said 38-year-old
Vasco fan Pablo Igor.

"Football is what you see here. It's a game of the people. But street kids
like I was don't have access to it anymore."

  • Latest News
  • Most View