By Paul Gardner
We've had to wait a long time for Brazil in this tournament, and it seems to me we're still waiting. Brazil's performance yesterday during its 2-1 win over North Korea was hardly vintage Brazil. We got the thinnest shadow of the beautiful game. We got Dunga's Brazil, the pragmatic Brazil of which Dunga has boasted time and again.
He has only one reason to be satisfied with this scoreline -- that it is a win. Three points. The assumption seems to be that Brazil will now go on to get whatever points it needs from either Portugal or Ivory coast, or maybe both, and will sail firmly into the next round.
That may happen. But there is another consideration here. One that during the 90-plus minutes of relentlessly Brit-oriented commentary that Martin Tyler and the legendary Ally McCoist gave us was never even mentioned. Namely goal difference.
This is a very tough group. I’d say that both Portugal and Ivory Coast, playing cautiously and emphasizing defense -- in other words, playing more or less as they did against each other yesterday -- are capable of getting a tie with Brazil. Certainly if Brazil plays as it did against North Korea.
Should that happen -- or should one of those two actually beat Brazil -- then it will be goal difference that decides Brazil's fate. The advantage then swings to Portugal and Ivory Coast, which will now understand -- as Brazil (to say nothing of Tyler and the legendary McCoist) seemed not to -- that they must go for goals against the Koreans.
It doesn’t have to be a mountainous scoreline, either. That late Korean goal reduced Brazil’s goal difference to a flimsy +1.
Admittedly, I’m assuming in that scenario that North Korea has no role to play other than that of punching bag. But such was their play yesterday, that the North Koreans may feel encouraged enough to play for a win from now on (I think it’s a pretty fair bet that a scoreless tie was the limit of their ambitions against Brazil).
Brazil plays Ivory Coast next, a game which I think it must win. While Portugal, should it be thinking the way I’m thinking, will be trying to work out ways of scoring goals against a packed North Korean defense. Except I doubt it will be as packed as it was against Brazil, for the Koreans’ ambition may now well be to spring a surprise by beating Portugal. In which case, more attacking, less defense, more chances for Portugal.
A whole series of scripts: the ultimate nightmare script for the Brazilians is that Ivory Coast holds them to a tie or beats them while Portugal beats North Korea by a minimum two-goal margin.
Leaving Brazil to beat Portugal resoundingly in its final game on June 25 to be sure of qualification. Of course, I believe that Brazil can do it -- it’s always a good idea to have faith in Brazil’s ability to win -- but it's making things difficult for itself. Less pragmatism and more flair -- in other words, more Brazil -- is my prescription (not least, because that’s what I want to see).
But there seems to be a hitch here. Dunga does have two creative players on his team, Robinho and Kaka. Trouble is that Kaka is going through a miserable patch. He was not a significant influence in the Korea game. Robinho did a lot better.
For all my criticism of Brazil, there were -- of course, there were, how could there not be? -- moments of sheer Brazilian magic. Not nearly enough of them, but they were there -- on both goals. Maicon’s opening goal was simply stunning. Its brilliance will of course be trashed by the party-poopers who will insist that it was all down to a goalkeeper’s error. No skill from Maicon, then.
Well, a plague on the goalkeeper-error mob. Maicon’s shot (that’s what it was) taken at the end of a full-speed run, was hit with ferocious force; it seemed to be taken with the outside of his foot -- something that, to me, says shot, not cross. As the goal netting bulged, there came to me memories of 1970, of that wonderful goal by Carlos Alberto against Italy in the final, also the result of a surging overlapping run and an unstoppable shot.
Goal to Maicon, and all the praise I can muster for his superb skill. We got more Brazilian skill on the second goal -- a superbly executed pass from Robinho, the ball gliding, untouched, right through the heart of the massed Korean defense, arriving perfectly to meet Elano, racing gleefully forward to firmly sidefoot it into the net.
[Reminder to ESPN’s Tyler and the legendary McCoist: we call that sort of pass an assist in this country. I guess no one has bothered to inform you? On another point -- my congratulations to ESPN, which seems to have had the good sense to drop their fatuous “One Game Changes Everything” catch phrase or punch line or sales slogan or whatever it was supposed to be.]
It has to be faced: most of the 14 games so far played have been disappointing. The anti-soccer tribe will be having a field day at the anemic scorelines -- and who’s to argue with them? We’re averaging an almost derisory 1.6 goals per game! I wonder how many more of these distorted tournaments it’s going to take before it hits the soccer biggies -- by which I mean particularly FIFA and IFAB, the rule-making guys -- that they have to do something about this.
At one time I might have called it a trend for soccer to get lower-scoring and less exciting when the big games came around. It is no longer a trend, it is now an indisputable and deplorable fact. Far from trying to make things better, FIFA -- by bloating the World Cup up from 16 to 32 teams -- has made matters worse. Maybe the knockout stage will be better. The clever tactical and mathematical points-winning calculations won’t mean anything then. But something else, equally damaging, will replace them. The penalty-kick shootout, plus all that it means in terms of teams playing deliberately for a tie. Somehow we’ve managed to allow ourselves to be convinced that a team that wins one of these tacky little shootouts is fit to be called the winner of a game.
We use that method because teams simply cannot score goals. Twice we’ve anointed world champions using this totally specious gimmick. Prepare yourself. Come the day of the final, July 11, 2010, we may be forced to use it again.