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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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.