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Is Brazil still the football capital?

Sao Paulo: Brazil, known for its iconic football culture, legendary players, and five World Cup titles, has historically been hailed as the “land of football.” But is it still? Despite its rich football heritage with players like Pele, Garrincha, and Ronaldinho, Brazil hasn’t won a World Cup since 2002, nor produced a Ballon d’Or winner since Kaka in 2007. As the “Selecao” struggles to secure a spot in the 2026 World Cup, many both in Brazil and abroad are questioning what has changed.

“We’re at a low point. We used to have more top-quality athletes,” remarked Edinho, the late Pele’s eldest son. Even President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has expressed concerns, acknowledging that Brazil “doesn’t play the greatest football in the world anymore.” So, what’s behind this shift?

One factor could be the decline of street football, where many Brazilian greats honed their skills. The disappearance of street football pitches due to urbanization has limited opportunities for youth to play. Instead, access to pitches often depends on schools, social programs, or expensive football academies, with synthetic pitches becoming more common. This shift has impacted player development, with fewer standout stars emerging.

Brazil’s latest hopefuls, like Neymar, have faced challenges despite success in club football. The country is still a top exporter of players, but transfer fees have decreased, reflecting a perceived decline in quality. Coaches note a shift towards a more “mechanical” style of play, with less emphasis on creativity and joy.

Additionally, sedentary lifestyles and screen addiction among youth pose challenges to player development. Despite these obstacles, some, like Leila Pereira, president of Palmeiras, argue that Brazil will always be synonymous with football. However, there’s a growing sentiment that Brazilian football is becoming more like Europe’s, with high salaries and ticket prices that exclude many fans.

For some, grassroots initiatives like fan clubs in favelas represent the true spirit of Brazilian football. These initiatives aim to keep the game accessible to all, echoing the sentiment that football is a game of the people. However, concerns persist that the essence of Brazilian football is fading, as access to the sport becomes increasingly limited for disadvantaged youth.

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