Last December Jordi Mestre, the director in charge of Barcelona's famed La Masia youth development structure, addressed a conference of Brazilian coaches. It made for a fascinating clash of cultures. To an audience that greeted his words with a mixture of admiration, envy and bewilderment, Mestre explained how, right from the start of the process, Barcelona aimed to groom stars who do not behave as stars, and how from the youngest junior side all the way to the B team the priority was never on results but always on developing a style of play.

In the debate that followed, the Brazil national team coach Mano Menezes argued that Brazil's clubs count on a good structure in which to develop young players, but, especially in contrast to Barcelona, were lacking in any philosophy of formation. There was no long-term, collective vision, he said. The project is always an individual one — usually the quest for the youth team coach to do well enough to gain promotion to the more lucrative senior ranks. "In Brazil," he said, "even in youth football, we are not able to live without giving priority to results." The tendency was always for youth teams to be prepared for short-term victory, not long-term player development. As Fluminense's youth specialist Marcelo Teixeira (who spent four years at Manchester United) pointed out, this almost inevitably led to premature physical strength being preferred to pure footballing talent.

The fascinating exchange of views inside Brazil's footballing community would have come as a huge surprise to those who continue to imagine the game in the country as some kind of carnavalin boots, a 'jogo bonito' of joyful expression for as long as the samba drums can pound. It is the standard myth of Brazilian football. Many intelligent people have fallen for it. Some have set out to slay the dragon, but it is a resilient foe, sure to raise its head again. There is also a new counter-myth, a sophisticated mutation of the original. This one argues that there is no such thing as the jogo bonito and that the biggest trick Brazil ever pulled was to persuade the world that such a thing existed. The existence of this strain of thinking should come as a salient lesson to the advertising executive. Do not oversell your product: it can bring short-term rewards, but always at the expense of long-term problems.

There was a time when, with rare exceptions, the Brazil team only appeared to a global audience once every four years. Before the USA World Cup in 1994 the average British fan was not familiar with any of the side that went on to win the trophy, not even Romário. By France 98, all that had changed. The first team and even some of the substitutes were household names, stars of commercials skilfully put together to a scorching soundtrack. Nike had got involved, with the aim of establishing Brazil as a permanent presence in the European mind, all with the aim of shifting shirts. Brazil were marketed as the dream team, a kind of Harlem Globetrotters of football. But as the years went by, even when they won trophies, waking up from the dream left people feeling disappointed. Compared with the advert set in the airport lounge, the performances on the field seemed lacking in joyful sparkle. "Where was the show?" Brazil's players were asked after every win in a World Cup game. "For us the show is the victory," was the standard response, as if 'winning' and 'spectacle' were somehow mutually exclusive. The side that Dunga coached in the South Africa World Cup carried the theory to the limit. Two parts pragmatism, one part individual brilliance and one part plain truculence combined to form a team that would not have been remembered with great fondness even if it had gone home with the title, rather than falling in the quarter-finals. But that does not mean that it was ever thus.

Some things do not change. There are two characteristics which have been part of the essence of Brazilian football ever since the game became a popular phenomenon. One is the emphasis on individual ability. As in Britain, football began with the elites and spread down the social scale, colonised by its own people — but it has done so in very different ways.

As a mass sport British football is obviously the child of the world's first industrial society, of necessity labour-intensive. Physical strength and reliability were as valued on the football field as they were on the factory floor or down the mine. In this collective context the gifted individual has often been mistrusted, seen as a wayward figure, worryingly undependable. When the Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla joined Newcastle he was struck by the way the fans celebrated when the team won a corner. But it makes perfect sense. The corner is the ultimate collective moment — the ball stuck in the mixer for the team to attack, while the fans behind the goal try to suck it in.

In Brazil it is a moment of individual magic that is guaranteed to get the crowd going. To this day Brazil remains semi-feudal in a number of ways, left in limbo by the contrasting aims of the president between 1930 and 1954 (with one interruption), Getúlio Vargas: develop the country while preserving the existing social structure. Rich and poor are often treated almost as different species and, an industrial game in a semi-feudal setting, football is a powerful mechanism for subverting traditional hierarchies. The gifted individual player is the pawn who becomes king. He can be indulged beyond all European understanding. Normal rules do not apply. And when he does a little shimmy and an opponent clumsily falls to the ground the roar from the crowd can be almost as loud as a goal. Even if the opponent is quickly back on his feet and doggedly performing his marking duties, he has been publicly humiliated for that split second — a hugely significant moment.

That is because Brazil is a society with a self-esteem problem. It was identified by Nelson Rodrigues, one of the country's great writers and a football fanatic (the Maracanã stadium is named after his brother), as "the mongrel complex". Some see this as racial. In truth it is more likely social. In a land once described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as "the world champion of economic inequality", it was all too easy for people to fall to fatalism when contemplating their lack of prospects of advancement. With its unmatched power to make people feel represented, football took on extra importance in this context, which brings us to the second characteristic of the essence of the Brazilian game — the importance of victory.

Of course, winning is important everywhere. But here it reaches new heights. I have heard the same line time and time again from many in the Brazilian game. Deep down, they say, Brazilians don't really like football. They like victories. Crowd figures certainly bear this out. Attendances for the same club can oscillate wildly; the big clubs can comfortably fill giant stadiums when the team is doing well. But in times of disappointment there are so few people in the ground that it is possible to count them individually. It's as if the supporter is saying, "When the team is doing well it is my team. When it's struggling it's not my representative and I refuse to be humiliated by identifying myself with it."

I had the good fortune to know some of the stars of Brazil's 1950 World Cup team, a great side that put their country's football on the map when the country hosted that year's tournament. I knew Flávio Costa, a hugely important coach, and Zizinho and Jair Rosa Pinto, two magnificent inside forwards. If I had the capacity to go back in time and watch any side from football's past, then the Brazil of 1950 may even top the list. But in the newly built Maracanã they lost the title to Uruguay. Nearly half a century later I could still feel how much it hurt them, especially the two players. They had extraordinary careers but at home they were always remembered for that one game. A recurrent theme was the reaction of their countrymen to the defeat: elsewhere, they said, a side can lose and still be respected but in Brazil it was if all their triumphs did not exist. All that counted was that one game in 1950. Decades afterwards they would still be pointed out in the street as men who had let their country down. In Brazilian football, victory is a serious business.

The question, then, becomes one of how to win. Over time, the answer is not always the same.

That fateful game against Uruguay seemed to confirm many of the doubts that Brazilians had about their own self-worth. But in purely footballing terms, a more solid diagnosis was made. Needing only a draw to win the World Cup, Brazil had led by a single goal until they were undone by Alcides Ghiggia, Uruguay's right-winger, who laid on the equaliser and scored the winner himself. The Brazil coach Flávio Costa went to his grave blaming the centre-half Juvenal for hiding from the action and not supporting his overworked left-back Bigode. But the problem was at least as much collective as individual. As England were soon to find out against the great Hungarians, W-M was a system that did not guarantee sufficient defensive cover.

The back four was another matter. As the 1970 coach (and a player in 58 and 62) Mario Zagallo explained at length in The Blizzard Issue Three, the key drive behind Brazil's wholehearted adoption of the back four was that of always having enough defensive cover. Brazilian clubs had been experimenting with back fours — withdrawing an extra player alongside the centre-half — since the early to mid-1940s. The disaster of 1950 gave an extra push to the wheel. And so the template was born for the glory years, for the three World Cups won in four tournaments between 1958 and 1970. The sides all defended with a back four and increasingly brought more men behind the line of the ball when possession was lost, from the 4-2-4 with Zagallo shuttling back from the left wing in 58, to Zagallo's own prototype 4-5-1 of 70.

In possession, Brazil's secret was to have top individual talent in enough positions to have a range of attacking options; fast and tricky wingers capable of reaching the by-line, quick brave centre-forwards who could thrive off crosses or balls played over the top — and, of course, Pelé as a superhumanly talented support striker. And to organise the play from deep and choose from the many options, a central midfielder capable of closing down space and marking, but mainly there for his intelligence and magnificent range of passing — a kind of coach on the field, such as Danilo Alvim in 1950, Didi in 1958 and 1962 and Gérson in 1970.

Then came Holland in 1974. Brazil's central midfielder was Rivelino, who had improvised as a false left-winger four years earlier but in that tournament operated in his true position. The game against the Dutch in the 74 World Cup, effectively the semi-final, was probably never going to be his night. Rain had left the Dortmund pitch heavy, which didn't suit him. But he hardly had a chance to get himself into the game. His predecessors in the position had been used to having time on the ball. In Mexico four years earlier, Gérson had appeared able to pick up possession, wander about chatting to all around him, glance at the newspaper to consult his star sign and only then decide what he was going to do. By way of contrast, Rivelino looked up to find half of Holland charging at him. 

Aesthetes saw in the Dutch side the liberating possibilities opened up by the changing of positions — the right-back Wim Suurbier nearly scoring, for example, after cutting in from the left-wing. Pragmatists were more concerned by the difficulty of playing against a side that pressed with such intensity. And South Americans were alarmed by seeing their continent's football rendered obsolete by one team in the course of a single tournament — before ending Brazil's golden period Holland had overcome Uruguay and Argentina with contemptuous ease.

The signs had been there for a while. Northern European football was on the rise. In the previous decade the game in Holland and West Germany had gone fully professional. England had abolished the maximum wage and carried forward the idea of polyfunctionality with the adoption of 4-4-2 in 1966. In 1967, Celtic became the first northern European side to win the European Cup, starting a regional stranglehold that, with the exception of 1969, would last until the mid-80s. Brazil had received a taste of what was to come as far back as April 1963, when, much to their surprise, a team full of world champions was overpowered 5-1 by Belgium; part of a tour on which they also lost to Holland. That could be shrugged off as a lapse: after all, the previous week they had beaten Argentina 4-1 in the Maracanã. But 11 years later in West Germany it was no longer possible to hide from the challenge posed by the dynamism of the northern Europeans. A response had to be found.

It is at this point that elements of football in Brazil and Argentina move off in very different directions. The same challenge provoked contrasting responses because it was viewed through different perspectives — much of which had to do with the relationships between the game and the military dictatorships which ruled the two countries in the mid-70s. So politically polarised it had become virtually ungovernable, Argentina succumbed to a brutal military coup in 1976. There were no doubts or niceties. This was like a heel smashing down on the face of a society whose national football team was coached by a left-wing bohemian intellectual, César Luis Menotti.

Menotti conceptualised Argentinian football, both as a natural talker, but also in response to the circumstances in which he found himself, representing a nation whose regime was killing some 20,000 of its citizens, in many cases the brightest and most courageously idealistic youngsters. Prior to the final of the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires, Menotti is supposed to have told his players, "We are the people, we come from the victimised classes and we represent the only thing that is legitimate in this country — football. We are not playing for the expensive seats full of military officers. We represent freedom, not the dictatorship."

The coach defined Argentinian football in cultural and philosophical terms, as the true manifestation of the country's working class. In purely football terms, his response to the new challenge from across the Atlantic was a gesture of faith in the traditional passing style of the Argentinian game. The modernisation came in the emphasis on upping the rhythm — hence the importance of the dynamic, fetch-and-carry midfield work of Osvado Ardiles. The observation that "the point of training is to increase the speed at which one can be precise" is Menotti at his wise and succinct best.

"Before when we wanted to study and progress we had to read European books," said the legendary Uruguay-born coach Ondino Vieira, "because the Europeans wrote down what they knew in order to pass on knowledge and we didn't. But with Menotti, for the first time a theorist of our football appeared, and guided by his books we were able to transmit our way of playing."

And one of the things that has stuck, with a certain romantic school of Argentine coaches, is the idea of football as a cultural and philosophical manifestation. Apparently there are none of Menotti's pavement café politics in Marcelo Bielsa, but his commitment to attacking play, to seeking to impose the game in the opponent's half of the field, is rooted in a philosophical code, a way of living one's life in all circumstances. It is all but impossible to think of a Brazilian equivalent.

But then the only question in Brazilian football was how to win. It was not called upon to define itself in philosophical and cultural terms against its military regime. The situation in Brazil was very different — to a considerable extent, Brazilian football was able to develop in harmony with the dictatorship. The establishment of the National Championship in 1971, for example, was an explicit part of the regime's plan to unify the giant country.

Ashamed, the military government limped slowly away during the 1980s and is now remembered as an unsavoury and difficult period. But it has been forgotten (conveniently for many) just how much popular support it enjoyed for over a decade after the coup of 1964. Much has been made of the late-60s student resistance, with the famous March of 100,000. A new generation of historians is now pointing out unpleasant truths — such as the fact that in the mid-60s there were marches at least five times as big all over the country in support of the regime. One of them, David Aarão Reis, goes as far as to attack the term "military dictatorship". He looks at those who supported the coup — "business, political and religious leaders, entities of civil society such as the lawyers organisation and the council of bishops, the right-wing in general" and comes to the conclusion that "civil-military dictatorship" is a more accurate term for what actually took place.

The renowned economist Celso Furtado, one of the regime's most lucid opponents, was more specific. He described the dictatorship as "military-technocratic", an alliance between the armed forces and middle-class technical specialists, such as economists and engineers involved in the plethora of huge construction projects. Football, too, became the preserve of the technocrat.

The roots were already there. As far back as 1958, the Brazil team was supported by a back-up staff including doctors, physical preparation specialists, a dentist and even an early (and unsuccessful) experiment with a sports psychologist. Increasingly the coaches, too, became technocrats, physical education graduates instead of the traditional ex-player. And the tactical revolution of the Dutch in 1974 appeared to make redundant the hands-on knowledge of the ex-player. Clipboard in hand, only the technocrats had the answer.

They worked with models which were culturally alien. In 1978 under Cláudio Coutinho, Brazil set out to imitate what the Dutch had done. There was an attempt to turn the clock back under Telê Santana in 1982, especially, and 1986. But in 1990 under Sebastião Lazaroni the model was an Italian-style sweeper system. And like all technocrats, these new coaches lived in a world of numbers. What they could not measure they could not manage.

Their conclusions were based on the physical evolution of the game. According to Murici Sant'anna, one of the country's leading physical preparation specialists, the ground covered by players doubled between the mid-70s and the mid-90s. So if the old-style midfield elaboration had not worked against the Dutch in 1974, there was no chance of going back to the attacking template of 1958-70. Physical evolution meant less space on the field and more contact. This led to two conclusions.

Firstly, Brazil's players had to be able to match the northern Europeans in physical terms. Assuming parity in strength, size and speed, Brazil's technical advantage should be enough to tip the balance. Secondly, there was little point in grooming players to work the midfield patterns of old. There was not enough space for such relics and the numbers appeared to prove that the greater the number of passes in a move, the lower the chances of it ending in a goal. And so, where once there was Danilo Alvim at the heart of the side, or Didi and Zito, Clodoaldo and Gérson, Falcão and Toninho Cerezo, come 2010 there were Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo — central midfield was closed up, freeing the flanks for fast breaks from wonderfully athletic full-backs, in the hope that the ball could be delivered to the talented front men quickly enough for them to do some damage.

For a while the model worked — between 1994 and 2002, Brazil played in three successive World Cup finals, winning two of them. But it was not always easy on the eye. In 1985, Zizinho penned his autobiography, no ghost writers involved. The closing words were something of a lament. Brazilian football, he said, "has given the central midfielder, the man who has 70% of his team's possession in his hands, the specific function of destroying, when it should be to set up the play." The technocrats would argue that he was living in the past. And then along came Barcelona.

In the four years of Pep Guardiola's reign Brazil had to accept that spiritual guardianship of the beautiful game had passed to Barcelona. This has led to outbreaks of jealousy. Andres Sanchez, the former president of Corinthians and currently the director of Brazil's national teams, recently described the idea that Barcelona have some sort of school of footballing thought as "a load of nonsense". The basis for his outburst seems to be that a few years back he took a Corinthians Under-17 side to play Barcelona and they apparently won 2-0. This, if nothing else, is proof that science needs to apply itself to the task of inventing the one-ended stick so that people like Sanchez cannot get the wrong end of it.

Wiser heads have watched in awe. The little midfielders, the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, and the possession-based game — all of this was not out of date after all! The technocrats' path to victory was not the only road! With elegance and a dose of venom, Guardiola stuck the knife in last December, after his Barcelona side had swept Santos aside with astonishing ease in the final of the World Club Cup. His team played the ball around, he said, in the manner that his father and grandfather told him that Brazil used to do.

And may start doing once more. The future is a fascinating place. But Brazilian football is an oil tanker that will not turn round quickly. The former Barcelona player, and one-time teammate of Guardiola, Rivaldo points out that contemporary Brazilian players are easily bored by training aimed at retaining possession. "Everyone wants to get the ball under control and dribble at the opposition," he said. It has been apparent in some recent performances by Brazilian clubs and national teams just how little grasp the players have of working triangles through the midfield.

But they do not need to copy Barcelona or anyone else to get it back. It is there in their own tradition if they can be bothered to look. One of my favourite pieces of football writing is the eyewitness account of the Argentinian coach Ángel Cappa, almost crazed with joy at the chance to watch Brazil in the 1982 World Cup, their last attempt to do things the old way. "The ball arrived in one part of the field and then disappeared — to appear again in the form of a rabbit and also of a dove, and was then hidden again from opponents who, in their anguish, looked for it in the most unlikely places without being able to find it… The ball had not enjoyed itself so much for ages, or received so much affection... And the crowd, myself included, glanced at our watches in the hope that time could stand still because we wanted the game to go on for ever… Every game Brazil played in the tournament was a kind of magical, beautiful dance."

He saw it, and wrote it all down. It is not possible to read his account and believe that the jogo bonito is nothing but a myth. It existed! And if we are lucky, it may exist once more.