“The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me…. Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game.”
The words are those of Carlos Alberto, captain of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning team, and they come from an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine. The former Santos right-back is one of a number of greats - including Pelé, Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona – to have granted interviews to the magazine about the changes in the game over the last 50 years and their answers repeatedly return to the same complaints: that in becoming faster and more athletic, football has lost some of the artistry that was once central to its raison d’être.
The case for Holland’s 1974 team being the last truly innovative international side is certainly a persuasive one. Rarely before and never since has a squad arrived at a World Cup and unleashed a completely fresh approach to the game upon the tournament. One need only look at the bewildered responses of the Uruguay players during Holland’s opening game – a 2-0 win in the group phase – to realise how bewildering their manipulation of space, exchanging of positions and magnificently aggressive offside trap must have seemed:
But were Rinus Michels’s team the only pioneers of the last 40 years? It’s impossible to say. The 3-5-2 system that took Argentina to glory in Mexico in 1986 was certainly innovative and there have been plenty of influential tactical tweaks since, not least in the way France swept to victory in 1998 despite playing with a lone striker – Stéphane Guivarc’h – who famously failed to contribute even a single goal.
The accusation that football has lost some of its artistry is easier to accept. Footage of the languid way Brazil stroked the ball around on the way to their era-definining 1970 triumph suffices to illustrate that the game was once played with a greater degree of deliberation and wit. Spain’s success in South Africa this summer was a victory for elaborate, passing football but the quality of play in general was a crushing disappointment and the Netherlands’ brutal display in the final was a grotesque betrayal of their predecessors’ principles.
If anyone can lift the gloom it is surely Brazil. No other country defines itself so much by what it achieves in the World Cup and in 2014, on home soil, they will have the perfect opportunity to re-gild the sport that they have lifted to such heights in the past. Mano Manezes has made an encouraging start to his tenure at the helm of the Seleção, winning his first three friendly games and handing opportunities to burgeoning talents such as Milan’s Alexandre Pato, the Santos pairing of Neymar and Ganso and Internazionale’s 18-year-old attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho. Anyone who yearns for a return to the more characterful football of previous World Cups will hope that his courage does not desert either him or his supporters in the four years ahead.