Comparative Genius: The All Blacks And Brazil
THE dust has now settled on the rugby world cup in England which saw a record global audience of 25 million. New Zealand’s All Blacks won the tournament to become the first team to retain the cup which they have now won an unprecedented three times. The Kiwis of 2015 have been widely described as the “greatest team of all time”, evoking a comparison with the Brazilian football world cup-winning team of 1970: still the greatest team of all time from the only nation to have won five world cups.
The All Blacks and Brazil produced superstars Dan Carter and Pele: both wore the number 10 jersey; both were nearing the end of their careers when winning world cups in 2015 and 1970, with the two men determined to make up for injuries which had denied them a role in victorious world cup teams in 2011 and 1962 respectively; Carter scored a record 1598 test points, while Pele scored an unprecedented 1279 career goals.
Both New Zealand and Brazil treat rugby and football almost as a religion. Both have perennially been viewed as favourites to win the world cup in their respective sports. However, both countries suffered a 24-year world cup drought (Brazil, 1970-1994; and New Zealand, 1987-2011). The All Blacks are known for the haka, the Brazilians for the samba. New Zealand produced the first rugby global superstar in Jonah Lomu in 1995 (the highest try-scorer in world cup history with 15, who died earlier this week), while Brazil produced the first football global superstar in Pele (who won three world cups).
The All Blacks have an incredible 78% winning record since 1903 (the next best team, South Africa, are at 65%), and have just been named the best national side for the sixth consecutive year. The Kiwis hosted and won the world cup in 1987 and 2011. In winning in 1987, the All Blacks racked up 298 points: about 50 a match. They then acquired a reputation as “chokers”, crumbling under the weight of huge expectations. They, however, lost just three of 54 games between world cup triumphs in 2011 and 2015. They demonstrated skill, speed, strength, and stamina in the 2015 final, destroying a courageous Australian team 34-17.
New Zealand had so many weapons in their armoury, which gave them the ability to win in different ways. They could “win ugly” – as in the semi-final in which they used both brain and brawn to subdue the mono-dimensional muscularity of the Springboks – and they could win with flair, as in the 62-13 demolition of their French nemesis in the quarter-final: a breathtaking display of running rugby.
Aside from Dan Carter’s precision kicking and Richie McKaw’s swashbuckling leadership, there was the unstoppable power of Ma’a Nonu; the devastating speed of Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder; and the bull-dozing directness of Sonny Bill Williams, a part-time heavyweight boxer. The All Blacks were led by a team of ageing test centenarians, several of whom will now retire. But they seem to have an endless supply of talent.
The roots of Brazil’s football success lay in the failure of the 1950 world cup which it hosted and lost in the final, resulting in suicides and collective national trauma. Two outstanding talents emerged to lift the gloom: a precocious and prolific Pele, and a prodigiously gifted but prodigal Garrincha. Both won the world cup in 1958 with an attacking flair that had never before been witnessed. Brazil never lost a game when the two played together. With Pele injured at the 1962 world cup, Garrincha stepped forward and won the world cup almost single-handedly in a way that only Argentina’s Diego Maradona has done ever since (in 1986).
Brazil’s third triumph in Mexico city in 1970 was the epitome of “the beautiful game”. Pele was the veteran conductor of a masterful orchestra, that saw Jairzinho score in every game (a feat that remains unmatched), and the irresistible Tostao and Rivelino weaving their magic around defences.
Brazil produced another great team in 1982 – with Zico, Socrates, and Junior – which played with the same verve as the vintage 1970 team, but was ultimately vanquished by Italy in the quarter-final. The lesson drawn was to be less defensively naive, and as Brazilian players migrated to Europe, the world cup-winning teams of 1994 and 2002 had less flair than their predecessors. They, however, still produced superstars like Romario and Ronaldo. Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-final of the world cup that it hosted last year resulted in another bout of national depression. Will another generation of superstars emerge to lift the gloom?
• Dr. Adebajo is Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town, South Africa, and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.