By John Richards
I WAS going through Brazil’s World Cup squad for the upcoming tournament the other day and I couldn’t help feeling rather cheated and disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing lacking in terms of the exciting talent manager Felipe Scolari has chosen for his ‘Selecao’ but the familiarity of almost all the names he included robbed me of the sense of anticipation that has been the most exciting part of every World Cup I have followed since 1974.
Ramirez, Willian, Oscar, Luiz and Fernandinho are all wonderful players and I’m sure they will light up the tournament but, alas, they will hold no surprise. Anyone following the Premier League through modern day saturation TV coverage, already knows in depth their strengths and weaknesses. Anything they do in Sao Paolo and Fortaleza this summer will hold little or no surprises to the seasoned European fan. And the list goes on.
Hulk, Tiago Silva, Marcelo, Neymar may not be strutting their stuff in the Premier League but they do play for some of Europe’s top sides and in the Champions League, another overexposed competition that leaves very little to the imagination.
In fact, out of Brazil’s 23 man squad no less than 18 players earn a lavish living in Europe. Of the remaining five only reserve goalkeepers Jefferson and Victor hold some sort of mystery playing for Botafogo and Gremio in their native country, as the other three, Julio Cezar and strikers Jo and Fred have spent a sizeable chunk of their careers in Europe and so are not exactly unfamiliar to European audiences.
Now, contrast this with how I felt when I read in the Guardian Argentina’s 1978 World Cup squad back in my student days. I read, amongst others, names like Oswaldo Ardiles, Daniel Pasarella, Mario Kempes, Americo Gallego, Alberto Tarantini and Leopoldo Luque, names that I’d never heard before and meant absolutely nothing to me. Perhaps I should have heard of Kempes, the only player in that 23 man squad that plied his trade in Europe at the time (at Valencia in Spain), but he never got the exposure players get these days due to the limited TV coverage of the time and Valencia’s relative lack of success.
The other 22 players in the squad all played in the Argentine League and were virtual unknowns to the European footballing audience. And yet, reading those names at the time filled me with excitement and anticipation about what these exotic unknowns were going to serve up to the world footballing public during the World Cup.
And they duly delivered. A month later they were crowned world champions at the end of a very entertaining World Cup and had the whole footballing world waxing lyrical about Gallego’s footballing nous, Ardiles’ constant probing and Kempes’ heroic charges in the opposition penalty areas. Nobody, in Europe at least, knew what to expect from these unknown names but the anticipation and their marvellous performances made for a truly remarkable tournament. Most of the stars of this World Cup winning side joined a mass exodus to a host of European clubs just after the tournament with varying degrees of success.
Four years later in Spain, I experienced the same mix of anticipation and exhilaration, but this time it was with a Brazil side that, despite not winning the trophy, still ranks as one of the most exciting sides I have ever watched. This time it was the turn of names like Socrates, Junior, Falcao, Zico and Eder to turn the imagination into overdrive. Who are these people? Are they any good? Reading that Socrates was a fully qualified doctor added to the mystery and fascination. As in the case of Argentina four years earlier, only one of the 23 man squad was playing outside Brazil, Falcao at Roma, fuelling the mystery even further. They were undone in the end by the goal scoring brilliance of Paolo Rossi but not before they treated the world to several master classes of the beautiful game with some of the most scintillating displays ever seen at the World Cup. A marvellous tribute to the art of football.
So, who is going to provide the mystery and surprise in Brazil this summer? A difficult proposition when even the lesser footballing nations participating in this year’s tournament have players starring in top European clubs and are subject to blanket TV exposure and scrutiny.
I’m sure we will all be drooling over Dzeko, Modric or Arturo Vidal after the tournament is over, but I can’t help feeling that I would have enjoyed it more if they had been playing their league football in Bosnia, Croatia and Chile and no one had ever heard of them before. That’s what made the World Cup special for me and I’ll always long for it.
Then again you never know. When going over these squads I noticed names like Mejia and Tejeda playing league football for Atletico Nacional in Colombia and Sarpissa in Costa Rica. I know nothing about them and maybe these boys will come good and make me feel again as exhilarated as I was when I first saw Teofilo Cubillas weave his magic for Peru in Mexico 70.