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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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.

Menezes’ Seleção take a huge leap towards Olympic success

The appointment of Mano Menezes as Brazil head coach didn’t really blow anyone away. He took the job in 2010 after the Seleção’s disappointing World Cup display, and was the CBF’s official second choice to take the reins behind Muricy Ramalho, who had just signed a lengthy contract with Fluminense (and unofficially the third choice behind Luiz Felipe Scolari, who signed an equally long contract with Palmeiras).

Right away, he emphasised the need for a change in the Seleção’s style, correctly identifying that as hosts in 2014, they would not be able to rely on counter-attacking football to earn results. Menezes – always well-spoken and thoughtful in his press conferences – talked about Brazil needing to “take the game to their opponents” and often repeated the importance of being “the game’s protagonist”. Continue reading Menezes’ Seleção take a huge leap towards Olympic success