Football at its best

This evening sees all ten of South America’s footballing nations embark on the long qualification journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two years and eighteen matchdays from now, four teams will have earned their places in the group stage draw, with a fifth going into an intercontinental play-off.

In the opinion of this journalist, the South American section of World Cup qualifying is some of the greatest entertainment available in the sport. Only the World Cup itself can compete.

The format of the competition is ideal. Ten teams are lumped together in one large pool, with every country plays each another twice, home and away. The guarantee of eighteen matches allows for the smaller nations to plan and prepare, not only in football terms but in financial terms. It is no secret that since this qualifying format was introduced in the 1990s, the quality of the national teams of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela has increased greatly.

For the bigger nations, a sterner test of ability, squad depth and mental toughness is impossible. Argentina are guaranteed to play rivals Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Colombia twice each. They are guaranteed trips to the altitude of Quito and La Paz. South American sides arrive at World Cups with a profound knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses.

Besides the practical reasons, South American qualifiers bring countless ties seeped in history. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, the continent’s footballing pioneers, have been playing against one another without interruption since the 1910s. Chile, Bolivia and Paraguay came along soon after.

The qualifying campaign’s first double-header contains some mouth-watering ties. However, none of the ten nations will be at full-strength. These matches are an entree to the feast of international football coming our way over the next two years.

The highlight of matchday one sees Chile face Brazil at the Estádio Nacional in Santiago.

It will be the first time the two teams have met in competition since 28 June last year, when Brazil eliminated Chile on penalties in the World Cup second round. A lot has changed since then.

Chile returned home from that defeat with their heads held high and turned their attentions to hosting the 2015 Copa América. They stormed to victory, beating Argentina in the final and winning their first ever piece of silverware.

Brazil, meanwhile, lost 7-1 to Germany.

With few changes, one should not expect any surprises from Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile team. It is largely the same side that played both the World Cup and the Copa América. However they are without Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Charles Aránguiz, who tore his Achilles tendon two months ago.

While the plaudits in this Chile side usually go to Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez, Jorge Valdívia or Gary Medel, Sampaoli’s playing style is bound together by the industry of Aránguiz. His role in the team is just as important as anyone else’s, if not more so.

In their recent friendly against Paraguay, Chile looked vulnerable without Aránguiz. Sampaoli is likely to use Arturo Vidal in a deeper role to compensate, but the box-to-box quality of Aránguiz is irreplaceable.

To further complicate things, there are doubts over the fitness of Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both will start, but are unlikely to be 100%.

Brazil goes into this qualifying campaign with public opinion of the national team close to an all-time low. From the 7-1, Brazilian football went headfirst into Fifa-gate. Former president of the Brazilian FA (CBF) José Maria Marin was among the nine Fifa officials arrested in Zurich. He is currently awaiting extradition to the USA. His replacement at the CBF, Co-Conspirator #12, has refused to leave the country since Marin’s arrest.

Dunga’s team got people’s hopes up with an impressive run of wins in friendlies. Against such opposition as Colombia and France, Brazil flew to 10 wins in 10. But when push came to shove at the Copa América, Brazil crumbled.

To make matters worse, Neymar is suspended for Brazil’s two opening qualifiers after his involvement in a post-match scrap at the Copa. The past year has been ripe with examples of the national team’s dependency on the Barcelona forward. In a recent friendly against the USA, after testing a Neymar-less formation for only 45 minutes, Dunga capitulated and brought on his talisman to play the second half.

Colombia, also disappointing at the Copa América, go into this qualifying double-header desperate to reclaim some of the euphoria that surrounded their last World Cup qualifying campaign. They face Peru at home this evening in the intense Caribbean heat of Barranquilla.

Colombia’s coach José Pékerman has been forced into making changes to his starting eleven.

The big news is that Real Madrid’s James Rodríguez was cut from the squad due to injury. His replacement is likely to be Atlético Nacional’s Macnelly Torres, a classic playmaker with wonderful vision, though he has arrived with fitness problems of his own.

Full-backs Pablo Armero and Camilo Zúñiga, ever-present during Pékerman’s reign, both miss out. PSV’s Santiago Arias will get the nod at right-back, while Frank Fabra should start on the left despite making his international debut only last month.

The most interesting change will come in the centre of midfield. At the Copa América, with injuries to Abel Aguilar and Freddy Guarín, Pékerman played with two anchor men in midfield: Carlos Sánchez and Edwin Valencia. Defensively they were excellent. When they faced Brazil, Sánchez silenced Neymar as he has done before with Lionel Messi. The problem was they had no players who could pass out of midfield. With no-one to step out of that zone and play important angled passes to their attackers, Colombia were left flat and predictable. They scored only one goal in the entire tournament – and that came from a set-piece.

Aguilar is still out, but Guarín returns. However, Pékerman is likely to ignore the Internazionale man and hand a start to 22 year old Gustavo Cuéllar, a sturdy midfielder who reads the game well and has a good eye for a forward pass. The fact Cuéllar plays his club football in Barranquilla with Junior also cannot hurt.

 

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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.

Scrambling for spots

With Tuesday’s dead rubber draw between Peru and Bolivia, the South American qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup came to a close. Compared to that of other continental confederations around the globe, the current qualifying system used by Conmebol is the most entertaining, the most competitive and it serves as the best preparation for major tournaments.

All ten of Conmebol’s member nations (nine this time around, with Brazil qualified as World Cup hosts) compete in one group, and the guaranteed fixture list of home and away games provides a stern test for the better nations and a superb chance for development for the weaker nations. For proof, one needs look no further than Ecuador and Venezuela, once the continent’s whipping-boys. Ecuador has now qualified for its third World Cup since 2002 and although Venezuela narrowly missed out on qualification, their steady progress makes them strong candidates to make the 2018 finals.

In the absence of Brazil, Argentina unsurprisingly topped the group. Seeing as they will be the “home” team in most of the southern venues at next year’s tournament, and considering their wealth of attacking talent (including Lionel Messi, someone you may have heard of), Argentina must be considered among the favourites to win in Brazil.

Colombia finished in second place and qualify for their first World Cup finals since France 98. Much has been made of this Colombia side (with good reason when you consider their front three of James Rodríguez, Teo Gutiérrez and Radamel Falcao), but comparisons with the golden generation of the early 90s are unfair and invalid. Not only did that team have more quality in more areas of the field, they also had to deal with inhumane external pressure that culminated in the tragic murder of el Caballero del Fútbol Andrés Escobar after their elimination from the 1994 World Cup.

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Speaking exclusively about matters on the pitch, the current Colombia team is undoubtedly talented, but also dangerously imbalanced – a trade-off for having the superb Radamel Falcao in attack. While Falcao is probably the world’s best penalty box finisher, he is often only as good as the service he receives. When Colombia’s Argentinian coach José Pékerman started to fill his side with attacking options to feed Falcao, they started winning. However, this onus on attack leaves them vulnerable in defence, even more so with their creaking centre-back corps.

The 3-3 draw against Chile in Barranquilla was a microcosm of this current side. Pékerman started the match with three central defenders in an attempt to contain Chile’s attacking threats, but he still selected James Rodríguez and Teo to support Falcao. The result was a completely disjointed team, isolated forwards and a back line that Chile’s forwards repeatedly outpaced, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

With the Barranquilla crowd spurring them on, Colombia came out fighting for the second half and overloaded Chile, playing a physical, high-intensity style. Amazingly, they drew the match 3-3.

Chile, who qualified in third place, suffer from many of the same problems. Under Jorge Sampaoli they play the most attractive attacking football on the continent, but are frequently undone in defence.

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Sampaoli rose to prominence as the coach of Universidad de Chile, who entertained the continent in 2011 and -12 with their relentless attacking and haphazard defending. Sampaoli – a cross between Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and a furious chimpanzee – has translated that system word for word to the national team, and they are sure to be the neutral’s favourite next year.

Looking at World Cup 2014 odds, Chile could be a good outside bet for reaching the semi-finals.

Perhaps unfairly regarded as a surprise entrant, Ecuador sealed the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot. Their Colombian coach Reginaldo Rueda has built a solid unit capable of causing problems to any team, spearheaded by excellent wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero.

With the tragic death of Cristián “Chucho” Benítez earlier in the year, Ecuador had to overcome a particularly tough hurdle in order to qualify. Besides being a close friend to many of the squad and an irreplaceable dressing room presence, Chucho was also crucial to Ecuador’s style on the pitch.

Playing as a second striker behind Felipe Caicedo, Chucho would work the channels and frustrate defences, often creating chances out of nothing. Ecuador have no-one else in that mould, and while they struggled to adept emotionally and technically, they very nearly lost their place in the top four.

Current Copa América holders Uruguay finished in fifth place and will play off against Jordan for a spot in Brazil. Despite a disappointing campaign, I fully expect them to qualify, but I will talk more about them another day.

With teams around the world scrambling for places in the group stage draw, hosts Brazil and their coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are putting the finishing touches to their preparation. The Seleção played two friendlies during this international break, two 2-0 wins over South Korea and Zambia in the Far East.

It is clear that the side that won the Confederations Cup in July will form the base of their team at the World Cup, with several fringe players fighting for the final spots in the 23-man squad. These friendlies have more or less confirmed the presence of Jefferson and Diego Cavalieri as back-up goalkeepers, Dante and Dedé as the reserve centre-backs and Maxwell as Marcelo’s understudy at left-back.

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Liverpool’s defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva made an excellent return to the national side, and he may be in with a chance of a starting berth ahead of Luiz Gustavo. It doesn’t look like good news for Lucas Moura or Alexandre Pato though, as both were disappointing, slated by Brazilian journalists and will probably miss the final cut.

By my reckoning, there are only two available spots in Brazil’s World Cup squad: a centre-forward (most likely Fred on his return from injury, possibly Diego Costa) and a reserve attacking midfielder. If I were Felipão, I would be looking at either Liverpool’s Phillipe Coutinho or Atlético-MG’s Diego Tardelli.

Five talking points from Brazil 1×1 Colombia

1. Colombia sacrificed midfield creativity for wing play – and it paid off

Since taking the Colombia job, Argentine coach José Pékerman has established a basic standard of selecting four defenders, two deep midfielders, and four attackers. Within these parameters, there are a number of variations Pékerman can make, depending on the match situation and the level of opposition.

One of the main variations concerns the deep midfield duo, and is a choice between creativity and solidity. On the one hand, you have Fredy Guarín of Internazionale and Monarcas’ Aldo Leão Ramírez – both strong, competitive midfielders, but with great vision and a wide passing range. On the other, there are players like Deportivo’s Abel Aguilar, Valenciennes’ Carlos Sánchez and Fluminense’s Edwin Valencia. All three are holding midfielders, tasked with breaking up play and covering Colombia’s marauding full-backs. Continue reading Five talking points from Brazil 1×1 Colombia

Game of the Week: Atlético Nacional 2×0 Universidad de Chile

Another week, another game. This time Game of the Week heads to the north-west of the continent to the Colombian city of Medellín. There, nestled in the Aburrá valley, a noisy crowd packed in to the Atanasio Girardot to witness a superb game of football. But first, some back story.

It is easy to forget today that back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Colombian football was one of the biggest forces on the continent. While the Cali and Medellín drug cartels operated almost unopposed, the country’s infamous drug lords pumped their dirty money into the game, and into their favourite teams. Continue reading Game of the Week: Atlético Nacional 2×0 Universidad de Chile

Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update

For the past few months, you would be forgiven for thinking that ILFM solely focused on football here in Brazil and nowhere else. However, the fact is that I aim to write about all types of South American football, Argentine, Uruguayan, Venezuelan… You name it, I have a passion for it.

The remarkably exciting 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season certainly took centre stage here on this blog, but now that it has been concluded, allow me to bring you up to date with everything else that’s going on in this beautiful continent. Continue reading Manure-handlers, projectiles and Hamilton Ricard: South America update