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.

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Day three: Chocolate orange

The Netherlands plays an important part in the history of the north-east of Brazil. During the 17th century, the modern-day states of Pernambuco, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte and Alagoas were all under Dutch rule, as well as parts of Ceará, Maranhão and Piauí. The area was known as New Holland, and was an official Dutch territory for around 20 years, with its capital city in Recife, then known as Mauritsstad.

They struggled to expand their sovereignty further south into Bahia, a traditional Portuguese stronghold. They managed to invade and conquer the city of Salvador in 1624, but it was recaptured less than a year later by the Spanish empire, led by King Felipe IV and his Spanish and Portuguese forces.

Now, this is the part where I link the historic event to the game of football that happened yesterday. I’m saving my energy for today’s four-game marathon, so if you could fill in the blanks yourselves, that would be much appreciated.

Many have jumped to the conclusion that Holland have knocked off Spain’s crown, and that the era of tiki-taka domination is at an end. They may be correct: I was quick to brush off the “end of an era” discourse after Brazil battered the world champions in the final of last year’s Confederations Cup, but now the sample size has doubled.

The result was momentous, and certainly does justice to Holland’s complete dominance in the second half, but the first half was controlled by Spain. They kept possession well, grinding down their opponents before taking the lead and threatening to score more. If David Silva had scored his one-on-one chance against Cillessen, Spain would have taken a 2-0 lead into the interval, closed the game out in the second half and we would be talking about business as usual. The idea that “tiki-taka is finished” is silly. The style and ethos of both teams were not the deciding factors in yesterday’s game.

Spain did not approach the game correctly, drawing attention to their own weaknesses in defence, lacking a deep option in attack to stretch play and not studying their opposition well enough. Anyone who saw Holland’s pre-tournament friendlies could tell you that Van Gaal’s team like to play long, sweeping passes behind the defence to feed their forwards. Van Persie’s goal against Ecuador was an excellent example.

Holland, on the other hand, were incredibly well prepared for the match and from Robin Van Persie’s post-match comments, it appears Van Gaal predicted the outcome of the match with startling accuracy.

In Brazil, a comprehensive victory such as this (usually one with five goals scored by the winning team) is called a chocolate. Yesterday’s result, chocolate com laranja.

In the late game, Chile were everything we expected them to be. Vibrant going forward, vulnerable in defence. They made hard work of an Australia side who were, although better than I had expected, fairly unimpressive. My impression was that the Cuiabá heat played a part (it remained above 30C throughout the match, at 7-9pm local time), with some of Chile’s midfield not pressing and overlapping with the same intensity as they usually do.

They cannot afford to do that in their remaining group games, especially not against Van Persie and Robben. Playing such a high defensive line requires constant pressing of the ball, so as not to give time for the opponent to exploit the space behind the defence. If Chile play as they did last night, Spain and Holland should win comfortably.

To finish, Diego Costa. The debate about naturalisation has been reopened today since Costa made the Spain starting XI and was roundly booed by thousands in the Arena Fonte Nova. The question of “should he have been booed?” is a silly one. I wouldn’t jeer him myself, but it is perfectly understandable why some Brazilian fans would, as it is perfectly understandable (in my opinion) why Diego Costa preferred to represent Spain instead of his country of birth.

The serious issue, almost completely ignored, were the chants directed at him. “Diego, viado” – I hear it on the stands every week in Brazil, directed at any opposing player worthy of ire. The word viado is not, as The Guardian published in Sid Lowe’s article on Costa, “slang for gay”. Viado is a very strong homophobic slur; if I had to find an equivalent in English, my opinion is that it is closest to the word “faggot”. Imagine thousands of English fans chanting similar at Costa on his debut at Chelsea and you have a hate crime on your hands. It is part of a huge homophobia problem in Brazil, one which needs to be addressed and understood.

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.

An apology and a trophy

I’d like to begin with an apology.

Over the past few months, work, family and the hectic environment that is São Paulo have kept me away from a true passion of mine: writing. Even watching football on television has been difficult, never mind going to the stadium, therefore finding the time to sit down at my desk and produce something fit for public consumption has been near impossible.

I am aware that none of you have been crying yourselves to sleep at night since my last article, but I am also aware that a number of you enjoy my work and are always eager to read more. To those kind people, sorry for the absence.

Though my present circumstances remain the same – work is still time-consuming and no-one seems keen on paying me to write about sport (offers are always welcome, by the way…) – I have decided to get back on the horse and resurrect ILFM.

Long features and detailed tactical analyses are out, for the time being, and in their place will be briefer and more frequent blog posts. Ideally I would like these to be daily, providing I can find a little time each day in which to write. Subjects will no doubt vary, language may also vary in order to please my lusophone followers (existe isso?).

The 2013 Confederations Cup came to a close last night and Brazil is champion once more. Yesterday’s was the first trophy the Seleção have won since I came to this country.

I have heard from fellow immigrants of a particular kind of schadenfreude that most ex-pats have felt at least once when Brazil lose. It’s understandable, the Seleção is huge business in Brazil, thus the idea of them being superior to all other nations is shoved down everyone’s throats by the media on an hourly basis. So it can be quite satisfying to see them fail miserably now and again.

For me though, ever since I arrived in Brazil I’ve only seen the Seleção disappoint. So last night was special for me on a personal note, though you’d have to be made of stone not to enjoy Brazil’s demolition of world champions Spain. Or, you’d have to be Spanish.

Although with all the goal-scoring, titan-clashing (Italy-Brazil, Brazil-Uruguay, Spain-Italy and Brazil-Spain in the space of two weeks? Yes please!) and lack of other football going on, it was easy to forget that the Confederations Cup is only really semi-competitive. Brazil defeating the world champions does not make them an excellent team, nor does Spain’s loss spell the end of a golden era. There are conclusions to be drawn from the last two weeks, but not terribly many.

Last night’s match, for example, was all about Brazil. Spain looked tired, having played 120 minutes in the cruel cearense heat on Thursday, while Brazil were fresh and more motivated than ever. From the first whistle Felipão’s men pressed Spain to within an inch of their lives and continued in that vein all evening. Special praise must be reserved for the superb tight marking jobs executed by Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo on Xavi and Iniesta, respectively. Spain were forced to retreat and play aimless long balls, while Brazil were able to play neat, attacking football.

The 3-0 scoreline was kind to Spain and unfair to Brazil, who in the end deserved four or five.

What has become clear from this Confederations Cup is how Brazil will approach most of their matches: high tempo and intense pressing in the first half; compact defending and quick counterattacks in the second half. From Japan through to Spain, each of Brazil’s performances followed this pattern.

It makes perfect sense. For the past twenty years Brazil has produced quick forwards and physical midfielders, thus their most potent weapon has become the counterattack. However Brazil cannot win a World Cup on home soil solely by playing on the break. They will be facing teams who will be content to position themselves deep in their own half, not leaving any space for the Brazil to exploit. Felipão’s strategy is simple: overload the opponent early and take the lead, then as they are obliged to play for an equaliser, Brazil can pick them off on the break.

The Confederations Cup has shown us that this Brazil side are capable of winning. Felipão has a great team at his disposal, but not yet an excellent one to match the likes of Spain, Germany or Argentina. That is their objective between now and next June.