Brazil and Spain have never been great adversaries on the field of play. Their rare FIFA World Cup™ meetings have almost always come early on in the competition, and nor have they ever fought it out for global supremacy, with Spain’s recent emergence as the dominant power in world football coinciding with a dip in the fortunes of A Seleção.
Yet all that changed in the final of last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, when the Brazilians laid down the most emphatic of markers in front of a raucous capacity crowd at a newly renovated Maracana, beating the reigning world and two-time European champions 3-0.
On that day, 30 June 2013, the rivalry between the two, which had failed to fire in the past, suddenly took on a new and exciting dimension, creating a huge sense of expectation ahead of this year’s world finals.
Brazil and Spain will head into the upcoming competition as two of its biggest favourites, each boasting powerful, well-drilled squads packed with players who have faced off many times on the domestic and European scene.
And with the hosts being drawn in Group A and La Roja in Group B, the Spanish could get their crack at revenge for last year’s crushing defeat as early as the Round of 16. Should they avoid each other by winning their respective sections, however, the only occasion on which they could face off would be in the Final itself, to be held once more at the Maracana.
“I hope it happens!” Xavi told FIFA.com when asked about a possible clash between the two in the last 16. “Or maybe in the Final, why not? But obviously we know that it’s a World Cup and that we’ve been drawn into a tough group, and that they don’t have an easy group either. Football always gives you a chance to get revenge and I hope ours comes at the World Cup – the closer to the Final, the better.”
A two-way street
The story of Spanish football in Brazil began in the early 20th century, with the foundation in 1914 of Hespanha Foot Ball Club, now known as Jabaquara Atletico Clube. Though the Santos-based outfit no longer goes by its original moniker, one thing it has retained from its inception is the red and yellow in its kit, while its home ground, built in 1963, goes by the name of the Estadio Espanha.
Another Brazilian outfit with Iberian roots is Galicia Esporte Clube of Bahia, which was founded in 1933 by Spanish exiles resident in Salvador. Their aim in doing so was to forge closer ties between the locals and the galegos, as the members of the Spanish community were known in that part of the world, regardless of which part of Spain they came from.
Nevertheless, the strongest and most enduring footballing link between the two nations has been forged by the Brazilian stars who have crossed the Atlantic to play for some of Spain’s biggest sides. The door was opened by Evaristo de Macedo, who left Rio giants Flamengo in 1957 to sign for Barcelona, and stayed in Spain for eight years, spending three of them with Real Madrid.
“It was a very good experience for me,” he told FIFA.com, discussing his productive stay in La Liga. “I played for more years in Spain than I did in Brazil. I learned and experienced several European styles of football, which all added to the educational process. I played with great players and saw how they carried themselves on and off the pitch. I picked up a few things from each one and started to put it all together.”
Evaristo was the first of many and was followed in the 1970s by the likes of Palmeiras duo Luiz Pereira and Leivinha, who both went to Atletico Madrid. The trickle turned into a steady stream in the 1990s, when a familiar pattern emerged, with outstanding Brazilian strikers earning adulation at big Spanish outfits, invariably Barcelona or Real Madrid, and capping it all by winning the FIFA World Cup™ with A Seleção.
Bebeto and Romario were two such cases. Both departed Vasco da Gama for Europe, the former going on to shine for Deportivo La Coruna, while O Baixinho moved to Dutch side PSV Eindhoven before producing probably the best football of his career at Barcelona.
The then Barça coach Johan Cruyff was moved to describe Romario as a “penalty box genius”. And as the Dutchman revealed in an interview with French sports daily L’Équipe, the two came to rather an unusual agreement during the Brazilian’s time there.
“He asked me once if he could miss two days of training and go back to Brazil. It must have been carnival time in Rio de Janeiro or something,” explained Cruyff. “So I said to him: ‘If you score two goals tomorrow, I’ll give you two more days off than the rest of the team’. The next day no sooner had he scored twice inside the opening 20 minutes than he asked me to take him off. He said to me: ‘Coach, my plane’s leaving within the hour.’” Cruyff duly kept his promise and Romario got his break back home.
With Bebeto as his sidekick, Romario led the front line as Brazil conquered the world at USA 1994, a year in which he also picked up the FIFA World Player award.
The following generation were no less talented or successful, with Ronaldo starring for both Barcelona and Real Madrid and Rivaldo and Ronaldinho both excelling for the Catalans. Indeed O Gaúcho triggered a renaissance at the Camp Nou after signing in 2003, promptly helping Los Azulgranas claim their first Spanish league title in five years.
“I had the good fortune to share a lot of things with him,” said Lionel Messi, discussing Ronaldinho’s legacy on Barça TV. “I think he’s a great guy and that’s the most important thing. He was responsible for a big change at Barça. We were having a bad patch, and the turnaround when he came along was just incredible.”
Between them Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho won four Ballons d’Or, six FIFA World Player of the Year awards and the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan. The question now is, can their successor Neymar, at the end of his first season at Barcelona, emulate the greats of yesteryear by winning the world title?
A new trend?
While the path from Brazil to Spain has been well trodden, the route heading in the opposite direction has seen less traffic, which can be put down to the sheer wealth of talent in the Brazilian game and also to money issues.
Few Spanish players have ever tried their luck in the land of the five-time world champions, though that has not stopped 24-year-old midfielder Fran Merida from searching for success in Brazil. After failing to make the headway he had expected at Arsenal and Atletico Madrid, Merida signed for Atletico Paranaense in 2013.
The midfielder has since been joined at the Curitiba side by his fellow countryman Miguel Angel Portugal, who was appointed Furação coach at the start of this year.
Speaking to the club’s TV station on his arrival, Portugal reflected on Brazil’s contribution to the Spanish game: “We know all about Brazilian football in Spain. There are a lot of their players in La Liga and a lot of people working in Spanish football. Brazil has always produced very high quality players who know how to play the game the right way, and Spain has always sought to emulate that.”
While the exchange between the two countries has been a little imbalanced up to now, times are changing. Brazil’s influence on the Spanish game has been huge – there is no question of that – but should Spain and their style of play continue to dominate the global scene, then that trend could be reversed.
Rivaldo is one Brazilian legend to be impressed by the Spanish approach. “I’ve never seen anyone work on so many basic facets of the game as the Spanish do,” he once told FIFA.com. “That’s the secret. You don’t achieve a style of play as polished as that without putting a lot of hard work into it.”