Thursday, December 22, 2011

Brazil Goes to the Map Room

My favorite movie is Raiders of the Lost Ark.  My parents dragged me to it when I was six years old.  I say "dragged" because I wanted to see Clash of the Titans instead.  Based on the picture of Indiana Jones in the newspaper wearing a Middle Eastern headdress,* I feared that the movie was going to be an extension of Sunday School, which I was already mature enough to find boring.  Two hours after being forced against my will to go into one of the theaters on 29 in Charlottesville, I came dancing out, convinced that I had seen the best movie in the history of the world.  Three decades later, I will admit that there might be other movies of superior technical quality, but no movie has surpassed Raiders as my favorite.

* - Showing a similar mentality, my five-year old described our neighbors' nativity scene as "Jews, a camel, and a donkey."

One of Raiders' best aspects is that it is stuffed to the gills with iconic scenes.  Indy running away from the boulder.  Indy's travels being tracked by a red line on a map.  Indy shooting the swordsman in the Cairo market.*  The Ark melting the faces of Toht and Dietrich.  The Ark being buried in a government warehouse along with who knows what.** 

* - If there is a better 30-second metaphor for colonialism, I'd like to see it. OK, maybe the fact that the locals cheer the Westerner who uses technology to defeat the skilled, but outdated native cuts against my conclusion, but leave me my attempt to find meaning in a pulp classic.  Also, it's interesting to me that two of the best scenes in George Lucas-affiliated movies - the swordsman scene in Raiders and the "I love you." "I know." scene in Empire Strikes Back - were both improvised by Harrison Ford.

** - The perfect metaphor for government waste.

For me, the best scene in the entire movie is the Map Room.  Indy takes his right-sized staff into the Map Room at the right time, waits for the sun to hit the right spot, and then looks on with amazement as a brilliant beam of light strikes the location of the Well of the Souls.

Two qualities make the scene.  The first is John Williams' score, as the Ark's theme rises to an inspiring crescendo.  The second is Harrison Ford's expression of wonder at the show of light.  The cynicism of a world-weary archaeologist with the weathered leather jacket and fedora - the guy who said earlier in the movie " I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about the boogie man" - melts away now that he realizes that he is in the presence of the ethereal.  Steven Spielberg's movies are often noted for the moment of realization that his protagonists have.  (Think about Roy Scheider's face in Jaws when he realizes the size of the shark he's hunting, or Liam Neeson's face when he finally realizes the extent of the Final Solution and its effect on children in Schindler's List.)  The definitive moment of realization is Indy in the Map Room as his face changes to a wide-eyed gape.

I had Indy's expression in mind when I read Tim Vickery's pieces about the lesson that Brazilians should take from the hiding that Santos took from Barcelona in Japan.  With the world title on the line, Santos brought in a team that had been strengthened after winning the Copa Libertadores and was led by two burgeoning stars: Neymar and Ganso.  With the Brazilian domestic league in good financial form after signing a lucrative TV deal and the currency doing well against the failing Euro, this seemed like the time for a Brazilian club side to show its strength against a European champion.  Instead, Barca won in embarrassingly comfortable fashion, breaking out to a 3-0 lead at the half and then coasting home.

Vickery, who has been preaching about the failings of modern Brazilian futebol for as long as I have been reading and listening to him, could have viewed the match as a confirmation of his hypothesis that Brazil has given up the ability to produce passing midfielders.  Here is what Vickery wrote for the BBC:
Like watching Muhammad Ali against some outgunned challenger, Barcelona's destruction of Santos was as joyful as it was clinical. Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi ran rings round Santos as if the Brazilians were traffic cones in a training exercise.
According to the dominant current of thought in Brazil in recent years, this sort of thing is not supposed to happen. The physical evolution of the game, it was thought, had made it impossible. In this modern football of reduced space, the central midfielders need to be six-footers, big and strong enough to win the 50-50 balls and protect the defence.

And there was no point in possession football - a move with more than seven passes had a reduced chance of ending up in a goal. The way to win was to block the middle and look for quick counter attacks and set-pieces.

And the quality of the play? "If you want to see a spectacle," says Santos coach Muricy Ramalho, "then go to the theatre." Or maybe go to watch his side taken apart in such style by Barcelona.

In football the idea comes first. And the line of thinking helps explain the type of players produced. In Neymar Santos could count on a Messi equivalent. But where is the Xavi or the Iniesta? Brazilian football no longer has them because it is not looking to produce them. They do not fit the mould.
And here is his similar description for ESPN:

Sunday's match was not decided by a financial imbalance. It was the imposition of one footballing philosophy over another, a victory for the skilful little guys with the low centre of gravity, a triumph for the spectacle and self-expression of pass and move - a win like many that South American football has enjoyed in its glorious history.

The value of defeat is always in the lessons that it can teach. Perhaps the big lesson that Barcelona have taught in Yokohama is this: if Brazilian football wants to keep on winning not only titles but also hearts then it would be well advised to get back in touch with elements of its own tradition. There is an argument against the view that possession football is outdated and that the central midfielders should be unimaginative giants. Its case was made loud and clear in Japan this Sunday.
If Spain's triumph and Brazil's failure in South Africa was not evidence enough, Sunday's result in Yokohama should be Brazil's trip to the Map Room.  It should be enough to convince the cynics who have led Brazil astray ever since the beautiful 1982 iteration to the Selecao - led by Zico, Falcao, and the late Socrates - was upset by Italy (ironically enough, in Barcelona at Espanyol's old ground) that technical ability in the central midfield is more important than brawn.*

* - As Jack Lang of Snap Kaka Pop was marveling at Thiago - Barca's latest midfield prodigy and the son of a former Brazil international - and expressing regret that Thiago has declared for Spain instead of Brazil, I was tempted to respond with "maybe he didn't want to become a fullback."

To come back to this blog's favorite topic, the Map Room analogy has me thinking about similar episodes in college football, instances where one striking result caused an epiphany from a team or a conference.  These are the examples that came to mind, but I am all ears for more:

1.  After getting his tail kicked in by Florida State and Miami in a series of Orange and Fiesta Bowls, Tom Osborne decides that he needs defensive players who can run.  He recruits Texas and California more heavily, thus producing the dominant team that won national titles in 1994, 1995, and 1997.

2.  After a favored Ohio State team gets obliterated by Florida in the 2006 national championship game, the Big Ten moves towards the spread offense.  Ohio State shows a run-based spread with Terrelle Pryor, Penn State deploys the "Spread HD," and Michigan hires Rich Rodriguez. 

3.  After Danny Wuerrfel is beaten to a pulp by Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in November 1996, Steve Spurrier relents on his long-standing opposition to the shotgun.  The Gators bury the Noles in the rematch and the 'gun is a feature of Spurrier's offense from that point forward.

4. After the SEC was dominated in the 1980s by conservative, run-the-ball-and-play-defense coaches like Vince Dooley and Pat Dye, Spurrier arrives in 1990, destroys a highly-rated Auburn team in 1990 48-7, wins the Gators' first SEC title in 1991, and then sets himself on a path of destruction through the conference.  The rest of the SEC enters the Map Room and emerges with the David Cutcliffe offense at Tennessee, the Air Raid at Kentucky, and the quasi-spread run by Terry Bowden and featuring Dameyune Craig at Auburn.



Nate said...

1) Obviously I'm not as informed as Vickory, but I'm finding the lessons Barcelona offers on how to play less and less compelling these days. It's like the joke about economists ("First, assume a can-opener...): assume you have some quick, skilled, expert passers like Xavi and Iniesta, and then you can match Barcelona!

With other players, it's not the same. Madrid have what should be pretty darn close with Ozil and Alonso being some of the best passers in the world, and they can't keep up. Arsenal last year brought the Cesc-Nasri-Wilshire trio, and they were dominated.

No one seems to know how to cope with Barcelona. It's become crytal clear that Inter Milan were simply lucky, and that Mourinho holds no magic key to unlock them. They are a special team, and while they can be shocked here and there in a single game, doing so consistently is nigh impossible in the near future.

2) How come there are no Brazilian teams employing these small passing midfielders? Did some memo go around requiring all coaches to fall in? Seems like it shouldn't have taken a trip to Japan for Santos to encounter some decent midfield passing.

chg said...

Let me FTFY.

"After getting his tail kicked in by Florida State and Miami in a series of Orange and Fiesta Bowls, Tom Osborne decides that he needs to sacrifice his principles to keep criminals on the field. He recruits Texas and California more heavily, thus producing the dominant team that won national titles in 1994, 1995, and 1997."

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