The World Cup has finally started and, for some Brazil players, representing their national team may prove a welcome break from the day job. Manager Tite included 12 players from the Premier League in his 26-man squad – second only to England – and 22 in total from European clubs. Brazilian players have increasingly made home in Europe but their style is not always feted. At least once a month this season a young, skilful Brazilian has been criticised for doing what they do best: entertaining fans, expressing themselves and exhibiting their art.
Most recently, it was Antony’s turn to suffer a media pile-on in his adopted home. The São Paulo product was one of new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag’s marquee signings in the summer. The Dutchman convinced the club to pay Ajax £82m – an Eredivisie record – for the 22-year-old. The forward has enjoyed a strong start in England, setting a record as the first United player to score in his first three Premier League games. He was generally well received by fans and the media. Until he did the unthinkable and tried to pull off a trick during a 3-0 win over Sheriff in the Europa League.
Former United player Paul Scholes called the youngster a “clown” after he span 720 degrees with the ball glued to his feet and then misplaced a forward pass. “That’s the way he plays,” said Scholes. “I’ve seen him do it many a time at Ajax as well and that’s just the way he is, but I think he needs that knocking out of him.” Robbie Savage called Antony “embarrassing”, adding: “If I was the manager and he did that again, I would drag him off.”
Savage’s wish was granted when Ten Hag replaced Antony with Marcus Rashford at half-time. The manager said after the match that he would “correct” his player, explaining: “When there is a trick like that, it’s nice as long as it’s functional. If you’re not losing the ball, then it’s OK – but if it’s a trick because of a trick, then I will correct him.”
Antony, meanwhile, was defiant. “We’re known for our art and I’m not going to stop doing what got me where I am,” he said on Instagram.
The hugely popular Brazilian football pundit Paulo Vinicius Coelho sees both sides of the argument. “Like everything in the world, there’s reason in the middle of it,” says Coelho. “Brazil still sees football as if it were a team sport won by individuals when it is increasingly a collective game that is resolved by collective aspects. From this point of view, the English are correct and Paul Scholes was right to criticise him. Dribbling and tricks need to have an objective.
“There is also a certain contempt in Europe for the dribble, as if it wasn’t a beautiful thing. I think there’s an exaggeration in Brazil about the aesthetics of the dribble and an exaggeration in some parts of Europe in the contempt there is for these aesthetics. But there’s a place in the middle of this. Dribbling and tricks are some of the beauties of football, but they need to lead to a chance or a goal. From this last point of view, Antony can improve how he uses tricks – tricks that aren’t to promote himself but to advance his own team.”
If footballers face a battle between aesthetics and results, Brazilians have always tended to be more artful than pragmatic. But their choices have not always been appreciated in Europe. When Tottenham Hotspur forward Richarlison indulged in a few keepy-ups against Nottingham Forest earlier this season, Forest manager Steve Cooper was appalled, saying: “I wouldn’t want my players to do what Richarlison did. It wouldn’t be accepted here.”
Vinicius Jr has also been criticised for doing the samba after he scores for Real Madrid, which leads to the question of just how much these Brazilian players are appreciated in Europe. Why buy skilful Brazilian wingers for their craft and then chide them for doing skilful Brazilian winger things? Would they even bother leaving home if – and this is a big if – they weren’t guaranteed higher wages and the chance to play in the Champions League? Would staying in Brazil be more fulfilling than moving to Europe, being chastised for entertaining and made to play in rigid, mechanical systems that offer little room for creativity.
Moments like Antony’s are no longer allowed to pass by fleetingly, raising a smile from supporters. They are scrutinised to their limit by commentators and pundits, and used by rival fans to attack players. This feels like something new. Players such as Ronaldinho and Garrincha, artists with the ball, were lauded for their skills. Not everything they tried came off. Zico and Sócrates wowed the planet at the 1982 World Cup, but would they be branded show ponies today for crashing out of the tournament before the semi-finals?
As Neymar said last year when his Brazil teammate Lucas Paquetá was booked for attempting a rainbow flick while playing for Lyon against Troyes – something that Neymar himself has been cautioned for in Ligue 1 – “joga bonito is over”.
Perhaps the World Cup will give Brazilians a chance to be themselves and charm a generation of fans who have become obsessed with results over aesthetics. Maybe the current crop of players, who refined their art on muddy pitches and concrete favela courts, can win over hearts and minds by winning a sixth World Cup – and doing it in style.