In the name of objectivity

After a little post-World Cup break and time dedicated to other projects, this blogger-turned-author is returning to the comforting and cathartic confines of this humble blog. I am also working a lot more in Portuguese these days, so if you stumble across some indecipherable text with strange accents and excessive punctuation on this blog, please, forgive me. 

I have yet to put pen to paper regarding my opinion on the Brazilian FA (CBF)’s appointment of Dunga as the new (old) national team coach. There are two reasons for this: one, is that I simply did not find the time, and two, is that even though Dunga may have flattered to deceive in his first spell in the job, even though he failed miserably as the coach of Internacional and has not managed a team since and even though he embodies the process of uglification the once-revered Brazilian national team has underwent from 1982 until today, we must restrain ourselves and remember he has just been appointed. In the name of objectivity, Dunga’s second attempt at the Brazil job must be evaluated in isolation and on its own merit. The coach had yet to actually do anything as the manager of the Brazilian national team (except failing to remember the names of Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez ["that Colombian kid, Jimenez"] and Milan’s iconic coach Arrigo Sacchi ["I have spoken with Enrico Sacchi"]) – so, naturally, I remained quiet.

This week, Dunga announced his first Brazil squad (see below) to dispute two friendlies at the beginning of September, against James “Jimenez” Rodríguez’s Colombia and Ecuador. Again, it is still too early to praise or criticise his work, as the squad selection is impossible to judge when separated from the context of the matches that will follow. The list does, however, give some clues as to how the Brazil side of the Second Age of Dunga will behave on the pitch. And starved of interesting topics to write about, that’s more than enough of an invitation for this journalist to speak his mind.

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First impressions were largely encouraging, which was always going to be the case considering those who were skeptic about Dunga’s appointment had been creating wild nightmares for the past month, imagining Felipe Melo being handed the captain’s armband and Neymar being dropped in favour of someone more “disciplined”. The reality, as is so often the case, turned out not to be so dramatic after all.

Although Dunga has been cautious to put too much emphasis on the 7-1 defeat to Germany, towing the CBF party line, he did make a conscious effort to omit a significant group of the World Cup squad. From his 22-man group, only 10 are survivors from Felipão’s squad, with the obvious caveat that Thiago Silva is injured and unavailable.

However irrelevant those at the CBF seem to feel was the Germany loss, this process of renovation and blooding new players is important. Furthermore, Dunga did not take things too far, players such as Luiz Gustavo, Hulk, Oscar and Willian all remain in the squad despite coming in for criticism last month, and all four can play important roles in this new team.

Another positive aspect was the players called up for the centre of midfield. One of the biggest criticisms of Dunga’s first attempt at the national team job was his side’s complete lack of midfield articulation and creativity. While every other team in world football made sure to play midfielders who were able to defend and attack (and most importantly, complete a five-yard pass), Dunga’s Brazil put their faith in hard men, essentially converted centre-backs who knew how to tackle. In the World Cup in South Africa, while Spain had Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, Brazil had Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva.

As well as maintaining Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Ramires, all well-rounded midfielders, Dunga called up Elias of Corinthians (formerly of Sporting and Atlético Madrid) who is energetic, technical and a proficient marker. He also has the option of playing Oscar or Philippe Coutinho in that deeper role, all of these are positive signs.

That leads on to another interesting feature of this squad: the lack of a fixed centre-forward and an abundance of unpredictable attacking midfield threat. The selection indicates that Dunga may well revisit the work of ex-Brazil coach Mano Menezes, who experimented with a strikerless formation, playing Neymar as a mobile centre-forward. There is a worry that Dunga could try to shoehorn one of his players into a traditional centre-forward role, which would be an error. Neymar always needs the freedom to move into channels and drop deep when he wants to; Hulk’s effectiveness comes as a direct option down either flank; Diego Tardelli started his career as an out-and-out centre-forward but now plays much deeper, usually on the right; young Ricardo Goulart is an extremely interesting talent, but already at Cruzeiro he has shown he is not a pure centre-forward, instead he is more of an attacking midfielder, arriving late into the box to score.

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With some new faces and Neymar at centre-forward, a potential XI to start the game against Colombia.

Last month I mentioned that only once has a country won the World Cup with a squad made up of a majority of foreign-based players (France in 1998) and it seems to have really resonated with Dunga, who is, of course, a long-time reader of this blog. The coach has made a conscious effort to select more domestic-based outfield players and has called up some interesting names and perhaps missed a few.

All of the domestic-based players in the squad have done enough individually to deserve the callup, although in some cases I’m unsure about the long-term benefit of some of the players being involved in the setup. It is hard to see Diego Tardelli, Atlético Mineiro’s striker-turned-playmaker, still being involved in the team come next year’s Copa América. Even Elias and Éverton Ribeiro, excellent as they are in Brazil, give the impression that they could suffer with the competition for places in those midfield spots.

Corinthians’ centre-back Gil, especially with the absence of Thiago Silva, strikes me as a wise selection. He has some modest experience in Europe with French side Valenciennes, but has improved greatly since his return to Brazil, with great positioning, technique and a threat at set-pieces.

I was delighted to see Cruzeiro’s Ricardo Goulart get the call, as he is certainly a player who could go on to do great things for Brazil. As alluded to earlier, he is an attacking midfielder who likes to play just off a principal striker. He is clever, strong, good in the air, has a natural eye for goal and he keeps getting better and better. Brazil do not have any other player in that same mould, so seeing him in the national team setup is exciting.

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Back to reality

I regret to inform you that the World Cup has ended.

I know, I know, it’s not fair. Yes, we should have it every year (preferably in Brazil), and no, things will not be the same now that it has gone. Unfortunately, we have to wipe away the tears and get on with our lives.

The 2014 World Cup was a spectacular month of football, friendship and education. A celebration of the best things this wonderful sport has to offer, as well as pages and pages of narratives and subplots. As usual, it was great to see teams from all around the world, principally those outside of my region. Costa Rica were a surprise and a joy, with their superb spine of Keylor Navas, Giancarlo González, Celso Borges and Joel Campbell. Algeria’s first half performance against South Korea was one of the best moments of the tournament, only Germany in their first half against Brazil were more deadly.

Speaking of the German side, everyone was left in no doubt that the best team came out on top. This current Germany setup has given an example of planning and organisation which every footballing country around the world can learn from – their fourth World Cup trophy was more than deserved.

Anyway, it is time to return to reality. The wallchart has been folded away and kept in a safe place, the flags have been taken down from the windows and the television is showing soap operas and awful films in the slots the football has vacated.

Many football fans have expressed their desire to take a rest from the game, a couple of weeks of recovery and relaxation, allowing for a smooth comedown and a fresh appetite for the start of the European season. Fans in Brazil, however, have no such luxury.

Due to the Brazilian FA’s complete ignorance of how to create a spectacle, the Brazilian championship gets back underway this evening, only two days after the World Cup final was played at the Maracanã.

Six of the 12 World Cup stadiums will be in use in this midweek round of games, although only three of those are for top-flight matches. In the second division, Recife’s Arena Pernambuco will host Náutico v Sampaio Corrêa, Arena das Dunas in Natal will see América-RN v Bragantino, while the Arena Pantanal in the centre-west city of Cuiabá is strangely hosting Vasco da Gama (from Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east) against Santa Cruz (from Recife, in the north-east).

Why would Vasco choose to play a home match around 1,000 miles away from Rio de Janeiro? They are serving the final match of a punishment handed to them by the CBF for fan violence, forbidding them from playing at their home stadium. Instead of staging the game just outside of Rio, they are trying to ride Cuiabá’s World Cup wave and squeeze as much money as they can out of the situation.

In the first division, Corinthians will take on Internacional in their first match at the brand-new Arena Corinthians since Fifa handed over the keys last week. Bahia will host São Paulo at the gorgeous Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Cruzeiro return to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte (the site of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany) to play Vitória.

In the weekend rounds of the first and second divisions, only four of the stadiums will be in use.

More frustrating than this are the ticket prices stipulated for these matches. In tonight’s second division matches, the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pernambuco is R$ 50 (around £13), while any Vasco or Santa Cruz fans willing to make the trek to Cuiabá will have to fork out R$ 60 for the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pantanal.

The first division matches are not much better, Corinthians and Cruzeiro have set their cheapest tickets at R$ 50, bearing in mind that this only accounts for a small section of the stadium. Seats with reasonable views are going for anything between R$ 80 and R$ 180.

This might not sound like much compared to British prices, but when put up against the average monthly salary in Brazil, these are the most expensive tickets in world football. In 2012, a study was conducted to this end and showed the Brazilian league to have the highest ticket prices compared to average earnings, using a mean price of only R$ 38. If this post-World Cup trend continues, the average will increase further and more and more will be excluded from the sport.

Turning attentions to on-pitch matters, the expectation for this post-World Cup stage of the Brazilian championship is that we will see a group of title challengers begin to pull away from the rest over the next few weeks. Leaders and reigning champions Cruzeiro will be looking to open up some space between themselves and second-placed Fluminense, while Corinthians, São Paulo, Internacional and Grêmio will battle for one of the four Copa Libertadores places up for grabs.

The transfer window has been positive for most of these top-half teams, especially Corinthians and Grêmio. The former have made some impressive signings, bringing in experienced defender Ânderson Martins, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro and hard-working midfielder Elias. All three will go straight into the starting lineup.

Grêmio have also strengthened their team considerably, repatriating midfielder Giuliano, who was extremely promising when taking Grêmio’s rivals Internacional to the Copa Libertadores title of 2010 and has been playing in Ukraine since. Winger Fernandinho has joined from Atlético Mineiro and flying right-back Matías Fernández signed from Sampdoria. The southern side already had a decent squad before the World Cup break, with some exciting young talent breaking through. They will be worth keeping an eye on between now and December.

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Reform in Brazilian football: where to begin?

The bomb has gone off and any illusions about the strength of Brazilian football have been obliterated. As the dust settles after Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany, there appears to be a consensus around the country’s football fans: something needs to change.

The federal government has made its stance clear, committing to actively instigate reform throughout the national game, proposing new laws and regulations and promising to put pressure on the Brazilian FA (CBF) and heads of the country’s big clubs and state federations. A complete clear-out of the CBF, something many have called for, is out of the question. Fifa law forbids government involvement in the operation of national football federations and we have just seen the Nigerian FA suspended for that very reason.

What is happening is the proposal of a new set of laws to tackle the obscene debts of Brazil’s major clubs, something approaching Fifa’s Financial Fair Play ruling, which will soon be voted upon in the Chamber of Deputies. The Law of Fiscal Responsibility in Sport (not as catchy as FFP) proposes the refinancing of clubs’ debts over the next 25 years (in 2013, Flamengo’s debt reached R$ 750,7 million, 11 times the tax bill that saw Rangers put out of business in Scotland), but only if they follow regulations regarding good business practice and responsible spending. Sanctions would be handed out to those who do not comply, including financial penalties or sporting punishments such as point deductions and demotions.

Its aim is to have better run clubs in Brazil and avoid the widespread reports of unpaid salaries we have seen for the past ten years and beyond. Of course, this is a noble initiative, although I would like to have seen more incentives put in place for clubs to develop infrastructure, youth development schemes and programs to benefit supporters attending the stadium.

Another point of contention is the premature exit of young Brazilian footballers to leagues overseas, which President Dilma Rousseff has addressed herself, saying Brazil is “letting go of [its] main attraction”.

Although Brazil’s citizens go to the polls in October to decide whether or not Rousseff gets a second term in office, these actions do not seem to be typical electioneering. Claims that football has the power to influence the Brazilian political system are false and insulting to many people here, who rightly point out Brazil is about much more than just its national football team.

Success begins at home

Of course, outside of the political sphere, the success of the Seleção is an important issue, considering it is a great asset to the country, a brand recognised and loved around the world. Forming a strong national football team is a group effort, requiring people at all levels to pull in the same direction. Problems have been growing for some time, but Brazil have often been able to fall back on their immense pool of natural footballing talent to pull them through in difficult situations. You can imagine a strong German team without Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer or Toni Kroos, but a Brazilian side without Thiago Silva or Neymar?

An important contributing factor is the weakness of Brazilian domestic football. The league has adopted an export model for some time, grooming young players and selling them to Europe for transfer fees that keep domestic clubs afloat, but this has reached a critical mass and the results are evident on the field. When Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, 13 of their squad played for clubs at home. This year, only four were Brazil-based: reserve goalkeepers Jefferson and Victor, and centre-forwards Fred and Jô, widely regarded as the team’s weak links.

Having players based at home is no guarantee of international success (just ask England and Russia, who crashed out in the group stages after selecting exclusively home-based squads), but it certainly helps and reflects the strength of a nation’s footballers. Only once in the history of the sport has the World Cup been won by a squad who had a majority of foreign-based players: France in 1998. Argentina could become another exception to that rule, but they have been able to count on the best player in the world, possibly the greatest of his generation, Lionel Messi.

The reasons for this exodus of young Brazilian talent are numerous, and they go beyond the national league’s model of exporting players. First of all, conditions for youth team players are woeful at many of the country’s big clubs, with no support given to the starry-eyed teenagers living hundreds of miles away from their families in housing that looks more like the workhouses seen in Georgian Great Britain.

Then, when these players become professionals, they have to face a whole host of new problems, from the aforementioned instances of delayed or unpaid wages to the crazy calendar of Brazil’s domestic leagues. Players at big clubs are forced to play all-year-round, twice or three times a week and often on poor and dangerous pitches, while those at smaller clubs may only have matches for two months of the entire year.

The quality of football in Brazil’s top division has improved over the last few years, but this is largely down to clubs signing expensive foreign talent, making Argentinians Andres D’Alessandro and Dário Conca and Chileans Charles Aránguiz and Jorge Valdivia among the league’s main attractions, instead of developing Brazilians.

Players are leaving Brazil at younger ages: a quick glance through the Under 19, 17 or even Under 15 Brazil squads will show the majority of them already playing for European clubs. Since the turn of the century, stars of Brazilian football such as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Kaká all developed into magnificent players while playing in Europe, but they all made a significant impact at a Brazilian club before leaving. This current Brazil squad has players such as David Luiz, Dante, Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Hulk, who didn’t stay at home long enough to make a name for themselves and instead came to the attention of the Brazilian public when starring at top European clubs.

Paulinho and Neymar are exceptions, but even then Neymar left for Barcelona at 21 years of age, while Paulinho had already left Brazil to play in Poland and Lithuania before returning and getting his break at Corinthians.

Players not at fault

It would be difficult to blame the players themselves for this trend. Considering the conditions offered to footballers in Brazil, when the opportunity comes to go abroad it is often too hard to refuse. We had two good examples of this in recent years with former Fluminense forward Wellington Nem and ex-Botafogo winger Vitinho.

Nem had been an important part of Fluminense’s youth setup, being groomed for a first-team place from a young age, working through the youth ranks and having an impressive loan spell at southern club Figueirense. He was an important part of the Fluminense side that won the 2012 Brazilian championship and was even knocking on the door for a call-up to the national team. In June of 2013, Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk came knocking with a transfer offer of €9 million. The player was hesitant to leave, he was playing well at home and still had plenty of developing to do, but he was under so much pressure from his family, his agent and his club, who were in a dire financial situation at the time. Fluminense told him in no uncertain terms that they wanted the money and Nem was forced to go to Donetsk, where he played only five times last season.

Vitinho’s rise to fame came so quickly, bursting on to the scene at Botafogo under the wing of Dutch veteran Clarence Seedorf. In the space of a few months he had gone from an unknown youth product to the team’s most important player. But before Botafogo fans could make him an idol, he was already on his way to Europe. Half-way through his first season as a professional, Russian side CSKA Moscow snapped him up for €9.5 million. Again, it is difficult to blame the player. Vitinho’s wife had just given birth to their first child and Botafogo had failed to pay him his previous month’s wages. CSKA arrived with money on the table, and not knowing if he would ever get the chance again, he accepted.

The future of Brazilian football may well lie in the hands of Bom Senso FC, a group formed by players to fight for better conditions throughout the game in Brazil. They have delivered their demands, they have met with influential figures and they have even staged protests on the pitch. Only a couple of days after the World Cup final, the Brazilian championship will restart with a full card of midweek fixtures. Now is the time for the leaders of Bom Senso to act, the eyes of the world are still on Brazil, the shouts of gol da Alemanha! still ringing in their ears, the government is behind them and they can count on another influential member with the return of Kaká to São Paulo FC. Now is the time for change.

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A comedy of errors

Four goals in six minutes – I cannot recall such a collapse on such a stage in any other sport. World Cup hosts Brazil started the semi-final nervously and after conceding a second goal to their dominant German opponents, they collapsed completely.

It is often said the most critical moment of a football match is the five to ten minutes after a goal is scored. There is usually some sort of reaction, whether that be in positioning or tactics, and more often than not, the team that scores surrenders possession easily and can run the risk of conceding an equaliser.

Tuesday’s game was completely different: after Germany made it 2-0, they changed nothing about their approach or strategy. They continued to press high and exchange passes behind Brazil’s left-back Marcelo. It was the home side who sat back, on the ropes, struggling to stay on their feet.

Just as Brazil were coming to terms with Germany’s two goals, German left-back Phillip Lahm received the ball on the right flank and got himself in a position to cross. The next five minutes were a blur. The entire Brazil side appeared to switch off completely, overwhelmed by the situation, by their dreams crashing down around them and Germany’s suffocating football giving them no room to breathe.

Lahm’s cross passed everyone and was smacked into the net by Toni Kroos for 3-0. Brazil tried to kick-off, but Fernandinho lost the ball almost instantly to Kroos, who worked a quick one-two with Sami Khedira and made it 4-0. Brazil tried to pass out of defence but were pressed by Germany at every turn. They brought the ball forward, but Hulk lost possession and dived to try and win a free-kick. A minute later, it was already 5-0. Mats Hummels dribbled over the half-way line and Fernandinho, David Luiz and Luiz Gustavo lunged in to try and win the ball, none of them getting anywhere near, and the ball fell to Khedira, who went on to score.

At 5-0, clearly, the match was over. After their blackout, Brazil’s players came to and began assimilating what had just taken place. They did their best to restrict Germany to five goals in the first half.

Brazil returned for the second half determined to reclaim a small slice of honour and with Germany happy to sit back and conserve their energy for the World Cup final on Sunday, Brazil got plenty of possession and started to put together some chances. They could not break through, and on Germany’s first attack of the second half they made it 6-0. Whatever incentive remaining for the Seleção had disappeared completely.

The reaction to this historic defeat was far removed from what foreign press had expected. Brazil did not go up in flames (despite reports of vandalism and torched buses in São Paulo) and the team bus was not hijacked on its way back to their training centre in Rio de Janeiro. Instead the majority of supporters recognised the ridiculousness of the situation and enjoyed a good old laugh at themselves. In the stadium and in bars all over the country, Brazilians started celebrating German goals and greeting their passing exchanges with familiar shouts of olé!

Graffiti scrawled on the walls outside the Seleção’s base in Granja Comary even had a hint of gallows humour. “Not even Volkswagen can make four Gols in six minutes!” read one message, a reference to the VW Gol, a popular car sold in Brazil.

This could well be a coping mechanism, as human beings often attempt to turn tragic situations into comedy, and it will be interesting to see how long it lasts.

1950 is on another level

A common theme in the international and Brazilian press has been to compare Tuesday’s game to the Maracanazo, the Seleção’s loss to Uruguay in the decisive match of the 1950 World Cup, also hosted here in Brazil. Of course, both were historic defeats in World Cups on home soil, but the differences between the two situations are huge, making comparisons laboured and unwise.

1950 was the first World Cup to be held after the Second World War and Brazil had yet to have any success on football’s world stage. Having just made the shift to democracy after 15 years of a dictatorship rule, the Brazilian public were as optimistic as ever and the Seleção winning the World Cup in the newly constructed Maracanã was seen as a certainty – it was their chance to become a major global power once and for all.

One of the main differences between Tuesday and 1950 concerns matters on the pitch. This Brazil side has some excellent talent (Neymar is truly magnificent while Thiago Silva is the best centre-back in world football), but their opponents have just as much skill and prowess, in many cases they have more. In 1950, no one could get close to Brazil’s squad. The group was largely made up of Vasco da Gama’s incredible Expresso da Vitória (Victory Express) side that ruled the roost in Brazilian domestic football, as well as Flamengo’s genius midfielder Zizinho, often regarded the best player of his generation.

In the week leading up to the decisive match against Uruguay, there was no sense of anticipation or nerves among the Brazilian public. In their eyes, Brazil were already champions. Before kick-off, the squad was addressed on the Maracanã’s public address system by the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Ângelo Mendes de Moraes, who prematurely referred to them as “the winners of the tournament” and “superior to any opponent”.

When Uruguay scored twice to win the match 2-1, Brazil stopped, looking on open-mouthed and in complete silence. The backlash from the defeat took a particularly nasty turn towards racism and self-hatred, with Brazilians feeling they would never again have the chance to become champions. They had the best team by a country mile, they had organised an excellent tournament, they had the world’s most impressive stadium, but they still could not win. The overwhelming feeling was that of inferiority, with the idea that Brazil could never be the best because they were a “sub-race”. For more on the Maracanazo, read the entire chapter devoted to it in A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football, by Mauricio Savarese and myself.

For this match against Germany, a semi-final against a side not regarded as being one of Brazil’s rivals, there was a lot of uncertainty from Brazilian fans and I would hazard a guess that the majority expected a Brazil defeat of some kind. The manner of the loss was the major shock, but most Brazilians took it in their stride, knowing they have five world titles to fall back on, more than any other country. The Mineiraço shrinks in comparison to the scale and impact of the Maracanazo.

Felipão true to form

Not everyone is coping well with Tuesday’s defeat, however. The Brazilian sports press are searching for answers and yesterday’s lunchtime press conference with Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlos Alberto Parreira and the rest of the coaching team had a few audibly upset journalists using their questions to vent their own personal frustrations at the 7-1 loss.

Felipão’s reaction was absolutely true to character. He protected his players, he protected his coaching team and spouted his typical responses in these situations, such as “these things happen”, “it wasn’t our day” and “that’s football!” This is obviously frustrating for fans of the Seleção desperate for an explanation or critique, but you should never expect any of the above from a sly professional like Scolari.

The situation has been set up perfectly for Felipão to shoulder the blame for the defeat and disappear into the shadows. I would not have been surprised if that was part of the discussion between Scolari and the CBF upon taking the job. The pressure on any Brazil manager in this World Cup was always going to be immense, but Felipão would get a huge contract, fill his boots with advertising deals, bask in the glory if Brazil won, and if they lost, he could take responsibility and disappear to his farm in Rio Grande do Sul.

Many of Felipão’s career choices have been based on gaining financial security for himself and his family. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he took various jobs in the Middle East (narrowly avoiding the outbreak of the Gulf War in Kuwait while travelling overseas with the Kuwaiti national team) and after getting the sack at Chelsea he went to manage FC Bunyodkor in Uzbekistan. I imagine that he has now made enough money to send his grandchildren’s children to university and will be happy to step out of the limelight and ride off into the gaúcho sunset.

With Felipão falling on his sword and refusing to blame his players, the expected backlash against squad members is less likely to occur. The team’s two key players, Neymar and Thiago Silva, missed the Germany match and although Thiago’s absence was self-inflicted, they are almost certain to escape criticism.

Villains against Germany, David Luiz and Fernandinho could also escape with their reputations intact. Luiz was possibly the worst player on the pitch on Tuesday (although Marcelo’s apathetic performance may take some beating), but he is such an idol among Brazil’s fans that he was the only player applauded off the pitch. Fernandinho was also woeful against the Germans, but made a real difference when he came in to replace Paulinho earlier in the tournament. I would be surprised if he was ditched after the competition.

Another senior figure, goalkeeper Júlio César, had a good World Cup and saw his reputation improve greatly. He may be phased out of the squad due to his advancing years, but he should leave gracefully and through the front door.

There will be some casualties though. Full-backs Marcelo and Daniel Alves are not popular figures and will find it difficult to win their way back into Brazilian hearts, while centre-forward Fred was roundly booed by the Belo Horizonte crowd. Although he was ineffective for the entire tournament, the jeers for Fred had a tragic side to them considering where the match took place. The striker was born in the nearby city of Teófilo Otoni and was once regarded as an idol at the Mineirão thanks to his heroics at Cruzeiro, one of Belo Horizonte’s big two. I would be shocked if he got anywhere near the national team again, and I would also be surprised were he to stay in Brazil for much longer.

Answers

So why did Brazil lose? The mathematician inside me strives for a tactical formula to explain it, and Brazil certainly made a couple of strategic errors. First of all, they failed to start a third central midfielder in order to give some sort of competition to Germany’s magnificent trio of Khedira, Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Oscar played as an attacking midfielder, off the shoulder of Schweinsteiger, when he should have played much deeper and tracked the Bayern maestro all over the pitch. Furthermore, Marcelo’s insistence in pushing forward and allowing Müller, Lahm, Khedira, Klose and Schweinsteiger to have a field day in the space he vacated was insane. Their overall approach was also baffling, almost dismissing Germany’s threat and trying to stretch them while leaving themselves wide open at the back.

However, 7-1 cannot be explained by tactics alone. It might sound like lazy journalism, but I do not believe this Brazil side was emotionally equipped to deal with the occasion. They would have preferred a calmer route to the semi-final, not having to recover from an early own goal in the opening game and not having to endure an exhausting penalty shootout against Chile. Their emotions were already spilling out all over the place before the match began.

It is also a worrying sign when their most senior player (Júlio César) and their captain for the day (David Luiz) were in floods of tears in their post-match interviews.

The way the tournament went, considering not only their mentally exhausting route to the last four but also Neymar’s injury and Thiago Silva’s suspension, Brazil looked to be walking a tightrope with their emotions in the first half against Germany. Joachim Löw’s side were excellent, Brazil started to wobble when Müller opened the scoring and the second goal tipped them off the edge. A more experienced or resolute Brazil side perhaps would not have been eliminated in such spectacular fashion.

I do not believe this Brazil side to be among the top four teams in international football (some of my colleagues even believe this side is Brazil’s worst of all-time), so in a way, reaching the semi-finals was a success. However, I do think home advantage was what pushed them this far, having only played brief spells of good football throughout the groups and against Chile and Colombia. Had this World Cup been hosted elsewhere, the last 16 match against Chile, for example, could have turned out very differently indeed.

So what happens now? Claiming Brazilians should feel short-changed with the elimination after “investing so much money in the tournament” is way off the mark. I am no economist, but from my point of view this World Cup has been a rousing success for Brazil, even if the national team failed to make the final. They have organised a superb tournament, enjoyed by everyone who visited, and have passed on an altogether positive image of their wonderful country to those outside their borders. Many will have a right to feel displeased at the incompletion of some promised infrastructure and the apparent overspending on stadiums, but that is an argument completely independent of Tuesday’s result in the Mineirão.

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Neymar: Karma? Assault? Neither

Neymar’s fractured vertebra had a special significance for me, his rise to greatness coincided with my experiences in Brazil. In my first visit to the country, I watched his debut and his first goal for Santos. I kept up with him regularly, I watched him week in, week out along with his equally promising midfield supply line Paulo Henrique Ganso. I saw him develop into a lethal forward and a mature adult. When I took the leap and moved here in the beginning of 2011, Neymar took his own leap, leading Santos to the Copa Libertadores trophy. Most of my journalistic work since then was trying to convince Europeans that he is, in fact, destined to be the best player in the world. He’s also exactly two months my junior, which should make no difference at all, but in my years of obsession over football he was the first promising talent to come along who was actually younger than me.

When the news filtered through that Neymar would miss Brazil’s last two matches of the World Cup, it really got to me. No one wants to see the tournament’s stars missing matches through injury, everyone loses in this situation, not just Brazil.

Unfortunately, instead of respecting and supporting Neymar, who is obviously distraught to be missing Brazil’s decisive semi-final tomorrow and whatever game comes after it, the world seems to have been taken over by a tidal wave of hysteria, coming at us from multiple angles.

First of all, the reaction in Brazil to Camilo Zúñiga’s foul on Neymar was bitter, exaggerated and unfair. “Put him in a cage!” suggested one pundit on Brazilian television later that evening, “Zúñiga should be banned from football for life!” exclaimed another. Since Friday afternoon, I have seldom heard Zúñiga’s name uttered in public, he is referred to as “that animal”. On social media, the Colombian full-back (as well as his mother and daughter) has received all kinds of vile abuse and threats, often with racist language and sentiments.

At the same time, I cannot stomach headlines written in the English-speaking press that claim Neymar’s injury was “karma”, or that Brazil “deserved” to lose him or brought it on themselves in any way. They seem, in my opinion, to be off the mark, in bad taste and childish, with arguments tantamount to “well, Brazil started it!”

The sentiment behind this reporting also confuses me. The popular Brazilian sports press is a reactionary bunch at the best of times, and many here feel that without Neymar they have lost their chance of winning the tournament, so a bit of exaggeration and outpouring of emotion is to be expected. But what justification is there for the New York Times to make their own reactionary leap and say that Brazil deserve to lose their star player?

I believe that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Neymar’s injury was not “karma”, neither was it brazen assault.

Firstly, for people to deny Brazil’s rough tactics seems extremely silly. I have watched the match nearly three times now and their pursuit of Colombia’s technical and dangerous players becomes clearer every time. After 12 minutes, Fernandinho clatters Juan Cuadrado and then James Rodríguez in quick succession. Both of them were nasty fouls, typical of a player trying to intimidate his opponents. Considering it was early in the match, perhaps neither foul deserved a yellow card, but together, one after the other, I would certainly think about cautioning the player if I were the referee.

Fernandinho cuts Rodríguez down again ten minutes later, clatters him once more another ten minutes afterwards and brings him down again only one minute after. All of these incidents looked calculated to me, sending a message to the young playmaker. Despite these five hefty fouls, Fernandinho escaped punishment, setting a precedent for the rest of the players on the field.

Colombia ended up committing more fouls in the first half, but that is to be expected considering Brazil had the vast majority of possession. Most of the fouls from Pékerman’s side seemed to be clumsy and mistimed, although one body-check from Carlos Sánchez on Neymar did seem to be in the same vein as Fernandinho’s robust challenges on Rodríguez.

Zúñiga, the soon-to-be public enemy number one, committed two fouls in the first half. His first was a trip on Neymar outside of the penalty area (nothing malicious or cynical, good skill by Neymar, if anything) and his second was a high tackle on Hulk. The latter was a dangerous foul which caught Hulk on his knee and was certainly worthy of a yellow card. Had the caution been applied, the injury-causing foul on Neymar is unlikely to have taken place. As it was, the first half ended with no cards.

Hunted in the centre, James Rodríguez started to drift to the flanks and between the lines to try and find pockets of space to play in. On the left flank, he suffered two early second-half fouls from Maicon. The first did not seem like much, but in the second Maicon visibly rakes his studs down Rodríguez’s Achilles tendon.

Juan Cuadrado, Colombia’s other frustrated attacker, picked up two consecutive fouls from Marcelo midway through the half. He approaches the referee asking for a card and is seen asking “how many?” as in how many more fouls are needed for a yellow card to appear. Two minutes later, he clatters Neymar near his own penalty box. Again, no card is shown.

The yellow cards did eventually come and they were distributed in a strange manner. Thiago Silva rightly received a caution for blocking the goalkeeper as he had possession, and James Rodríguez receives a ludicrous booking for his first foul, a sliding tackle on Hulk. I agree with the awarding of the foul, but considering the context of the other incidents that escaped punishment and the treatment Rodríguez himself had received, the yellow card was a ridiculous decision.

Elsewhere, Mário Yepes was booked for dissent and Júlio César was booked for Colombia’s penalty kick.

The only other significant foul in the match was Zuniga’s on Neymar, causing the Brazilian to fracture his third vertebra. It was clumsy and dangerous, like his foul on Hulk in the first half, but I did not see the pure malice that most of Brazil saw. Along with two of Fernandinho’s in the first half and Zuniga’s earlier foul on Hulk, this was one of the game’s rougher and more dangerous incidents, all four worthy of yellow cards. An aggressive match such as this holds these risks for more technical and therefore targeted players. Perhaps the speed Zuniga reached before making contact was the decisive factor in causing Neymar’s injury, but Fernandinho could just as easily have broken Rodriguez’s ribs in the first 15 minutes.

After the game I was surprised by the immediate reaction from the international media, calling the match a “bloodbath” and other similar descriptions. There were certainly a huge number of fouls which stifled the flow of the match, as well as a few nasty incidents, but nothing like the 90-minute brawl that was reported. It was no bloodbath, just a poorly controlled game of football between one side that set a tone of aggressive play and another that gave as good as they got.

There is no doubt that Luiz Felipe Scolari set his Brazil team out to get in Colombia’s faces and for Fernandinho to target James Rodríguez. This type of fouling, which Felipão calls “tactical fouls”, are used as a resource by his sides, an aspect of the game to be used to his advantage. This perhaps goes some way towards explaining Felipão’s nonchalant public reaction to Neymar’s injury. The evening of the match, he suggested an injury such as this to Neymar was “a matter of time” and earlier today he refused to criticise the referee for not punishing Zúñiga. He is aware that Neymar is targeted by opposition players, as it is a tactic he uses himself, even against Neymar. When he was head coach at Palmeiras, Felipão’s tactics against Santos always involved setting one player to shadow Neymar and intimidate him.

But that is not to say this Brazil side can be compared to Wimbledon of the late 1980s, Oswaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes from the 1960s or even the Netherlands side from the last World Cup in 2010. They are heavy-handed, but still skilful and often pleasant to watch.

However, it is a shame the Seleção would have “tactical fouling” as any part of their match strategy, but it has been that way for a long time. The attractive side of the 1982 World Cup dazzled the world but were eliminated early, and failures in 1986 and 1990 led to a change in mentality. Futebol-arte (art football) became futebol de resultados (results football), spearheaded by Carlos Alberto Parreira’s less-inspiring (there’s an understatement) side that won the 1994 World Cup. The fact is that most Brazilians, genuine football fans or no, put winning above all else. The 1982 side is still revered and admired here, but always with that caveat. Truly idolised teams are those who won trophies. (For more on this shift, read chapter J for Jogo Bonito of A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football, written by myself and Mauricio Savarese.)

Neymar’s injury has been treated like the death of a national hero. Footage of him being put into a helicopter to take him home to Guarujá was reminiscent of that of Ayrton Senna’s body being transported from the airplane to the funeral home. Given that, it is perhaps no surprise that the Brazilian public appear to be passing through the classic five stages of grief for Neymar’s World Cup final hopes.

First, denial. After the injury there was some worry about Neymar, but the thought that he could miss the semi-final, never mind more matches, did not seem to cross anyone’s mind. Second, anger. The outbursts against Zuniga, against the referee, against Fifa, against anyone who would listen. Third, bargaining. Yesterday, a story surged of a doctor who offered treatment to Neymar which could allow him to play a potential final, despite the immense risks to the rest of his career. Fourth, depression. The Germany game is looming, and without Neymar and Thiago Silva, many in Brazil feel the Seleção are already eliminated. Here’s hoping they can reach stage five, acceptance, as soon as possible.

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Seleção: the story so far

The group stage has come to a close and hosts Brazil have successfully qualified for the next phase. So what have we learned about the Seleção?

The most important point to remember is that group stage performances are not the be-all and end-all when going into the tournament’s later stages. Brazil qualified in first place in their group, which is all that matters. The key to winning short tournaments such as the World Cup is gaining momentum in the knockout stages.

In the World Cup of 1982, Brazil’s dream team with Zico, Sócrates and Falcão were terrific in the group stage, comfortably winning all three matches and dazzling spectators all over the globe. However, they did not address some defensive issues that cropped up against the USSR and Scotland and were shocked by Italy in the second group phase and sent home early.

Brazil’s 0-0 draw with Mexico will mean nothing if the Seleção manage to hit form in the knockout phase. What the opening stage is important for is ironing out mistakes, finding balance within the team and gaining momentum.

With an almost identical squad, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s goal at this World Cup was to reclaim the positive atmosphere created during the Confederations Cup. This was always going to be difficult — these are totally different tournaments, the Confederations Cup is only semi-competitive and the stakes are exponentially higher in the World Cup, for Brazil and their opponents.

Brazil have fallen into this trap before, back at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. One year before, they strolled to the Confederations Cup title, brushing aside a weak Argentina side in the final, winning 4-1. At the main event in 2006, they seemed over-confident and failed to impress, being eliminated in the quarter-finals.

The Seleção’s connection with their fans, a crucial part in the Confederations Cup win, has changed. Last year’s mass public protests took a dramatically nationalist turn around the time of the tournament, bringing widespread support for the Seleção. That same protest movement has since fizzled out, replaced by much smaller, isolated and often violent demonstrations that have lost public support completely. The patriotic swell that the Seleção benefitted from last year has passed, the familiar pressure and expectation on the national team has returned.

The difference is best observed during the national anthem, which since last year has had its second verse sung a cappella by the fans, with Fifa imposing a time limit on anthems played over stadium speaker systems. Last year, while belting out the final few lines along with an almost all-Brazilian crowd, the players looked inspired and motivated. This year, some of the players look visibly nervous during the anthem. Neymar burst into tears before the match against Mexico and went on to play a terrible game. Elsewhere in the squad, players such as Daniel Alves, Marcelo and Paulinho have struggled, three others that look visibly nervous under the World Cup pressure.

A defining characteristic of Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory was the way they started each match at an incredibly fast tempo, pressing high up the pitch and often scoring early goals. In their World Cup opener against Croatia, instead of taking an early lead they conceded an early own goal.

It appears that Felipão’s system is going stale. They have refused to make changes and tweaks and this insisted repetition has stifled their creativity and flair. Against Mexico, they had possession but could not break through to score an opening goal. Felipão looked to his substitutes’ bench and was unable to offer any effective attacking variations.

At half-time against Cameroon, Brazil’s tournament encountered a potential turning point. The introduction of Manchester City’s Fernandinho in the place of Paulinho transformed Brazil’s worst performance into their best.

The match was an odd one. With nothing to lose, Cameroon poured forward and flooded Brazil’s midfield, stretching their defence and impeding them from constructing moves on the ground. The Seleção’s response was to lob balls over Cameroon’s advancing midfield to Neymar, who often found himself in all sorts of space to pick apart the opposition’s disappointing defence.

Cameroon were so vulnerable at the back that Brazil got away with a 2-1 lead going into half-time. It is unlikely any future opponent will offer such space to Neymar and co, especially now we have entered the last 16 stage.

The introductions of Fernandinho and Ramires on the right side brought calm to the midfield storm and Brazil were finally able to control the match and dictate the tempo. Fernandinho’s presence was such an improvement on the absent Paulinho, the Manchester City midfielder helped to organise the play from the middle and even pitched in with a goal. Felipão would be crazy not to start him against Chile on Saturday.

Looking forward to the last 16 match with Chile, there are certainly worries for Brazil. From what we saw against Cameroon, the Seleção struggle when pressed high up the pitch, which is what Chile will do to them all day.

Brazil’s full-backs have also been unconvincing, which Chile will look to exploit. Sampaoli’s side play with two attacking wing-backs, Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena, who always look to get involved in the play. Their two forwards, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, will also give plenty of trouble to Marcelo and Daniel Alves respectively, always looking to attack the channels with direct running. The potential introduction of Maicon at right-back shows Felipão’s worries in this zone.

However, Chile’s weaknesses leave them susceptible to Brazil’s strengths. Sampaoli’s high back line could be torn apart by Brazil’s moments of explosive attacking skill, while their lack of height can potentially be exploited by Brazil’s good set-pieces. I would not be surprised if we saw a high-scoring tie.

Brazil will also have the psychological edge. The Seleção have not lost to Chile in their last 12 meetings and they have beaten them twice in the last 16 stage of the World Cup, in 1998 and 2010. The Chileans are known as Brazil’s fregués — literally meaning “customer”, a team that regularly loses to another. Of course, this retrospect will have little impact on the strength of either side on Saturday, but the step from the group stage into the knockouts is crucial and Brazil would rather play Chile than have to face their demons of 2010 in a match against Holland.

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Days nine and ten: Hypothetically speaking

Once again, I wasn’t able to put up a diary yesterday, so here’s an extended thought for today to make up for it.

When Portugal eliminated Sweden in the playoff stage of World Cup qualifying, football fans around the globe realised the tournament in Brazil would be missing one of the world’s most talented stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, voted the best player in the world that season, would be there; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic would not.

With Diego Costa’s decision to snub the Seleção still fresh in the memory, some Brazilian columnists asked sarcastically: “Can’t we get Zlatan to play up front for us?”

The sentiment, of course, is purely comical, but you feel that the only piece missing from the Brazilian national team puzzle is a technically gifted centre-forward. Fred, despite his physical presence and natural eye for goal, is an extremely limited striker. He is static, sloppy and sluggish. He does not have the skill to link up play and bring in others around him and he is only there for his positioning in the penalty area.

Fred had a great Confederations Cup, but mainly because the rest of the team was functioning well around him. He wasn’t needed to create play, drag defenders out of position, make intelligent runs or work back to defend. The rest of the team did all of that for him and successfully gave him the ball in and around the penalty area, where Fred flourishes.

In Brazil’s opening games, the rest of the side has not been functioning properly. Not enough chances are being created, not enough space is being made for forward runs of Neymar, Hulk, Oscar or Paulinho. Against Croatia and Mexico, Fred was a passenger, his presence notable only for the laughable penalty he won in the opener in São Paulo.

Imagine Zlatan Ibrahimovic was playing in that central attacking role. His tremendous technique and intelligence could make the Brazilian offensive unit unstoppable. But, of course, that’s ridiculous. International football does not work that way and neither should it. In club football we can see teams formed by players from different countries, with different backgrounds, educations, styles. Barcelona can build a marvellous side using only homegrown players, but if they lack firepower up front they can always splash out on a foreign No 9.

At international level, nations have a defined pool from which to choose. If country X have not produced any talented goalkeepers, there is no amount of money or bargaining tool that can get them one, they have to field the best goalkeeper they have, no matter how terrible he is in comparison with the rest of the team.

I was reminded of this Zlatan hypothetical on Thursday while watching another excellent day of World Cup football. England lost to Uruguay in dramatic circumstances in São Paulo, waving goodbye to their chances of progressing. Later that evening, Japan failed to score against 10-man Greece in one of the competition’s most frustrating games. If each national team were permitted to swap one player with another country, England and Japan could have been more successful.

Against Uruguay, England were narrowly beaten on the scoreboard, but comprehensively beaten in the midfield battle. This was understandable considering their shape: Hodgson went with his familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with the midfield line of three (Sterling, Rooney and Wellbeck) playing very high up the pitch. Their defensive line, worried about Uruguay’s pace in attack, were hesitant to step up, leaving a vast space between defence and attack with England’s central midfield pair, Gerrard and Henderson, the only ones to occupy it.

Uruguay changed their system (a feature of Oscar Tabárez’s Uruguay sides is their tactical versatility) and played a midfield diamond with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani in attack. Egídio Arévalo Rios, their stocky, ankle-biting defensive midfielder, kept Rooney quiet for most of the match while their other midfielders, Álvaro González, Cristián Rodríguez and Nicolás Lodeiro swamped the middle of the pitch with their constant energy and pressing. Cavani, always willing to work back, also played a crucial role in closing down Gerrard.

The result was England’s two central midfielders, those responsible for creating attacking moves, were watched by four tireless Uruguayans. Gerrard, the closest thing England had to a playmaker, spent most of his time passing the ball to Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill – the England back four.

Ideally, England need someone to drop off the front four and provide a creative source in the attacking third of the pitch. They have the objective and dangerous attackers – Raheem Sterling in particular was a breath of fresh air against Italy, taking on defenders and getting shots on goal – but they have no one to feed them, no one to knit their side together.

Imagine if England had Shinji Kagawa of Japan in their team, the nimble playmaker that dazzled at Borussia Dortmund but has never really been given a chance at Manchester United. He would sit in the No 10 position, providing a link between Gerrard and Henderson and the three deadly forwards. Rooney could play closer to goal, perhaps coming in from the left as Benzema did yesterday against Switzerland, with Daniel Sturridge at centre-forward and Sterling as the deep winger on the right.

England get a lot of stick, even from their own fans, but their matches against Italy and Uruguay have been among the most entertaining in the group stage so far. They have the talent and the threat in attack, but in both games I have been left with the sensation that they are missing one player in attacking midfield.

If Japan were to cede Kagawa to England, they would be well served by bringing in any one of England’s front four to replace him. Japan have played twice, winning only one point and scoring one goal. In their opener against Ivory Coast, they started well and took the lead, but quickly lost control of the game and their goal was subjected to an Ivorian onslaught for the remainder of the match. They were perhaps taken by surprise at the manner in which Ivory Coast turned the game around, with two goals in two minutes, but in truth Japan never looked like winning.

Their match against Greece on Thursday evening was particularly frustrating: Greek midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis was sent off after only 38 minutes, leaving Japan against ten men for over 50 minutes of play. They passed the ball around well, with around 75% of possession and 90% pass completion, but they failed to test the Greek goalkeeper more than four times, all shots from outside the penalty area.

Their creativity was not the problem, they were finding their attacking players in good positions and spreading the ball around when they needed to, probing and looking for gaps, but their forwards were hesitant upon receiving possession. Instead of being objective and going for goal, they would take an extra half second to survey the situation, seeing if there was a better pass available before they took the shot themselves. This delay allowed the Greece defence to close them down, and it is hardly a surprise so many of Japan’s shots on goal were blocked in and around the penalty area.

I was once told a Japanese proverb that would go some way to explaining this flaw in their playing style, it was translated to me as: “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”. I do not know how poignant this is to Japanese culture, but if this idea was to prevail during the formation of young Japanese athletes then it would result in what we see from the national side today. They are a mechanical team, skilful and technically gifted, but also very creative. In Keisuke Honda, Kagawa and Yasuhito Endo, they have at least three playmakers with excellent vision and intelligence. However, when they reach the final third of the pitch, no one seems hungry enough to take responsibility and have a shot on goal without overthinking.

If Japan could add just one player to their squad, perhaps Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, or Daniel Sturridge, someone to take up good positions and be objective and hungry for goals, they could have six points instead of one.

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