Less than a minute into the second half of Brazil's 4-0 win over Panama in a friendly on June 3, an aerial pass from halfway across the field landed on the right foot of a 22-year-old Brazilian. A pair of Panamanian defenders ever-so-slightly overran the play and the young man briefly found himself alone, some 20 yards outside the box, with his back to the goal. In an instant, the Brazilian controlled both the ball and his balance, shifting his weight from his left foot to his right and then back to his left. Then he lifted his right foot and blindly booted the ball off his heel, splitting the recovering defenders. The ball effortlessly rolled to an open patch just outside the box, where a streaking teammate buried a left-footed shot into the back of the net. Immediately, announcers from around the world squealed in delight.
"Neymar!! Fantastico!!" one bellowed.
As the play spread across the globe on social media, there was one word to perfectly describe its on-field brilliance: beautiful. The creativity. The confidence. The fearlessness. It was a textbook example of the highlight-grabbing inventiveness that has come to define the Brazilian game for a half century. This is the game of Pele, Garrincha, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. The reason Brazil is most everyone's second-favorite team behind their home. And the reason Nike annually pours millions into the coffers of the Brazilian federation for the right to print and sell the team's official apparel. "Joga Bonito," as the company implored in its advertising campaign in 2006, "play beautifully."
But at the same time, the imagination-inspired play that has come to define Brazil is constantly under attack. It stands at the center of a decades-old debate that stretches from the sandy beaches of Rio to the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo, from the banks of the Amazon to the government offices in Brasilia. Brazil's five World Cup titles surpass that of any other country. Soccer is where Brazil turns to rule the world. But the country has not finished in the top four at a World Cup since 2002, its second-longest such drought in history. (Sixteen years separated their third-place finish in 1978 from its victory in 1994.) This national crisis has further fueled a longstanding debate about style. Is it better to play beautifully or to win?
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"If you win a championship and play ugly, you're just statistics," says former Brazilian midfielder Falcao, who played for the Selecao from 1976 to 1986. "If you win playing beautifully you make history. We want to make history."
"This idea of playing beautiful and losing doesn't exist," says Tostao, a Brazilian forward from 1966 to '72. "Everybody wants to win. If Brazil plays well and loses, it will be a failure."
It's all enough to have even the King concerned. Pele, the man who coined the term "beautiful game" in the first place, has said he worries that joga bonito is creeping toward an inevitable death.
"Players don't think about giving a little show," Pele said. "They don't care how they win. The game is not as beautiful as it once was."
Playing beautifully is an idea that has long been ingrained in Brazilian culture. It stems as far back as the country's football origins, when Brazilians adapted the physical, disciplined English game to their own creative, artistic personality. There are those who believe Samba and types of Brazilian song and dance propelled the free-spirited, hip-swinging style of the beautiful game. Others call such thoughts a cliché. It also has been suggested that the creativity and expression shown on the pitch was a longstanding method of protesting against the country's heavy-handed leaders, including the military dictatorship from 1964 to '85. Yet the team's success was used by the dictatorship as propaganda to further its own cause. So what gives?
"Throughout history, the idea of making the ball do tricks, all the dribbling, the creative free kicks, it became a form of art and expression," said Dr. Arnal Dayaratna, who runs the blog Bring Back the Beautiful Game and has studied the relationship between sports and social change. "Part of the impetus for this display of exuberance and freedom and playfulness on the pitch has always been a historical response to authoritarianism in its different forms."
In '58, '62 and '70, Brazil played the beautiful game and won. They were every bit as much showmen as they were winners. "It was like Magic Johnson running Showtime with the Dream Team for three World Cups," said noted Brazilian columnist Juca Kfouri. But don't be mistaken -- this was not an AND1 mixtape tour for soccer. The 1970 team -- widely considered one of the most talented groups ever -- featured a disciplined, organized style, creating an environment where the flashy could thrive with little risk.
"People talk about the beautiful game as if it's all about tricks and improvisation," said Tostao, a forward on the '70 team. "That team was good because the players felt we were safe to improvise and create the amazing plays that everyone watched without causing other problems. You need the right team and the right players to play beautifully."
Everyone thought Brazil had that team in 1982, with a squad that featured Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo and Eder. But in the second round against Italy, some of the most beautiful soccer ever played was trumped by tactical discipline in Italy's 3-2 victory. Afterward, Zico dubbed the loss, "the day football died."
"That was the day that many Brazilians decided, we would rather win than play beautiful. No one wants to play beautiful and never win," Kfouri said.
Perhaps, but at home in Brazil, the adoration for that '82 team that didn't even reach the semifinals trumps the love for the 1994 World Cup champions. And throughout the streets and beaches and favelas of Brazil, it is the beautiful game that children play in pursuit of an escape. After all, you don't catch the eye of a scout or coach with well-timed tackles or a determined mentality. You do so by creating magic with your feet and leaving the opposition grasping at ghosts. Forget school or work. Football is a ticket to a new life.
But for the lucky few who receive such an opportunity and have the potential to someday play for their country, that ticket out likely includes a trip to Europe during the most formative years of a young player's career. In 1982, only two of the players on the Brazilian roster played professionally in Europe. On this year's 23-man roster there are only one domestic stars. The globalisation of the game has muted each country's individuality and in many ways attempted to create one singular brand of football.
"The Selecao has changed," Tostao says. "Our best players don't play here anymore. It is hard to have this Brazilian style when your best players make their careers in Europe."
But at home in Brazil, every four years, the pendulum swings back and forth, like that of the Democrats and Republicans in the States. When the team wins, everything is fine. But when it doesn't, the other side gets the upper hand. On one end is the argument that the team is too creative, too individualistic and needs to adopt a more defense-minded approach. And when the team fails with that defense-minded style, as it did in 2002 despite having Ronaldinho, and again in South Africa in 2010, the calls increase to rip off the shackles and let the players play more, well, Brazilian.
"It's a zigzag back and forth, just like politics," Dayaratna said. "The Democrats come to power, then the Republicans, then back to the Democrats. But now I'd say it's square in the center between results and art. It's right in the middle."
Which is exactly what the optimists are hoping for this summer on home soil: that all-important balance. Creativity with discipline. Jaw-dropping highlights with tactical execution. The strength of this side is without question its sturdy back four. And up front, Neymar is one of the most creative and inventive players in the world. He is the great Brazilian hope. In addition to his back-heel assist against Panama, he scored on a majestic free kick from just outside the box and keyed another goal by splendidly threading a pass between a pair of defenders that lured the Panamanian keeper out of the net.
"This is what Brazilians keep trying to find, players like Neymar," Kfouri said. "We want this. We have to have this. We always feel like this is the kind of player who will make a difference for the Brazilian team. Without a player like this -- a Ronaldinho, a Ronaldo, a Neymar -- we don't feel like we can win."
Adds Dayaratna: "He can do things with the ball that we don't see a lot. He's the guy the entire team revolves around. He is the guy doing the tricks, who comes back to midfield, who roams all over the pitch. And because of that, you can be sure that in this World Cup, artistry will be at the forefront."
And there's one other wrinkle that shouldn't be overlooked: the effect of playing the World Cup at home. The Brazilians haven't lost a competitive match at home since 1975. Sure, there is political unrest and thousands of Brazilians are frustrated by the money spent on the World Cup. Many insist they won't cheer for the Selecao. But thousands more will. And in those stadiums, on those days, some 70,000 screaming Brazilians will beckon for beauty. It's the Brazilian way to try to deliver.
Just look at last year's Confederations Cup final against Spain. The Brazilians were swept up in the moment, all but lifted onto a cloud by their fans in a virtual clinic of beautiful and yet disciplined soccer. The result was a 3-0 Brazilian victory and the end of Spain's 29-match winning streak. In the match's final minutes the fans filling Rio's Maracana Stadium chanted, "The champion is back." The party drowned out the protests.
"If it would have been 1-0 and Brazil played defense it wouldn't have been such a great party," Kfouri said. "But the way we played ... wow. It was the beautiful game of Brazil suffocating the beautiful game of Spain. It was winning the way we all remember."
Now, of course, comes the biggest challenge of all: playing with such style, grace, innovation and yet discipline on the world's grandest soccer stage, all culminating in the lifting of the World Cup trophy July 13.
"Now that would be a party," Falcao said.