This article was first featured in Issue 5 of the Box To Box magazine on the 2002 World Cup with words by Joshua Law and accompanying illustration from Matheus Toscano (8bit Football).
The words ‘Brazil’ and ‘World Cup’ sit together beautifully, don’t they? Five times winners, always contenders. The Seleçáo haven’t missed a single edition of the tournament since its inception in 1930, the only nation that can boast such a record.
The words also conjure handsome images in the collective imagination; those startling yellow and green shirts skipping across our television screens with the grace and effortless synchronicity of a flock of birds ushering in the warmth of summer. Brazilian footballers are often compared to the country’s samba dancers, all swinging hips and mystifying footwork, the team a carnival parade of tricks, flicks and showmanship.
The adverts that surrounded the 2002 World Cup peddled this legend, selling millions of licensed products on the back of this pure, joyous, carefree style. And while it is true that Brazil has produced some of the most aesthetically pleasing teams ever to grace the planet, it is an image that is easy to overstate and that can lead to lazy stereotyping.
If you are under the impression that Brazilian players stroll into major tournaments off Copacabana beach, cocktail in hand, and that results are merely a by-product of extraordinary ability, you are sorely mistaken.
It is a country that values winning above all else. Brazilians will leave no stone unturned in search of victory. Even when they managed to produce scintillating sides replete with stunning individual talent, like those seen in 1958 and 1970, or the magnificent but ultimately unsuccessful 1982 team, there was always another, less glamorous part of the story. In terms of physical preparation and sports science Brazil were far ahead of the peloton for over fifty years, up to and including the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
In 1958, the year they claimed their first World title, Brazil took a full team of medical professionals to Sweden, including a doctor, a dentist and even a psychiatrist, something England didn’t try until 2014.
In 1970, the squad spent the four and half months leading up to the tournament training six or seven days a week in order to be ready for the physiological challenges posed by the burning Mexican summer heat and crippling altitude of the capital city.
When the samba football stereotype was put to Carlos Alberto, the captain of that victorious side, in a Guardian interview before the 2014 World Cup, he responded, “That’s always been bullshit. Yes, we are a football nation with a huge population and we have a naturally beautiful way of playing, but don’t think we don’t take it deadly seriously. Like in US sport, winning is everything here and we work hard at it.”
Go and watch Alberto’s fourth goal from the final of that tournament against Italy; the fruits of their painstaking preparations are clear. The Italian defenders, each tasked with man-marking a specific Brazilian player in a tactical decision that would seem bizarre today, look catatonically exhausted. Alberto, however, is still firing on all cylinders. He comes charging into the picture with the speed and power of a Formula One car before slamming the ball into the corner of the net, appearing as if he could keep on running all afternoon and long into the night.
The 1982 side, which perhaps exemplified that image of innocence and playfulness more than any other the country has assembled, spent months before the tournament locked away in what Brazilians refer to as concentração, a restricted access training camp where players are shut off from all outside distractions, their families included.
Even Sócrates, famed for his dislike of hard work, penchant for consuming copious quantities of cold lager and 40-a-day smoking habit, was in peak physical condition by the time the tournament came around.
The rigorous fitness coach Gilberto Tim devised a special plan for the Corinthians man, which, according to his team-mate Júnior, had the desired effect. Júnior told Sócrates’ biographer Tom Cardoso that the languid midfielder “became, in three months of preparation for the World Cup, another player, an athlete… He suffered a lot. He even threw up on the grass at times. But it was worth it: he arrived in Spain absolutely flying.”
As for Korea and Japan 2002, one mustn’t forget that Brazil struggled to qualify, relying on a last-round win over Venezuela to avoid a play-off against Australia. Argentina, led by Marcelo Bielsa, had run away with the qualification tournament, losing just once in 18 games.
But, like in the previous editions, Brazil had an ace up their sleeve. His name was Paulo Paixão, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s loyal and trusted physical preparation specialist.
In Brazil the people who work behind the scenes to get players’ bodies ready for the matches have to be at the top of their game. The packed calendar, that can see big clubs play upwards of 90 games per year, requires that physios and fitness coaches innovate to keep their squads fresh and remain ahead of the pack. Indeed, Brazil was the first country where it was common for each player to have an individually tailored fitness plan.
In 2002, unlike in the editions cited above, Brazil would not have time on their side. The World Cup started particularly early that year to avoid the rainy season in the Far-East so the turnaround from the European club season had to be quick, there was certainly no four month training camp to be had. It was more a question of recuperation than intense physical preparation but this too was an area where Brazil excelled.
Wing-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu had spent the whole season bombing up and down the wings for their clubs, Rivaldo had missed a hatful of games owing to recurring niggles and Ronaldo, as ever, was a doubt for the tournament; the coaches at Inter couldn’t get him fit for love nor money.
But Paixão had a plan for each of them. And it worked. To the disbelief of the specialists at their clubs, Ronaldo and Rivaldo started every game of the tournament. One of the lasting images of that World Cup are the endless overlapping runs of Cafu and Roberto Carlos, causing havoc in opposition defences. The much-maligned Kléberson, the real engine of the team, was athletically superior to any other player on show.
The European sides, meanwhile, suffered terribly. France imploded in a haze of dressing room unrest, Brazil dispatched a lethargic England in the quarter-finals, Spain succumbed to South Korea. Argentina, too, failed to fulfil their promise. Bielsa’s stubbornness and refusal to compromise on his physically demanding playing style after a long, tiring season saw them go out at the group stage.
Germany were the only other traditional footballing power that made it into the last four, but when they met Brazil in the final they were no match. The energy of the Seleção blew their European opposition away, with the two goals coming in twelve short second-half minutes. Looking at the sources of those two decisive strikes is instructive.
For the first, Ronaldo closed down Dietmar Hamann with the tireless resolve of a dog chasing a tennis ball before laying it off to Rivaldo whose parried shot provided Ronaldo with the easy task of slotting home. For the second a driving run from Cafu towards the by-line drew a drained defender out wide and allowed Kléberson the space to pass, via Rivaldo’s magnificent dummy, to Ronaldo, who once more tucked it past Oliver Kahn and into the bottom corner. It may have been through ability that the chances were converted but it was through superior stamina and athletic prowess that they were created.
Of course the gifts of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo cannot be ignored but the platform on which they were able to demonstrate their all-conquering ability was constructed through meticulous physical preparation. It is important not to get carried away in the myth of o Jogo Bonito; without the hours of hard work and advanced sports science there would be no on-field carnival.
After the competition had finished, Paixão told the BBC’s Tim Vickery that, “In Brazil the player is dealt with in a laboratory situation. He goes through batteries of tests to find out what he needs to fulfil his athletic potential. But the culture of physical preparation we have developed doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’re judged in socioeconomic terms, looked down upon because we’re a South American country”.
16 years on from Brazil’s last triumph that credit is belatedly starting to come. Every club in Europe’s major leagues and all of the most celebrated national teams have hoards of specialists, both physical and psychological, working behind the scenes, copying what Brazil began almost 60 years ago. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery mediocrity can pay to greatness. If so, Brazil’s greats and the physical preparation specialists that propelled them to success, should feel very flattered indeed.