If England was the birthplace of football, then Brazil has long been acknowledged as the primary source of its flair. Whilst Holland perhaps leads the way in terms of the game's tactical innovation, thanks to Rinus Michels and the advent of Total Football in the 1970s, Brazil is the home of football's flamboyance.
It may come as a surprise, then, to find that one of Brazil's most famous dribbling techniques owes itself largely to a remarkable piece of Japanese innovation. I discovered this when speaking in Rio with an elderly Japanese-Brazilian man, Sérgio Echigo. It turned out that Ronaldinho Gaúcho, the winner of FIFA's World Player of the Year award in 2004 and 2005, owed Echigo much more than he might have realized.
Ronaldinho's trademark piece of skill was the elástico, a dribble where he dragged the ball one way then the other with the same foot at bewildering speed, snapping his ankle as fast as the jaws of a mousetrap. It looks as Brazilian as samba; but Echigo, whose parents arrived in Brazil as part of one of the successive waves of Japanese immigration following the First World War, explained its foreign heritage.
As a professional footballer for Corinthians in the mid-Sixties, he studied the two greatest players of the era, Garrincha and Pelé, who never lost in 35 matches together for Brazil's national team. Echigo noticed that Garrincha's favourite method of going past a defender was to feign to run infield, but then shift the ball sharply to the outside of his right foot and accelerate away down the touchline. Meanwhile, Pelé's favourite method, as Fate's exquisite symmetry would have it, was precisely the opposite. Pele, also right-footed, would shape to sprint towards the touchline, but then smuggle the ball swiftly infield with his instep, leaving the flummoxed defender wondering why he was now facing the crowd with Pelé nowhere to be seen.
Echigo's bright idea was to combine these moves of Garrincha and Pelé; to use the same foot, at very high speed, to shift the ball left, then right, then left again. It's a bewitching, hypnotic work of art; and, having perfected it in his spare time, Echigo casually slipped it into a training session at Corinthians, to an incredulous response. "Oh! What is this?" he laughed, recalling the defenders' reaction. "And then everybody tried it, [including] Rivellino."
Roberto Rivellino, who played on the opposite wing to Echigo at Corinthians, would make the elástico – also known as the flip-flap – his own, and would use it often as he became one of the architects of Brazil's majestic World Cup triumph in 1970. Thirty-two years later, in Japan and South Korea, Ronaldinho would adopt the elástico as his primary tool of mischief, as he, Rivaldo and Ronaldo inspired Brazil to yet another World Cup win. "The inventor of this skill was Japanese, not Brazilian," joked Echigo, who was speaking at launch of Sony's Street Football Stadium project in Rio, a scheme whereby the company, in collaboration with the NGO streetfootballworld, will provide 19 communities across Latin America with football pitches.. "Brazil imported my skill! You can't patent skills in football. If you could, I would be a rich man!"
Echigo's contribution to Brazil's footballing folklore is one that has often gone under the radar; elsewhere, the contribution of people of Japanese decent to Brazil's multicultural society has been similarly quiet, and similarly impressive. First arriving just after the turn of the 20th century, in 1908, they found work in Santos and São Paulo as laborers on the country's coffee plantations. Following several difficult years, they established themselves to the extent that there are now over one and a half million people of Japanese descent in Brazil, the highest such population anywhere in the world with the exception of Japan itself.
They have helped their new country progress in fields as diverse as architecture and agriculture; and, of course, football. It's unlikely that Ronaldinho or Rivellino will be sending Sérgio Echigo a royalty check anytime soon: but, one suspects, he'll be more than happy with the memories of that mid-Sixties training session, when he brought a new taste of jogo bonito to Brazil.