Brazil Wants Its Soccer Team Back

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Marcelo Sayao / EPA

Brazilian Julio Baptista (L) of Spanish Real Madrid vies for the ball with Argentinean Lionel Messi (R) of Spanish Barcelona FC during their FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 South American qualifying match, June 18, 2008.

Futebol, or soccer, has for a half century been the very heartbeat of Brazilian national pride as generation after generation of exquisitely talented players has donned the national team's canary-yellow jersey and showed the world how the "beautiful game" should be played. And Europe's elite leagues have long honored Brazil's contribution to the game by bringing dozens of Brazilian players to star in their top teams. But Brazil may have been a victim of its own success: Today, the national team is struggling, and the resultant crisis in national pride has enraged everyone from the fans in the cheap seats to President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva.

Just 15 minutes into Brazil's recent World Cup qualifying match with Ecuador, when the teams had yet to find their feet and their rhythm, the fans at Rio's legendary Maracanã stadium were calling for the head of Dunga, the single name used by the former team captain who now serves as its coach. Brazil eventually awoke from their sluggishness and scored five goals without reply, and the fans were singing again — but the truce was temporary. A few months later, as Brazil faced its arch-rival Argentina in a 0-0 draw, the coach was again in the fans' cross hairs. "Cheerio, Dunga," they roared, as Brazil struggled to put the ball in the net. "Donkey, donkey, donkey," they chanted, before doing the unthinkable — loudly cheering their opponent's best player, Lionel Messi.

That Dunga is the scapegoat for Brazil's bad run of form is hardly surprising in a country that one of his predecessors once described as having 180 million coaches. But the players he chooses are also coming in for flak in a controversy that has raised the question of just what it means to be Brazilian. Many fans believe that when Brazilian players make it big and are signed to play for major European professional teams, they lose their identity and national pride. (Indeed, there are currently more than ten other countries, ranging from Spain and Portugal to Croatia, Poland and Japan, that have awarded citizenship to Brazilian pros in order to field them in their national soccer teams.) Players earning millions of dollars abroad on their pro teams don't have the same passion for representing the national team as do those that stay close to home, runs the conventional wisdom. "If you look at the Brazilian team there isn't one player who plays in Brazil," President Lula complained bitterly after the Argentina game. "Today, a young player's dream isn't to play for Brazil, it's to play in Europe."

Europe, of course, is where most of the money in international pro soccer is concentrated, which is why the best players from throughout the world tend to earn their wages there. Still, for the President and many other fans, the answer to restoring national pride lies with selecting more home-based players in the Brazil team, the theory being that those closer to home have a greater desire to represent their country than those earning pounds and Euros. Finding such player may be a tough prospect, however, because so many Brazilian players are lured overseas at increasingly young ages: last year, alone, 1,085 Brazilian players were signed by foreign pro teams.

But such is the disillusion with the national team that the suggestion has sparked intense interest. Lance!, the country's biggest selling sports newspaper, has proposed that at least half of the Brazil team should be made up of home-based stars. "We often don't even know some of the players called up to the Brazil squad, and often those that are act like they are doing us a favor," the paper wrote in a front-page editorial. "Today, a player is more likely to get called up if he plays in the Ukraine than if he plays for São Paulo or Flamengo."

The idea of giving preference to home-based players is not new, but it is unworkable, and most people know it. In fact, it was tried in 1990, when coach Paulo Roberto Falcao picked only Brazil-based players for his first five games in charge. The team never won a match — and scored just one goal — prompting Falcao to quickly abandoned the idea. Today, such a strategy has even less chance of success given the rate at which Brazil's international-class players are snapped up by foreign sides. A team of home-based players would struggle against even mediocre European nations, and no coach in his right mind believes that even the most outstanding player from Palmeiras or Corinthians is fit to lace the boots of Kaka or Ronaldinho, the most recent winners of the World Player of the Year award. Of the 11 players who started against Argentina last month, only one, Adriano, played for a Brazilian club, and he was there on loan from Internazionale of Milan.

Quixotic though it may be, the campaign for local lads does serve a greater purpose, explains Juca Kfouri, a well-known broadcaster and journalist. Since the Brazilian soccer federation sold the rights to organize friendly matches to a private sponsor, the team now plays as many games in Europe as in Brazil. And top players such as Kaka, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have recently put club before country, giving supporters little opportunity to see their national heroes up close. As a result, the historically tight bond between the ordinary fans in the stands and their idols on the pitch has snapped. "There's no link between the fans and the players any more," says Kfouri. "We want our team back. That's what this debate is about."

The irony is that Lula might have a point. Players who play for Brazil's cash-strapped and poorly run pro clubs probably do want to play for their country more than those in the foreign legion. The European-based players have to shlep themselves all the way across the Atlantic every couple of months to join the national squad for World Cup qualifiers against lesser teams like Peru and Bolivia — and even if they make the trip, they aren't even guaranteed a game for a talent-rich squad of 22 of which only 11 can play. And then, if Brazil doesn't demolish its opponent, their own fans assail them as mercenaries or playboys. (That said, the players could do themselves some favors by staying out of nightclubs and laying off the prostitutes.)

But while the young, home-based players are certainly hungrier than the European contingent are to represent their country, their motivation may not be entirely patriotic. Simply wearing the yellow shirt is enough to win them a contract from Europe that will set them up for life — even if it earns them the ire of the fans currently championing their cause.