Brazil: The World's 22nd Best Team

Exactly one year from Wednesday, world soccer will return to its spiritual home for what may be the most anticipated World Cup of modern times. Twelve months before the 2014 tournament kicks off in São Paulo, questions abound:

Will the stadiums be ready? Will the Spanish repeat as champions? And will this be the most rampantly drunken tournament in history?

Yet the biggest question is whether Brazil's national team can recover from an unprecedented slump. Last week, soccer's most successful nation plunged to a record low of 22nd in FIFA's rankings, behind the likes of Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sunday's 3-0 friendly victory over France was just the second win in seven games for Brazil, a run of results that ranks as its worst in a decade and includes mediocre draws with Russia and Chile and its first loss to England in 23 years.

These days, the winners of a record five World Cups can hardly win a match. "It's incomprehensible," said Alejandro Moreno, a former Venezuela national team player. "You can't explain how a talented team can have such disastrous results."

For a country which has long tied its identity to its national soccer team, the prospect of a lackluster showing in a home World Cup next year is unthinkable. The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup in 1950, the trauma caused by its loss to Uruguay in the final infected the nation for decades. If Brazil again fails to win on home turf in 2014, they might as well cancel Carnaval.

"It is a great opportunity for our country," said Pelé, Brazil's greatest player. "Having a good team who play good football is important for everybody in Brazil."

The Brazilians didn't invent soccer, but from 1958 to 1970, they pretty much perfected it. In that span, Brazil won the World Cup three times while playing a thrilling and graceful brand of soccer that remains the benchmark for the rest of the world. It was a game in which individual skill outweighed team tactics and where dribbles and flicks were prized over tough challenges and tight defense.

But the glory days of Pelé, Garrincha and Jairzinho may be part of the problem. Ever since, Brazilian soccer has placed a greater focus on skill and spontaneity than the orderly, pass-and-move style of play practiced in Europe.

"Ours is not a collective game," said Aldo Rebelo, Brazil's minister of sport. "In Brazil, what is important is to be an individual. Brazil has always been a specialist at playing with great technical skill and improvisational ability."

But critics have said that Brazil's individual approach is no longer viable in today's game, where bigger, faster athletes mean there is less time and space. International soccer is about passing the ball at speed to create holes in the defense. The dribbles and tricks that define Brazil merely slow down possession.

Others say the issue isn't that the style is outdated, but that Brazilians have lost the confidence to play their own game. The loss of nerve in key moments has been a recurring theme in Brazilian soccer ever since it lost to Uruguay in the 1950 final. The condition is known as the "stray-dog complex," after the writer Nelson Rodrigues likened the team's performance to being kicked around like dogs.

"Sometimes, we have lost self-confidence," said Rebelo. "But at the same time, we don't have confidence in the European style. We're not as creative as we used to be and we don't improvise as much, but we'll never be as strategic as Europeans."

The irony is that the national team's struggles may be connected to Brazil's rise as an economic power, which has played out at the same time as new spending rules designed to promote parity have limited the financial clout of Europe's clubs.

The upshot is that the game's economics have shifted. Clubs in France, Portugal and the Netherlands, where legendary players like Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho started out in Europe, can no longer match the top salaries on offer in Brazilian soccer. Instead of moving overseas to hone their skills, budding stars have stayed in Brazil longer than usual.

Juninho Pernambucano, who played 47 times for Brazil, says the country's young players have stagnated. "Playing in Europe helps Brazilian players open their mind to the tactical side of the game," he said. "In Brazil, there's a bigger focus on individual technique, but it's far behind with regard to tactics, discipline and structure."

As the team's standout player, Neymar has taken his share of blame for Brazil's recent decline. The 21-year-old forward, who will move to Barcelona next month on a $97 million deal, has wowed fans by running circles around defenders in Brazil, but his record in international games has been a lot less awe-inspiring. Neymar carried Brazilian hopes at the 2012 London Olympics but his team failed to return with the gold medal, losing to Mexico in the final. He was the star attraction at both the 2011 Copa América and the 2009 Under-17 World Cup, but Brazil failed to win a knockout game in either tournament.

"In the big moments, with his national team, he has not been the same player that he is in the wide-open spaces of Brazilian soccer," said Moreno, a member of the Venezuela team that held Brazil to a scoreless tie at the 2011 Copa América.

After Sunday's win, Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari rejected the criticism of his star player. "My analysis is that Neymar has done exactly what I asked of him," he said. "The way he has played has left me satisfied."

For Brazil's apprehensive fans, the good news is that results ahead of a World Cup are rarely indicative of how the team will perform once the tournament kicks off. In 2009, few would have predicted a Spain victory in South Africa after the team was eliminated at the Confederations Cup that year at the hands of the U.S.

One year before the 2002 World Cup, Brazil looked in danger of failing to qualify after losses to Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay. But once the World Cup rolled around, the Brazilians won every game and lifted the trophy.

"Football always brings a lot surprises," said Pelé. "To win is tough, but Brazil has great players. I think we have an excellent opportunity to be in the final."