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Is Brazil still the country of football?

With its famous “jogo bonito” (beautiful game), iconic stars and five FIFA World Cup titles, Brazil has long been known as the “land of football”.

But is it still?

‘Samba’ style

The country of Pele, Garrincha and Ronaldinho, which once amazed the world with its “samba” style, has not won the World Cup since 2002. It has also not produced a Ballon d’Or winner since Kaka in 2007.

With the “Selecao” currently struggling to secure a place at the 2026 World Cup, many in Brazil and beyond are wondering why.

“We are at a low point. We used to have more top quality athletes,” the late Pele’s eldest son Edinho recently told AFP.

Even President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has joined the national inquiry, admitting that Brazil “no longer plays the best football in the world”.

So what happened?

Disappearing places

One answer could be the decline of street football, where some of Brazil’s all-time greats got their start, such as Rivellino, Zico and Romario.

“No one plays on the street anymore. You don’t hear stories about that kick that broke someone’s window,” said amateur soccer player Lauro Nascimento, his jersey smeared with orange mud after playing on one of the few dirt fields on Sao Paulo’s north side.

Nascimento, a 52-year-old financial professional who plays for local club Aurora, broke several toes playing barefoot football as a boy.

Today, the Vila Aurora neighborhood is covered in concrete sprawl. There are two buildings on what was once a field used as a football field.

“In the past, any open space was enough for children to get started with football. Now they are seen as prime development real estate,” says sports historian Aira Bonfim.

Nascimento and his friends pay $160 a month to rent the battered plot of land where they play games, but that kind of money is a barrier for working-class families.

To gain access to a field, poor children in Brazil often rely on school, social programs or a football academy.

According to a 2021 survey, only one in five such academies are free.

And many of those pitches are synthetic, a surface that some say does not develop players’ technique as much as the rough, rocky pitches of yesteryear.

‘Mechanical’ style

The decrease in time spent playing the sport has “had a huge impact on our football,” says researcher Euler Victor.

“We have a large number of Brazilians playing in Europe, but very few stars.”

Brazil’s last great hope, Neymar, shone at Barcelona but struggled to lead the national team to the championship in a career bogged down by controversy and injury.

Brazilians are now pinning their hopes on 23-year-old Vinicius Junior and young phenomenon Endrick, who will join Vinicius at Real Madrid when he turns 18 in July.

Brazil is still the world’s largest exporter of footballers, but brings in less money.

According to FIFA figures, clubs paid $935.3 million in transfer fees for 2,375 Brazilian players last year, almost 20 percent less than in 2018, when the number of players was smaller: 1,753.

Part of the decline comes from teams paying less to sign free agents and younger players.

But there is also a shortage of notable stars.

“Our technique has suffered,” said Victor Hugo da Silva, coach at Flamengo’s youth academy in Sao Goncalo, outside Rio de Janeiro.

“The playing style changed and that ultimately took away some of our creativity. Our football used to be so joyful. Now it has become more mechanical.”

On an artificial turf field he trains seven to ten year olds who dream of following in the footsteps of Vinicius, the academy’s most famous graduate.

The next generation still has football in their veins but has ‘difficulties’ with training, a problem Da Silva attributes to their sedentary lifestyle and ‘addiction’ to screens.

Brazil has more mobile phones than inhabitants

Brazil, with 203 million inhabitants, has more mobile phones than inhabitants. According to the World Obesity Atlas, more than a third of children between the ages of five and nineteen are overweight or obese.

Robson Zimerman, a talent scout for Sao Paulo club Corinthians, said emerging footballers today face tougher conditions, including the opportunity to play in multiple positions and exceed the expectations of family and the media.

“Before, all they had to worry about was playing football,” he said.

But Leila Pereira, chairman of city rivals Palmeiras, the reigning champions, insists Brazil will never stop being the land of football.

Brazilian teams have claimed the past five Copa Libertadores South American titles, with Palmeiras claiming two.

The club is the home of Endrick – whose sale to Real Madrid reportedly netted $65 million with bonuses – and rising prospects Estevao and Luis Guilherme.

“I don’t agree with those who think Brazilian players have lost quality. Look at the astronomical amounts of money they are bringing in,” Pereira said.

Favela party

For many people, Pereira, one of Brazil’s richest people, is the face of a new brand of Brazilian football – more like that of Europe, with generous salaries, by South American standards, and expensive ticket prices.

“With the absurd salaries they pay to the players, clubs have to increase ticket prices, which excludes fans like me,” said Flamengo supporter David Santos.

In 2019, he founded a fan club for Flamengo die-hards like himself from the impoverished favelas.

From the top of the slum on a hill overlooking the trendy beachside neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, they recreate the atmosphere of the Maracana on match days, decorating an old field with flags, grilling a barbecue and belting out chants as the match is played on a giant screen.

“The ‘country of football’ thing – we are losing that,” says 38-year-old Vasco fan Pablo Igor.

“Football is what you see here. It is a people’s game. But street children like me no longer have access to it.”

By Garrin Lambley © Agence France-Presse