Note: I have a lot of thoughts about Brazil’s insipid performance against Chile, but I think I’ll hold off writing an article about it until after the Venezuela match.  The way I see it, when two qualifiers occur in quick succession, they’re in many respects two halves of a whole story.  So I’ll wait until the second half unfolds before writing about it.  In the meantime…

This article is not about Lucas Lima.

It’s not about Oscar either. Nevertheless, you’ll see those two names more than any other as we discuss one of the largest impediments Brazil has to resuming its place as the dominant superpower in world football.

That impediment is this:

Domestic players have consistently failed to become consistent contributors to the national team

It gives me no pleasure to type that sentence, and some regulars who have a particular fondness and/or emotional investment in the Brasileirão may be scowling as they read it. Nevertheless, it’s true. Not since the 2002 World Cup has Brazil built a championship-caliber side with a domestic player in an important role.[1]

Brazil has sent teams filled largely with domestic-based players to major tournaments, of course. This was most notable at the 2011 Copa America, where Neymar (Santos), Ganso (Santos), Elano (Santos), and Fred (Fluminense) all played large roles. But those players were all flops to a greater or lesser degree.

This fact would be shocking to the great teams of yore. The 1970 team didn’t have a single player plying his trade abroad. The 1982 side only had one – Roma’s Falcao. Four years later, Falcao had returned to Brazil, but Junior and Edilson made the move across the water to Torino and Udinese respectively. This still doesn’t sound like very much, but it was a 50% growth-rate, and from then on, the Seleção would never be the same.

1990 saw an explosion of players moving overseas. Jorginho, Branco, Dunga, Careca, Alemao, Valdo, Silas, Romario, Mozer, Aldair, Muller all played in Europe. And it wasn’t just in Italy, which since the 1920s had been a prime destination for South American players seeking more consistent pay and better conditions.[2] Now it was Portugal, Netherlands, France, and Germany who were calling.

By 1994, the transformation was complete. Only 10 players earned their living from Brazilian clubs.[3]

The siren song of more money, more exposure, higher competition, and less volatile conditions has plundered the Brasileirão almost to the point of destitution. But an even bigger problem is the rampant corruption, complacency, and unwarranted arrogance that plague the Brazilian game. Players are at the mercy of violent crowds, victims of unpaid wages, and servants of an absurd schedule. Coaches are routinely turned into sacrificial lambs. Meanwhile, audiences are expected to maintain their enthusiasm and support in the face of escalating ticket prices and a diminishing spectacle.

The result is a league bereft of consistency, curiosity, or progress.[4] The result is a nation robbed of its best and brightest sons.

Oh, Brazil still produces talent. But that talent is almost always nabbed by Europe at an early age, then molded to fit European demands. This has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that Brazilians are, more than ever, accustomed to playing in a physical, up-tempo, reduced-space environment, under managers who put a premium on tactics. The disadvantages are that the best Brazilians don’t get to play together very often[5] and are often transformed into runners and tacklers instead of artists and technicians.[6]

But whatever the pros and cons, the hard truth is that Brazil can only win by fielding its strongest XI – and its strongest XI will always be based in Europe. But some eight-hundred players remain in the Brasileirão. That’s a huge pool of potential contributors, and the Seleção’s managers have not been shy about drawing from the well. But why is the well so often dry?

For that, let’s compare and contrast two Brazilian midfielders. One plays in Europe, the other in Brazil. One is considered a late-blooming up-and-comer, the other a young has-been (in some corners.) One is praised for his vision and technique, the other both praised and castigated for his work rate. Both are candidates to be Brazil’s central attacking midfielder; both are perhaps better candidates for the deep-lying playmaker role (though I’m rapidly losing confidence when it comes to the second player.) Neither has impressed much during recent call-ups; the first was merely average against Costa Rica and the USA, while the second was a complete, unmitigated disaster in Brazil’s recent qualifier versus Chile.

I’m talking, of course, about Lucas Lima and Oscar.

Lucas Lima

At age 25, Lucas Lima is being thrust into the spotlight at a relatively advanced age.[7] From what I can tell, he didn’t even receive his first senior-level cap until he was 22 years old, under the red auspices of Internacional. Regular first-team action was slow in coming, and it wasn’t until he was loaned to Sport Recife – a second division club at the time – that he began making a name for himself.

The following year, he signed a four-year deal with Santos. Since then he’s gone from squad member to first-choice starter to star, and has been heralded by many as just the sort of midfielder Brazil has been missing.

So what makes him so enticing?

In an article for ESPN, Tim Vickery described a match that pitted Santos against Flamengo. As Vickery tells it:

A month ago in the Maracanã, Santos were two goals down at half-time against Flamengo, and it could have been worse. At the interval, coach Dorival Junior made a change. Lucas Lima, who had flapped about to little effect in the opening 45 minutes, was withdrawn to a central midfield position. In the second half he ran the game, directing operations from deep, linking the side together, offering a threat to the opposing goal. Santos took control and hit back to draw 2-2, Lucas Lima set up the first goal and scored the other.

Vickery went on to explain how Brazilian midfielders have paled in comparison to the likes of Pirlo or Xavi – deep-lying playmakers who control the tempo of the game, and who have not been seen in a yellow shirt since at least Dunga, and more classically since Gerson. Lucas Lima isn’t quite at that level, Vickery opined, but his technical skill and intelligence makes him Brazil’s closest available approximation.

Make no mistake, Lucas is technically skilled and he’s most certainly intelligent. Actually, what strikes me most about Lucas is that he plays with almost no ego. He seems to delight in the simple sideways pass as much as the threaded thru-ball; is happier switching the ball from flank to flank than attempting to storm the castle himself; never sees the point in taking two touches when one will do. It’s a horrible cliché, but he’s the consummate team player. The kind of player others like to play with.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the skills he brings to the table. What’s immediately apparent is that he has a keen eye for space:

Lucas Lima gif 1

More importantly, he doesn’t just recognize when a teammate is in space. He also recognizes when a teammate has the opportunity to move into space. Anyone who has read my comments during a match has seen me rail and rant whenever all of Brazil’s passes are to a player’s feet. Those kinds of passes are usually necessary, of course, but they can slow down the tempo of the match to a crawl if you’re not careful. On the other hand, when you can pass the ball into space for a teammate to run onto, you can:

  1. Speed up the rhythm of the match
  2. Force the defense to stretch
  3. Enable your best attackers to get into 1v1 situations

To do this, midfielders have to play with their heads up; they have to spot opportunities quickly; and they have to be able to release the ball with a minimum amount of fuss, often with their first touch. This is perhaps where Lucas excels most for Santos. He’s the spark plug behind many a successful build-up or counter for just the reasons listed above.

Lucas Lima gif 2

Lucas Lima’s range of passing is very good too. As previously mentioned, he likes to switch the point of attack, pinging the ball from one flank to another. He did this successfully on several occasions during the last spate of friendlies.

When it comes to dribbling, Lucas is solid. He’s not particularly speedy, but that’s not a deal-breaker. After all, the likes of Xavi, Pirlo, and Xabi Alonso were never heralded for their pace. And the aforementioned Gerson rarely went anywhere he couldn’t get to at a walk. How you use the ball will always be more important than how fast you can run with it.[8]

Lucas’s dribbling skills are simple, unfettered, and successful largely for the same reason his passing is. His runs, when he makes them, are all predicated to identifying the space around a defender and then moving toward it first. This has the advantage of making him look both faster and more technically proficient than he actually is. To quote Johan Cruyff:

What is speed? The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, if I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster.

It should be clear by now that I like watching Lucas Lima. He’s the type of player I really admire; his style is the style I’ve tried to teach my sons. He’s the kind of player Brazil needs more of. I want him to succeed for the Seleção.

But I don’t think he will.

Let’s examine why by turning our attention to one Oscar dos Santos Emboaba Junior.

Oscar

By putting these two players in the same article, it may be inferred that I consider them similar players. In truth, I don’t, not really. Where Lucas Lima clearly sees himself as a hub for ball transit, and approaches the game with that philosophy in mind, Oscar is more the “help everywhere, do a little of everything” kind of player. (Or at least he used to be.)

Their careers really couldn’t be more different. Just as Lucas was beginning his career at Internacional, Oscar was leaving it…and he’s two years younger. At age 25, Lucas is just starting to make himself known to the wider world. At age 23, Oscar has played in over 150 games for Chelsea, has featured in an Olympics, a Confederations Cup, and a World Cup, and has played approximately twice the amount of first-division matches as Lucas. Despite his youth, Oscar seems like he’s been around forever. In fact, as Lucas is rising, it increasingly feels as if Oscar is already in decline.[9]

Whether he is or not is beyond the scope of this article. (This article isn’t about either Lucas or Oscar, remember?) The point is, the perception of Lucas is that he’s an exciting, rising new talent. But this perception, and the expectation that comes with it, neglects to mention the challenges Lucas will face.  Challenges just about every other domestic-based player has failed to overcome.

Let’s compare some pictures and some gifs:

Here’s a picture of Lucas receiving the ball.  What’s immediately apparent is how much room he has around him.

Domestic problem 1

That space continues…for exactly 6 seconds.  Seriously, I was able to make a 6-second gif of him being completely un-accosted as he saunters through the center circle.

Domestic problem gif 1

(To Lucas’s credit, after playing the pass at the end of this gif, he immediately runs forward to receive the return.  It’s a simple but intelligent decision.  But again, neither Lucas’s skills nor his intelligence is in question.)

Here’s the same play approximately 2 seconds later.  Lucas receives the return much further up the pitch…and once again, he’s got plenty of time and space on the ball to do that.

Domestic problem 2

It’s no secret, especially to the regulars on this site, that the Brasileirão is a slower-paced league with deep defensive lines. And while this fact is well-known, I do still believe it’s under-appreciated…especially by the Seleção’s managers.

I mentioned before that Lucas is excellent at identifying and exploiting space, whether passing or dribbling. But one of the reasons he’s so excellent is because there’s so much space to be exploited. When Lucas receives the ball, he has time to make a decision – often as many as several seconds. When Oscar receives the ball, he has much less. Even more important than the issue of time is the issue of space.[10] Lucas has space to receive the ball in dangerous areas; for Oscar, space is much harder to find.

Oscar gif 1

It’s always dangerous to compare two situations like this out of context, because it’s not like Oscar never has space.  But my point is that there is nothing uncharacteristic about either gif.  The Oscar gif is especially notable because it’s only .5 seconds longer than the Lucas gif.  In that amount of time, he receives the ball with defenders far closer around him, is closed down far quicker, is continuously hounded, and then dispossessed by an attacking player dropping back to defend.  In fact, even if Oscar had evaded that last challenge, he still would have had to contend with at least two other defenders only 2 or so yards away.

Here’s another example of what Lucas and Oscar face on a weekly basis:

Domestic problem gif 2Oscar gif 2

In the Lucas gif, look at the two defenders jogging meekly behind and alongside him…and the back-line that retreats rather than steps up.  Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.

Most crucial of all is that the recipients of Lucas’s silky passes often have plenty of space to receive the ball. The recipients of Oscar’s passes, by contrast, are set upon almost immediately…if the pass even reaches them.

Domestic problem gif 3Oscar gif 3

It’s a little hard to tell in these gifs, but in Oscar’s case, he finally receives the ball with time and space, and picks out almost the same angled pass that Lucas does.  The difference is that in Oscar’s case, his target’s marker was significantly closer than in Lucas’s.  Again, time and space is much reduced.

In Brazil, the distance between two opposing players is simply greater than it is in Europe. More damning for the Brasileirão is that the rate at which that gap closes is far slower and far less consistent than it is in Europe.  In Europe, the best players are trained to simply not let up, to make things tight and uncomfortable. To apply three more Cruyff-isms:

There is only one ball, so you need to have it.

That hunger for the ball is ingrained in the best European teams. It’s not in Brazil.

There’s only one moment in which you can arrive in time. If you’re not there, you’re either too early or too late.

I don’t see much evidence of this mindset in Brazil.

When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average … So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.

This quote is the especially important. In Europe, the best teams and the best players are simply more active in all phases of the game, even when – especially when – they don’t have the ball. This means that midfielders must play with greater focus, greater precision, and greater speed than their opponent if they are to be successful.

Brazil’s domestic-based players simply aren’t used to meeting those demands.

And there you have the reason why domestic-based players have consistently failed to contribute to the national team.[11]

It’s simply a different ball game.

International Play

The quality of international football isn’t as high as top-flight European football, but the style of international football is more similar to Europe’s than South America’s.  Space is greatly restricted. The tempo of play is higher. Physicality usually goes through the roof.

Time and time again, Brazil’s managers have selected domestic-based players who shined in the Brasileirão but proved unable to cope with the rigors of the international game. Here are just a few names from the last 5 years alone:

  • Paulinho
  • Jadson
  • Leandro Damião
  • Arouca
  • Elias
  • Jucilei
  • Diego Tardelli
  • Everton Ribeiro
  • Bruno Uvini
  • Ganso
  • Rever
  • Jean
  • Bernard
  • Jo
  • Fred
  • Henrique
  • Kleberson
  • Gilberto
  • Ralf
  • Kleber

This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but rather illustrative. As far as I can tell, Neymar is the only player in the past 10 years who was a consistent, key contributor while playing in Brazil who didn’t end up flopping. A few, like Leandro Damião and Fred, had their moments in the sun, but they often spent months out of the team, and their international careers ended badly.[12] You could make an argument that Elias is the exception…but do you really want to?

It’s important to understand that I’m not claiming these players were all bad. Some of them played well in patches; some may yet play well again.

I’m also not saying domestic players should be excluded from the Seleção. That would be ridiculous. One of the positives from Dunga’s first go-around is that he extended the national team’s net. You didn’t have to be playing in a Top 3 or even a Top 5 league to be a contributor; nor did you have to play for a famous club.

Here’s what I am saying:

If Lucas Lima and Renato Augusto (among others) play well in the upcoming qualifiers, it will be a surprise. Not because they’re bad players, but because all the evidence of recent history says otherwise.

If Lucas Lima and Renato Augusto (among others) fail to play well in the upcoming qualifiers, it will NOT be a surprise. Not because they’re bad players, but because they are quite simply unprepared and unaccustomed to the rigors of international football. It’s a different game.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that Lucas or Renato could play well against Venezuela, should they get the chance. It’s unlikely, but possible…especially as Venezuela is one of the easier opponents Brazil will face.[13] But what’s truly unlikely is that they will continue to play well. What’s more likely is that their brief moment in the sun, should they have one, will end in a few months, and they will never be called again. Because it’s happened to so many domestic players who have come before them.

For fans of Brazil, this is the great challenge of our time. That a country so big, with such a pedigree, boasts a league so inept at preparing players for its own national team.

In the long term, it quite simply can’t continue. Brazil will always be a competitor for the World Cup, but for her to return to her rightful place as the world’s dominant superpower, her league has to improve. There’s no alternative. Look at the world around us. The top leagues are Spain, Italy, Germany, England, and France. Four out of the last five World Cup winners are Germany, Spain, Italy, and France. Look at our own history. When Brazil ruled the world, its league was one of the best in the world.

We have to be able to draw from the well.

In the short term, Brazil’s managers must realize the disparity between the domestic game and the international game and act accordingly. Friendlies can still be used for experimentation, but for tournaments and competitive matches, precious roster spots and playing time must not be wasted on domestic players unless those players are either outrageously talented or have a desperately-needed skill that can’t be found anywhere else. Managers should be proactive at recognizing Brazil’s best up-and-coming talent, working with them to develop a career path that prepares them for the national team. And when domestic players are selected, managers must have realistic expectations for them. They must know ahead of time that just because a player performed well against the Coritibas and Chapecoenses of the world doesn’t mean they can replicate that performance on the grand stage.

A parting word on Lucas Lima

I’ve held up Lucas as the unfortunate embodiment of my argument even though this article, again, is not truly about him.  I’ve watched a lot of video on him over the past few weeks and have greatly enjoyed doing so.  I love his vision, love his simple intelligence, love his delicate passes.  (If he does succeed with Brazil, it will be because of that intelligence.)  His work rate is okay and he doesn’t just stand around, trying nothing but flicks and hollywood thru-balls.  There’s a certain class to his play.  I have reservations about him, of course: his lack of elite athleticism most of all, but also his movement, which isn’t bad but sometimes strikes me as directionless.  He wasn’t great against Costa Rica or the USA, but neither was he terrible. He might well excel in the coming days. I earnestly hope he does.

But even if he does, that won’t negate my overall argument. Domestic players have consistently failed to become consistent contributors to the national team.

It’s time for Brazil to address that problem.


 

[1] That would be Atletico Paranaense’s Kleberson who performed so effectively as Scolari’s spark plug in the knockout rounds. Other domestic players featured here and there, like Edilson and even a young Kaka, but they were merely bit players on the world’s grandest stage.

[2] The original draw was Italy’s stance on amateurism and surprising racial tolerance. While professionalism was officially banned, there were plenty of ways for players to get compensated. In South America, by contrast, professionalism was condemned by the elitist club owners, and black players derided and hated.

[3] To be fair, there were some important names among those 10: Branco, Mazinho, Cafu, and Zinho most notably.

[4] Ordem e Progresso indeed!

[5] You can’t tell me that you could ever replicate the 1958, ’70, or ’82 teams with a roster full of players scattered across the globe. You just can’t.

[6] To be clear, running and tackling are vital skills, and gone are the days our star players can afford to ignore them. But it’s a shame when those skills replace things like improvisation and a willingness to experiment and take risks.

[7] Though he’s still a baby compared to Oliveira

[8] Where pace truly is important: if your technique isn’t up to the standards of a Xavi, a Pirlo, or a Zidane, then pace is your saving grace. It allows you to get past your marker even if your close control or improvisational ability isn’t consistent. It’s one more reason I have a hard time seeing Lucas Lima succeed. His technique is good, but it’s not world class…and he doesn’t have the sheer pace to make up the difference.

[9] Coincidentally, I wrote that line before Oscar’s disastrous performance against Chile.

[10] When Einstein first postulated the concept of space-time, he thought he was writing about universal principles of physics. In reality, he was writing about football.

[11] You also have one possible reason why Lucas Lima’s trajectory appears to be going up, while Oscar’s is either flat or trending down. Oscar’s been terrible, but it’s simply not a level playing field.

[12] In the case of Fred, Jo, and Damião, you had 3 players who all scored important goals in big tournaments, but whose flaws were, in the grand scheme of things, simply too great to ignore.

[13] Of course, in CONMEBOL, no opponent is truly easy.