Joga Bonito – The Brazilian foundations of ‘The Beautiful game’

Over the years football has come to be known as the ‘The Beautiful Game’.How did this phrase stick? It got its relevance from the Portuguese form of the word -‘Joga Bonito’. So then the questions beckon – When did this phrase become popularized in football folklore? What exactly is Joga Bonito? We’ll shed some light on this topic in this article.

In the 1950s, Brazil adopted the idea of playing with fun, yet developing a style which would then be, amongst others, one of the most successful football philosophies ever implemented.

It is vital that footballers, like fans, enjoy playing football. Joga Bonito was, with a doubt, one of the most revolutionary styles of play in this sport. The Beautiful Game emphasises beauty, style, and individual accomplishment. The archetypical Brazilian was not only adept at handling the ball but also fearless in their willingness to take on opponents one on one. Unlike in Spain and Barcelona who previously adopted Positional Play or ‘Juego de Posición’, in Joga Bonito, passes are only used to move the ball to a player in a better position to score. They do not aim to maintain possession for the entire game, as the emphasis is always on creating chances and scoring goals.

In truth, Joga Bonito is less of a strategy and more a state of mind. The responsibility falls on the individual player to use their skills and creativity, not just to score, but to score beautiful goals galore. This philosophy was passed down several generations in the Brazilian National team. Between 1958 and 1994 Mário Zagallo became the first person to win the FIFA World Cup as both a manager and as a player. He achieved this by successfully implementing the ideals of Joga Bonito. 

Joga Bonito
Brazil’s national soccer team poses before the World Cup final against Sweden in Stockholm, June 29, 1958. Brazil defeated Sweden 5-2 to win the World Cup. (AP Photo)

Moreover, his style was more subjective. With Brazil, he deployed the classic 4-2-4 arrangement, with the key player being Jairzinho – not Pelé but his partner in attack. He played on the left with Tostão situated in the centre of that attack, creating a rhombus between the midfield and mentioned attack. Carlos Alberto, the right-sided wing-back nicknamed ‘Capita’, made diagonal runs, sent in crosses and provided width and intelligence in a Brazil team often getting out of hand playing football with way too much ease. When Zagallo won his two World Cups as a player, Brazil played with fun and structure but lacked tactical nuances in the true sense of what ‘Joga Bonito’ later came to stand for.

When Mário Zagallo became the manager a few years later, his diligent character brought about a change in the Brazilian way of playing. He didn’t let his team prioritise ‘fun’ to an extent where they surrealistically played without a plan or direction. The idea was to create a style which many footballers enjoyed along with a focus on tactical superiority across the pitch. He enhanced ‘Joga Bonito’ by creating special roles and duties for his players. Brazil became more entertaining, dominant and tactically superior under his stewardship. 

Mário Zagallo had one main initiative: to field Brazil’s best under one tactic. Brazil had a plethora of number 10s – Rivellino, a slick dribbler with an atomic left foot, Jairzinho, a fast dribbler with the strength and incision to pass any man, Gérson, a midfield maestro with the passing range to hit any tree, and the aforementioned Pelé and Tostão. Zagallo used the 4-2-4 formation Brazil played at the 1962 World Cup as the blueprint tactic for this team. 

In goal stood Félix, Carlos Alberto – the captain of the side – Piazza, Brito and Everaldo made up the back four, Clodoaldo and Gérson operated as the midfield pivot, Jairzinho and Rivellino occupied the right and left flanks respectively. Pelé and Tostão formed the strike partnership. There were, though, several tactical tweaks. Pelé played slightly deeper than Tostão. 

Joga Bonito Carlos Alberto
Carlos Alberto scores Brazil’s fourth goal in the 1970 World Cup final. (Image: EMPICS Sport)

He was the pivotal playmaker, the closest to a classic number 10. Tostão, wearing the famous number 9, resembled more of a false 9. He roamed across the front line, often dropping deep to contribute to the build-up play and destabilise the opponent’s defence. With the centre-backs following Tostão’s runs, space would be created for Pelé or Jairzinho, with the latter cutting inside from the right. Rivelino was more of an unorthodox winger, able to drift into the centre, consequently creating a three-man midfield with Clodoaldo and Gérson, or taking up more attacking positions alongside his compatriot, Pelé.

Such tactical tweaks were radical innovations at the time, perhaps forgotten. In terms of tactics and identity, not much existed beyond the Catenaccio of the Italians – a rather new tactic within itself. Tostão’s false 9 runs were first introduced just a bit over a decade prior, when the Hungarians humbled Great Britain 6-3 in 1953. But Brazil did not adopt an identity from Zagallo’s tactics – those were mere instructions. The Seleção played with Brazil’s ever-present Joga bonito mentality. The zest to ‘play beautifully’ is far more accredited to Saldanha. “Brazilian football,” Saldanha believed, “is a thing played to music.” (Saldanha was a Brazilian journalist and football manager who coached Brazil’s national team between 1969 and 1970 before Mário Zagallo took over and replaced him.)

This samba rhythm did not stem from any vast technical or athletic superiority, rather the expressive art of Capoeira, one that focused on free bodily movement, which the slaves were otherwise denied. While many do not know this, Joga Bonito was a style implemented by the slaves taken from Africa about several decades prior, playing in secret to not get caught by their owners. It was the perfect antithesis. Each practitioner, finally able to freely express, felt euphoric.

Their poetic, free-flowing, fluid football got them far indeed. Though the Joga Bonito’s roots were profoundly found in a dark time where slavery was still legal when Brazil adopted the idea to have ‘fun’ when playing football, a successful generation with a beautiful way to look at the game was pioneered. 

UNITED STATES – JULY 17: Mario Zagallo won his final World Cup in 1994, this time as an Assistant Manager. (Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Football has become more of an organized sport rather than just a game. It is now harder to become a professional footballer because of the increase in competition. It’s all about the integrity of the club as an organization and there’s more money involved amongst other reasons. Joga Bonito went against these principles to prioritise, as mentioned before, ‘fun’.

Although the years passed by and Brazil were affected both negatively and positively, their well-known 1970 Joga Bonito style is unforgettable. Variably so, it has seemingly given them some identity with which they’re recognisable by all around the footballing world if not from a global sporting aspect. With five, Brazil are the most successful national team in the FIFA World Cup, out of which the first three victories in 1958, 1962 and 1970 came as a direct result of implementing the principles of Joga Bonito – free, flowing, coherent, football.

Written by Enzo Karema | 

El Arte Del Futbol is an official content creator for OneFootball. Find more Original Features, Player Profiles and Tactical Analysis’ on www.elartedf.comIf you are reading this on our website, we’d like to thank you for your continuous support! Follow us on twitter to stay updated with all the latest content.


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