Grêmio wave goodbye to title hopes

Roger Machado’s exciting Grêmio side have surely been the story of this Brazilian season, though they have seen their title chances slip away this week after disappointing results against Corinthians and São Paulo.

At the start of the championship, Grêmio were touted as relegation candidates, with then manager Luiz Felipe Scolari playing a most uninspiring and cynical brand of football, with no individual talent to back it up.

The tricolor drew their opening match at home to Ponte Preta before losing away to Coritiba. Felipão, sensing his position was under threat, resigned and headed off to China, leaving Grêmio without a coach less than two weeks into the league season.

With no money in the bank to bring in a big-name replacement, Grêmio looked down the leagues and brought in the relatively untested Roger Machado, a former player of the Porto Alegre side in the 1990s.

Roger hit the ground running, winning seven of his first ten matches in charge. Meanwhile, he managed to find a playing style to suit his squad, focusing on speed, transitions and rapid passing – exactly what Brazilian defences have the most trouble with. Continue reading Grêmio wave goodbye to title hopes

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.

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.

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.

Days seven and eight: Excuses and abdications

I had planned to write something yesterday about the Seleção, but other commitments (and the excellent games of football) made that impossible. So here are days seven and eight mashed together.

A goalkeeper receiving the man of the match award is usually the sign of a disappointing game of football. Tuesday’s goalless draw between Brazil and Mexico was an exception to this rule, as although Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa was the standout performer, there was plenty of entertainment to be had in Fortaleza.

Brazil failed to convince for the second game in a row, but the draw means that they will almost certainly finish top of their group. My initial reaction to the match was that Brazil were far from impressive, but there was no need for panic. Mexico proved to be tougher opposition than expected and international tournaments are all about hitting top form at the right time. Beating Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon would count for nothing if they were to play poorly in the last 16.

What worried me, however, was Felipão’s reaction. Knowing that the Brazilian public is among the most polemic when it comes to football, the coach correctly praised their opposition, but used Ochoa’s performance as an excuse and claimed Brazil had improved from the Croatia match. To be more precise, Felipão said the Seleção had improved by ten percent.

ESPN pounced on that statement, spitting out facts to disprove the coach. They had more possession against Croatia, more shots on goal, more corners, less fouls committed … Statistics, of course, do not tell the whole story, but their decrease in productivity was clear. Having a poor match against Mexico is excusable, refusing to recognise that is not.

Without Hulk, who had picked up a knock (although claimed he was 100% fit), Felipão started with Ramires on the right of midfield and played a 4-1-4-1 system, looking to protect against Mexico’s wide threat. Ramires struggled, picked up a yellow card and was substituted at half-time. Instead of bringing on a midfielder to reclaim possession in the middle, Felipão chose to introduce Bernard, a quick winger, and Brazil lost control of the midfield.

Mexico were once again tactically impressive. They manipulated spaces well and neutralised Brazil’s threats, all they need is to improve their end product. Of their 22 attempts on goal in their first two matches, they have still scored only once. Croatia, their main rivals for qualification, have scored five goals after 29 attempts.

Kudos to Australia for giving us one of the best matches of the tournament so far. We are now so used to seeing teams parking the bus against technically superior sides, that it has almost become the only option to limited teams to approach such matches. In their game against Holland, Australia reminded us there is another way.

Although most popular sports media were sure Australia would sit back and defend, nothing we saw in the match against Chile suggested that. They pushed high up the pitch and pressed Holland in their own half. Their fitness and energy was extremely impressive and they were first to almost every ball.

Louis van Gaal got it wrong by going with the 3-5-2 system. He had trained a 4-3-3 at the weekend, but decided to start with the same team that played against Spain. There were two possible reasons for his choice: either he agreed with the hypothesis that Australia would play defensively, or he did not want to change the team that was so successful in beating the world champions.

The positional matchup worked completely in Australia’s favour. Their attack pushed forward, forcing the Dutch wing-backs Blind and Janmaat to remain deep, while Jedinak marked Sneijder out of the first half. Robben and Van Persie still threatened in attack, but their supply lines had been cut.

Australia’s full-backs were left unopposed and were two of the most important players in the first half. Right-back Ryan McGowan provided the gorgeous slanted pass that Tim Cahill volleyed into the net. A better goal in this World Cup will be hard to come by.

The turning point in the match came just before the interval with the injury to centre-back Bruno Martins Indi. Van Gaal decided to bring on forward Memphis Depay and switched to the 4-3-3 they had trained previously. Both of their full-backs were freed, Wesley Sneijder began to get his foot on the ball and Holland controlled the remainder of the match. I wonder if van Gaal would have made the same change had Martins Indi remained unscathed.

As Felipe VI took the throne in Madrid, another Spanish reign came to an end on Wednesday. Not since Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín won Chile’s independence in 1821 have Spain been defeated by their former colony. Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile defeated Vicente del Bosque’s Spain and the world champions were eliminated at the group stage.

The first half was frantic, Chile were a step quicker than their opponents all over the pitch. They were intelligent in their pressing, neither of Spain’s creative midfielders were given any time to play and Xabi Alonso was particularly poor. The 2-0 lead the Chileans took into the interval was enough to win the match and seal their place in the last 16.

Internacional’s Charles Aránguiz was particularly impressive, his defensive performance forced Alonso to be substituted at half time, while his forward bursts into attack were crucial for both Chilean goals. After setting up their first goal of the tournament against Australia, another forward run set up Vargas’ opening goal yesterday and Aránguiz scored the second himself from a similar area.

Spain dominated the second half, but they never looked like scoring. Chile dropped deeper and closed out the result.

Before yesterday, Spain had not lost two consecutive internationals since 2006, before their period of domination between 2008 and 2012. The decline was perhaps predictable as their spine: Casillas, Piqué, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta all had underwhelming seasons at club level. Above all, what goes up must come down, extremes tend to regress to the mean. Either way, this was a grisly and undignified end for one of the greatest international teams in football history.

Day two: Roubado é mais gostoso

I’ve seen it close to a million times and I still cannot understand why it was given. The decision to award Brazil a penalty kick with the scores at 1-1 left an unpleasant aftertaste to an entertaining opening match.

The referee was poor throughout, so much so that even Brazil’s commentary teams were criticising Mr Nishimura in the second half. His performance was certainly not the worse I’ve seen from a referee, nor the worse I’ve seen from a referee at a World Cup, but he fundamentally changed the course of the match when incorrectly blowing for a foul when Fred fell over in the penalty area under no unlawful contact from Dejan Lovren.

Croatia have every right to feel hard done to. I was impressed with their approach for most of the match: disciplined at the back, quick on offensive transitions and always looking to provide their own threat, as well as trying to neutralise Brazil’s. Their game plan appeared to be working too, as with the scores level Brazil were struggling to find an opening. After the penalty and 2-1 down however, they were forced to open up and a third Brazil goal became a real possibility.

Brazil have the three points, but it was not all good news for the Seleção.

An issue I identified during this opening match was with their full-backs, Marcelo and Daniel Alves. Brazil’s full-backs have always been a weapon and a vulnerability, their offensive talents provide an added threat going forward, but the space they leave behind them is always there for swift opposing transitions to exploit. The problem yesterday however, was different. While in defensive areas, Marcelo and Daniel struggled to cope with the threat of Croatia’s wide play and deal with the drilled crosses constantly sent into their penalty area. It was one of these situations, with Daniel Alves being beaten on the right flank and Marcelo arriving at the far post and struggling to clear his lines, which resulted in Croatia’s goal.

Marcelo already knew he had an important role against Croatia with Darijo Srna and Ivan Perisic attacking his sector. After the own goal, he seemed to feel the pressure, hesitant to burst forward into attack and happy to play easy passes to his team-mates. Understandable, considering the psychological sledgehammer blow that was scoring an own goal in Brazil’s opening match of the World Cup on home soil.

Had Mario Mandzukic played, you could argue these problems would not have appeared as often. Croatia would have played higher crosses into the area, with David Luiz and Thiago Silva keeping an eye on the striker.

Another let-off for Brazil was that Neymar could count himself lucky to be on the pitch to score his two goals. His first-half elbow on Luka Modric was dishonest, and had the referee had a better look at it he could have shown a straight red card instead of yellow. A short time afterwards, Neymar also got away with a handball and some simulation. I would not go as far as saying that Neymar remaining on the pitch was an injustice of any kind, just that he needs to watch his step, as he may come across referees who are more inclined to penalise him.

As Flamengo’s goalkeeper Felipe said, after winning the Rio state championship over rivals Vasco with the help of some poor refereeing decisions: Roubado é mais gostoso. It feels even better when it’s stolen.

Of course, a 3-1 win on opening day came with plenty of positives for Felipão’s team. They came from behind, a difficult thing to do at any level, and something that is potentially useful for their chances further in the tournament. In 2010 in South Africa, the Seleção comfortably won all of their group games and their last 16 tie against Chile after a huge unbeaten run in qualifying, so that when Holland pegged them back in the quarter-finals, they did not know how to react. Now, the team have belief that they are strong enough to win, even when behind.

Neymar was excellent, taking the game by the scruff of the neck and scoring twice, including a magnificent equalising goal. He is the heart of the team, on and off the pitch. His wonderful strike to level the scores came from one of the old dribbles from deep that the always loved to do in his Santos days. It has been a while since he has been able to pull something off like that at the top level, with his space often running out, but yesterday he found the channels and showed his immense talent to the world. Of course, it may have helped that the referee was happy to award him free-kicks whenever he went over. Two key goals to help his team win under pressure in his first World Cup match – I may be mistaken, but I cannot remember Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi having done the same for their respective national teams in the World Cup.

Oscar was my man of the match, especially in the face of the criticism he has faced recently. I noticed Oscar saving himself a little when playing in friendlies and near the end of the season for Chelsea, but at the same time his role is often a quiet one, far more about keeping the midfield’s shape with all of the movement going on around him. He has such an excellent positional sense that it is easy for him to blend into matches, appearing not to be making an impact.

Against Croatia, he was more involved, looking for the ball and creating attacks, generally taking more responsibility. He channelled the spirit of Santos legend Feitiço with his third goal, the genius toe-poke that took the goalkeeper by surprise.

Off the pitch, I spent the match at the Fan Fest in São Paulo. The atmosphere was excellent and the organisation of the event was impressive, contrary to what many pessimists believed.

With the hosts out of the way, today we have three games to enjoy, with special attention placed on Spain v Holland in Salvador. Of course, these were the two sides that contested the last World Cup final, and many of the same personnel will be involved today. Spain will play their usual tiki-taka style, following the wisdom of Neném Prancha: “It is the ball who has to run. Otherwise, all you would need is a team of pickpockets.” While you try to work that one out, I’m personally looking forward to watching Chile’s opener, surely the most exciting team in the tournament.

After the perfect conditions we enjoyed in São Paulo for the opening match, today will be the first test of the Brazilian heat. Natal will be particularly punishing for Mexico v Cameroon at 1 o’clock, Salvador should be sticky and humid for Spain v Holland, while Cuiabá is one of the hottest places on the planet, even at 7 o’clock. Chile and Australia may be running on empty come the second half.

Having recently written A to Zico: an alphabet of Brazilian football, this World Cup has gained a special significance. In the book, Mauricio and I chronicled Brazil’s performances in the World Cup, among other topics, by threading together our own knowledge with any material and records available. This has made me fully respect how important every minute of this tournament is. What may seem coincidental, unimportant or just downright mundane today, in a decade or two will become part of a rich narrative. Soak it in, note it down if you have to, twenty years from now there will be a young journalist like myself scrambling around to find any scraps of information from a tournament long gone.

Ethics and egos

With Diego Costa’s choice to represent the Spanish national team and the non-story in England regarding the potential naturalisation of Adnan Januzaj, the subject of footballers’ nationality has been heavily discussed over the past month.

By the letter of the law, Diego Costa is eligible to be selected for Spain, having gained Spanish citizenship earlier this year. As a human being and a professional, he is free to choose which national team he would like to represent, and the only valid debate is over the Spanish football federation’s ethics in deciding to call up the player.

Diego Costa was not born in Spain, he has no Spanish parentage and did not arrive in the country as a refugee. He was first brought to Spain in 2007 by Atlético Madrid, who signed him from SC Braga in Portugal for a fee of €1.5 million.

His situation is different to that of ex-Stuttgart forward Cacau, who was born in São Paulo and famously represented the German national team over twenty times. Cacau migrated to Germany when he was 18 years old (of his own volition) and managed to earn a living playing for a fifth division German club before working his way up the ladder.

Furthermore, Diego Costa has already played twice for Brazil. He was part of the squad that played friendly matches against Italy and Russia in March, and he made substitute appearances in both games. The reasons behind his switch to Spain are based on his disappointment at only getting 35 minutes over those two friendlies and subsequently not being selected for the Confederations Cup.

The entire purpose of international football is to stage matches and tournaments between groups of players who identify themselves with the country they are representing. Diego is well within his rights to be angry with the CBF and change his allegiance, but that doesn’t mean Spain is right to select him. It would be akin to England calling up Januzaj, an athlete paid for and brought to the country for his talent.

If players are going to continue chopping and changing allegiances and crucially, if national associations are going to continue enabling this behaviour by selecting these players, then perhaps we should scrap international football altogether.

Ethics aside, I have been somewhat confused at the CBF’s handling of the situation. Since the appointments of Felipão and Carlos Alberto Parreira, the party line has been about patriotism and nationalism – the famous Brazilian amor à patria – yet they have persistently pursued Diego Costa, someone who was very outspoken about the Seleção. Felipão’s statement yesterday about Diego being cut from the squad sounded like a manager attempting to heal his bruised ego. Diego Costa can’t quit, because he’s fired. At this stage, the CBF is looking silly.