With the deafening silence of 28 teams and a daily games slate now a bygone, a certain nervy evening, today, has the feel of a distant memory. As we fixed the dish and satellite receiver while a pandemonium thousands of miles away bellied to a festive behemoth, I thought to myself: what if by the time we fixed this, Croatia was a goal up? It had to have been a pessimistic gesture of the mind to round off our last minute unpreparedness. The cherry atop the comedy of errors. And what do you know.. The signal comes on and we’re at last on, 30 minutes late for what the entire world, it felt, had been taking in from the start. Croatia was up 1-0 against the hosts.
Fast forward three weeks where, for the first time in more than decade, we finally got a final four that on paper befits the billing of the stature of sports grandest stage. History being made was somewhat of a predominant theme; Brazil was eliminated while allowing in a freakish number of goals; Miroslav Klose bests Brazil’s Ronaldo’s World Cup career record on his turf, against his team. Prior to that round’s commencement, what slight vindication FIFA may at any point have wanted to rub our noses in (as Sepp detractors) may have come from a right place. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not like a similar outcome couldn’t have been achieved in good will and with fair competition. Fair play, they say. No, I’m done grieving for Mexico and Colombia — and to some extent Croatia — for the slew of miscalls and soft calls against them. But FIFA is deluding itself for any gladiatorial proclamations along the lines of “Is this not why you’re here?”. But for the purists and bandwagoners alike awaited a couple of mouthwatering showdowns to savor. And FIFA is not off the hook — after all the games have to be played. And the semis proved the antithesis of the initial billing. And though hind sight is always 20/20, this whole thing was always going to go apeshit if Brazil lost in the final or worse, Argentina was crowned champs in the storied Maracanã. The security and logistics nightmare that’s sure to follow in such scenario may just expose the organizers’ corner cutting and hush hush tactics in their host selection. Let’s roll back the tape on Brazil’s unprecedented tryst with the Devil.
Arena Corinthians was unlike any stadium likely to be the site of a major competitive team sport game. Of all the stadia in Brazil, for the superficially and allegorically inclined, it deviated from the coliseum and oval roof cookie cutter designs that’ve come to be the hallmarks of venue appearance. The next widely prevalent shape I suppose would be the Anglo inspired ‘park’; the rectangular type with field-hugging stands. In all fairness Arena das Dunas for instance is reminiscent of a sea shell when viewed from within its structure. Estadio Joaquim Américo Guimaeães’ uniform right-angled exterior conjures up a fish tank impression. A few exceptions abound I suppose. But the majority of venues are in the vein of your garden variety archetypes. However, in the site of the opening game’s case this roof-and-park hybrid eerily resembled a Greek mausoleum — a mocking premonitory allusion to what’s to come. In my experience watching sports I’ve learned that much can be ominously gleaned from the first game of a sporting event while the opposite cannot. The Green Bay Packers 2011 season opener vs the Saints comes to mind. Rodgers carved up the Saints’ defense with ruthless regularity only for the Saints to come close to taking a late lead. The staggering lead they’d compiled almost amounted to nothing. Earlier that night was Milan’s 2-2 draw against Lazio. At one point, the defending champions were 2 goals down. To make matters worse, their talismanic captain picked up a knock that sidelines him most of that year. Both were title holders who failed to repeat. The Denver Broncos 2013 blowout of the Ravens failed to mask a porous defense. The Ravens’ title defense wasn’t one to remember either while Denver suffered the most lopsided title game loss in a decade. You get the point. The signs were visible early on, with each week doing nothing but confirm the worst fears for the teams in question.
June 12 had that same effect to me for Brazil. We soon learned it was an own goal. A botched play on the ball in from of goal sent the ball between the sticks. Although I’d first chalked it up to early nerves to be eventually overcome, or at least put under control, it wasn’t exactly so; the ref awarded a dubious penalty to the hosts for the go-ahead score and the two-goal cushion came deep in the closing minutes of the match. So far so good. Mexico’s valiant, gallant resistance came next. San Memo, or Ochoa, had a big time save against Cameroon that made three points for Mexico that much hard earned. It came from point blank range, which made it all the more impressive and game-changing. Curiously enough, the Mexicans had a goal disallowed for a nonexistent offside. But against Brazil, officiating influence was given no room to take hold as it was a seesaw case. Mexico threatened with long range shots when their technical touch betrayed them deep in Brazilian territory. A logical adjustment to the circumstances present. Few of those shots came within proximity to test Julio Cesar. Brazil to their credit employed a variety of attacking patterns to no avail because at the end of each play, Ochoa stood firmly as the last man between the ball and the goal. In contrast to Julio Cesar’s night, Ochoa was required to intervene on several occasions — few of those from close range. Because the alarm bells for Brazil would have been premature, you couldn’t conceivably criticize their failure to get more points off Mexico. This made the circumstances of their opening win even more damning. The use of hindsight and post factum here is not only inevitable, but modus operandi in sports punditry. Both teams would chart opposing trajectories in the empathy continuum following that game.
Finally, and with the foregone conclusion of a formality match against Cameroon, the Brazilian ship would have been righted by then, as is the case with all favorites finding their footing in the group stage. At one point, Mexico would have conceivably come close to actually leapfrogging Brazil by virtue of goal differential but the status quo was restored when Brazil scored their fourth and Mexico failed to get its fourth while allowing Croatia to breach their goal. The scoreline (of Brazil vs Cameroon) failed to flatter. But the jubilance clouded any and all reason to objectively face the elephant in the room; something is broken and no ones is the wiser to a fix.
Much was said of the mental frailty of a team that, though too talented to rip at the seams, couldn’t avoid playing the ball beneath Damocles sword at every turn. So a psychologist was brought in and Brazil produced their most spirited effort, a newly found impetus to attack, against the Colombians. And that also amounted to a costly win. Neymar goes down with a broken vertebrae, cutting short his time in the tournament, while Thiago Silva their other reliable player picked up a foolish yellow card putting him in suspension for the semifinal. The game, much like the first, featured an official playing a crucial part in deciding the game. First it allowed it to get out of control early. Tournament standout James Rodriguez was kept quiet but upon closer examination, that wasn’t due to a masterstroke stifling of the opposing game changer. The majority of the world unfamiliar with the Colombian got a first glimpse of how he looked on the ground. Repeatedly. With the cards unbrandished ’til halfway in the second half, the Brazilians had a blank check to go on a fouling spree that did little to dispel doubts over the merits of their place among the last four. The sad part was; the team itself knew this as well.
The ghosts of failure from decades past were too oppressive, weighing down any modicum of momentum or a hot streak to ever take form. All too fittingly is how inevitably the haunting was in being replaced by an even bigger blot on a glittering record. Even when the results kept coming, so were the goals going in the other way also, with the exception of their Mexico game. And with every subsequent win a pyrrhic one, the Damoclean shadows grew longer as if in dusk, and the entailed passage of time therein. And though previously unthinkable, how a center back pair featuring Thiago Silva can be described as horrid is quite the ignominious feat now. That Brazilians as a whole — and Thiago himself — are now consigned to the prolonged twinning of incompatible defenders is hardly an encouraging realization when thinking of how to navigate a tricky road to recovery. Because the £50 million (€62 million) shelled by PSG for David Luiz’s five year contract will now replicate Brazil’s foiled, ineffectual defensive pairing of choice at club level also. Clearly now when damage control is no longer viable, carte balance is an inescapable reality. Though with the latter now no longer possible so the status quo must do. Unless both players are dropped from the Brazil squad, since you no longer can have one without the other. It is a terrible turn of events that has seen the better half of this duo break the chain of mentorship that has presumably ended with his move from Milan. Franco Baresi taught Paolo Maldini (who taught Alessandro Nesta, who in turn taught Thiago Silva) the inside knowledge of Sacchi’s defense.
The case against Brazilian teams of late (those under Dunga and Menezes come to mind) had always been deviating from DNA in favor of lineups beefed up at the back and midfield. The rise of 4-2-3-1 in Europe and the diverse setups across the tactical spectrum it allowed, should to the Brazilian public’s way of thinking have been resisted. Though no one exists in a vacuum, in Brazil the prevailing sentiment saw defeat in succumbing to sweeping trends. I wholeheartedly agree with the faithful because in lieu of adopting a brutish defensive core, a la Mourinho, Brazilian national team head coaches opted for what essentially amounted to halfbaked visions that meandered between old school and new wave. And with progress hard to come by to declare the endeavor boom or bust, fans were quick to cry slow money is as just bad as no money. Looking at the lineup, the players weren’t big enough to withstand an onslaught nor nimble enough to counter with any of their own. Tactical limbo. And in Brazil, where putting a show is as vital as the result, the death knell echoes louder today than when first sounded.
I intentionally choose not to mention the games versus Chile, Germany and the Netherlands because they deserve little mention. They presented the effect to the cause exhibited in the group and quarterfinal games. You know, the times when all wasn’t comprehensively lost for Brazil. What follows next is a chapter equally fraught with doubt as soul searching never was on the Brazilian agenda of the magnitude just witnessed and consequently necessitated today. Heads will roll, and first among them is Big Phil’s, their head coach. The uncertainty of who is ready to step up at goal and both fullback slots should warrant no justification for calling up the current crop of players. Because, why delay the inevitable?