Monday, December 15, 2014

Green and Gold and Red all over

2014 was the end of a delusive dream for Brazil

While Germany stole the headlines in 2014 for their deserved World Cup triumph, it was surely their 7-1 humiliation of the hosts Brazil in the semi-final which sticks in the memory.


Belo Horizonte used to be the bête noire of English football, but the name will now live in infamy in Brazilian soccer annals too; the 'beautiful horizon' was a dark sky of doom over Brazil.

The sheer magnitude of the German victory remains off the scale of historic World Cup shocks.

Placed alongside the David & Goliath landmarks of previous tournaments - The USA rocking England in 1950, North Korea dumping Italy out in 1966 and Algeria surprising Germany in 1982 for instance, 2014's host nation meltdown involved no minnows but appears the biggest of them all.

It was more a case of Brazil losing badly than Germany winning greatly. Germany's long-term planning certainly came to fruition – six of their semi-final side had lined up for their U21 team in 2009, and Jogi Löw admitted to having studied and learnt from South American football amongst others in forging a playing style, in stark contrast to Brazil persisting with its 1994-winning methods.

Yet Germany's draw with Ghana and one-goal wins over Argentina, France and the USA do not suggest a goliath of a team bestrode the field in Belo Horizonte.

It had all looked so bright as the seleçao rode their luck, as hosts usually do, in their opening win over Croatia and in their penalty triumph over Chile, before the overwhelming pressure of a nation and FIFA's lunatic leniency directive to referees helped overawe the more talented Colombians in the quarter-final. As Löw's men galloped through the porous Brazilian midfield in a paralyzing seven-minute spell which yielded four goals, the green and gold fervour turned suddenly, horrifically sour as the spectre of sudden death appeared

The horror was far from confined to Brazilians. Everyone came to work the next day to share stories of their mild trauma at witnessing Germany go 7-0 up against the host nation.

Ironically, the Teutonic deluge created a wave of sympathy for the losing team who in their previous match had disgraced the tournament by using strong-arm tactics to oust the free-flowing Colombians.

But as the German goal-machine kept scoring, it began to look like bullying, and the ruthlessness of the Mannschaft was laid bare in their furious reactions to conceding a goal at the end. Professionals should not take their foot off the pedal to spare an opponent from abject humiliation, yet many were wishing Germany would leave it at 5-0.

Whilst it was not pleasant thinking 300 million souls on the other side of the Atlantic were in anguish, it still felt reassuring that the expert predictions were shown up for the guesses they always are, and that whatever disaster was unfolding on the pitch, the pain was being felt together. That surely is the essence of football supporting - joy or pain experienced collectively.

It is hard to think of other happenings which can gather us all up as one. If international sport is war without the shooting as Orwell said, then that works for me.

While scribes across the planet scoured their thesauruses for more ways to describe the humiliation/shame/disgrace/disaster, and really only poetry could do it justice, explaining such a catastrophe has proved harder.

In a wider sense, discipline and pragmatism topped passion and self-belief in Belo Horizonte, a win for Protestant clarity over Catholic mysticism perhaps, or as the German philosopher Nietzsche put it, the death of God.

Certainly brand Brazil, as hawked around the world by Nike and others, is now a flawed concept as the most globally popular national team has shed fans by the bucketload.

As in life, it is better to wait until the heat of the moment has passed to analyse trauma.

On the fateful night, Brazil were set up positionally to facilitate Thomas Muller and the lethal German counter-attacks. Placing wing-backs Maicon and Marcelo so high up the field they were effectively wingers also left acres of space for the Germans to exploit behind them.

Without the creative spark of Neymar there was no flair from the lumbering attack of blunt forwards Fred and Jo, but the whole team was guilty of obsessing over his loss too much, wearing Neymar baseball caps and brandishing his shirt aloft during the national anthems like a saint's relic.

For those who believe in karma, Neymar's injury-induced loss was payback for his teammates' rough treatment of James Rodriguez in the quarter-final.

The midfield, traditionally the fountain of Brazilian flair, was criminally devoid of vision, with Oscar once more failing to step up when it mattered. Bernard tried hard to no avail when he came on and Ramires offered more fluidity but the midfield and attack were so telepathically severed there was no sustained passing to speak of.

Explaining Fernandinho's anonymous showing when he had been such an effective bully against James is tougher to explain, as German player after player sailed past him and his equally flimsy 'defensive' midfield partner Luis Gustavo.

In defence, Thiago Silva's loss was badly felt as captain calamity David Luiz charged wildly out of position too many times and failed to offer any useful leadership when his team were struggling.

At 2-0 it should have been time to regroup, shut up shop and weather the storm, not continue hitting long diagonal balls to concede possession and leave the wing-backs in no man's land as the black and red shirts massed around the Brazilian box again.

In years to come this game should be cited as the textbook example of how not to defend, how not to keep one's shape, how not to maintain psychological strength and how not to react to going behind.

It was also a near mortal blow for Brazilian football. The idea of o jogo bonito is almost laughable now and it seems obvious the world has been conned by the memory of 1970 and Carlos Alberto's goal for too long. Not since 1982 have Brazil shown any flair and what we have been served instead has been a diet of muscle, pace, set pieces and tactical fouling which we all deluded ourselves into thinking was the beautiful game.

Flying the flag for South American flair are now Chile and Colombia, who left the World Cup with credit, and we should give a nod too to Argentina, who almost pulled off the ultimate prize through street-slugging discipline.

In retrospect, winning the 2013 Confederations Cup was a curse, as it bred a false sense of invincibility. 'Big Phil' Scolari bought into the hype too, making no changes to his team or playing style in the following year, allowing opponents to calmly plan their countermeasures.

Six straight friendly wins since the summer under returning coach Dunga might suggest the World Cup was a blip, but these are early days. Only when competitive action resumes next June with Copa America action will we see how far Brazil have come since their summer of shame. Dunga is notoriously suspicious of passing football and has a mutually poor relationship with the media, which does not bode well.

But he was the first pick of the notoriously nationalistic CBF however, so the immediate future is not so bright as blinkered. Friendly wins mean little when the team fluffs its competitive fixtures.

Will more set-pieces and counters be the recipe for Copa America and World Cup success? Has not the physical game Brazil used to win the 1994 World Cup been bypassed some time ago by the Pep Guardiola-inspired passing success of Barcelona, Spain and Bayern Munich?

With no Brazilian coaches in Europe's top leagues, only one domestic team reaching the last eight of this year's Copa Libertadores and a national team who flunked their big chance, it seems reasonable to ask why the national team is not seeking some fresh and foreign ideas.

Corinthians coach Mario Menezes was one brave voice who has shed light on some unpalatable home truths:

We see that the European football that has been developed does everything better than us," he commented. "The level of our players nowadays is technically worse. Our ball control is worse, as is our passing. We still have the dribbling...but we don't kow how to develop players like we used to do in the past. That's why we are lagging behind."

Centre-back Dante admitted the Brazilians fell far short of the Germans in what the Americans call head games: "Psychologically," he said, "we didn't prepare properly for the World Cup. Because of all the pressure, we were not prepared for adversities. This mood of 'we have to win' may even be helpful in some moments, but from a psychological point of view, you need more vision than this." Passion, spirit and self-belief are no longer enough. While fantasy remains a big part of being a fan, the hard realities of planning, discipline and mental strength will always win out on the field. The World Cup came not as a carnival of national pride but as a rude awakening, the definitive debunking of the myth Pele dubbed 'The Beautiful Game'. 2014 was indeed the year the music died in Brazil.  (c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

No comments: