By Paul Gardner
Just this once I'm going to rank English soccer ahead of Brazilian and give Wayne Rooney pride of place in the weekend's soccer happenings for his superb goal against Manchester City.
It’s being described, repeatedly, in the British press as a bicycle kick, but it certainly was nothing of the sort. An overhead volley, for sure, but not a bicycle kick. What then? Well, we’ll call it a Rooney, for the moment -- because the spectacular effort owed everything to a few seconds of wonderful inventiveness turned into astonishing gymnastic action and climaxing in a searing shot and a goal. And not just any old goal, as it happens, but the winning goal in a tense local derby -- the goal that might well have sealed the EPL title for ManU.
A true bicycle would have seen a quick, elegant pedaling movement giving birth to the shot, followed by a smooth landing by Rooney. But Rooney has never been an elegant player -- his talent rests on muscular athleticism, and all of that came through with amazing force as Rooney launched himself skyward, threw up his right leg and met the ball almost perfectly.
I have a photo of the crucial moment in front of me. There is nothing pretty about it. Awkward, yes, but pretty, no. Rooney’s body is twisted, one leg points upward, the other dangles, the left arm is lowered, the right is outstretched -- this does not look like anything that could be practiced or rehearsed. And I’m sure it never has been.
English players do not specialize in bicycle kicks (in fact, the only one I can recall who perfected the action was Scottish rather than English -- Denis Law). But here was Rooney inventing, in a flash, his own not-too-silky version, and giving us a moment of sheer soccer genius, breathtaking to watch, a goal that no one who’s seen it -- and by now, who hasn’t seen it? -- is ever going to forget.
And so, to second place Brazil. On Saturday Brazil beat Uruguay 6-0 with a rollicking display of wonderful-to-watch soccer. Soccer full of artistry, trickery, beauty, nuances and subtleties allied with strength and speed, dazzling individual displays bursting forth repeatedly from a matrix of clever and satisfying team play.
For me, that all adds up to the real Brazil, the magicians of The Beautiful Game. Yet these were really only apprentices, not masters -- this was the Brazilian under-20 team, on its way to being crowned under-20 champions of South America, and qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics, and this year’s U-20 World Cup. The Sorcerers’ Apprentices.
This final game, this demolition of Uruguay -- and I can only say poor Uruguay, they didn’t deserve this -- was a revelation. Sure, Brazil had been winning and scoring goals -- its record going into this game was 8 games played, with 6 wins, one tie and one loss. The loss -- inevitably -- being to archrival Argentina by the minimum 1-0 scoreline.
After that loss, one wondered: Was this free-scoring Brazilian team going to founder because it was not paying enough attention to defending? It was scoring over 2 goals per game, while giving up nearly 1 goal per game. That one goal doesn’t sound like a big deal, but winning teams these days usually manage to keep that figure closer to 0.5.
But these 20-year-olds stuck to their style, a risk-taking attacking style, and against Uruguay -- poor Uruguay, I repeat -- everything worked superbly. And the Beautiful Game was accomplished despite a heavy, rain-soaked, cut-up field that looked anything but beautiful.
The boy to watch -- he celebrated his 19th birthday during the tournament -- was Neymar, from Santos. We’d seen him, last year, playing for the senior team, tying the U.S. defenders in knots. All the opponents in this tournament knew about him, none of them could stop him. He ended as the top scorer, with 9 goals, none better than the final one of the four he scored against Paraguay -- a smooth run, ending with a perfect chip over the goalkeeper ... Messi himself could not have done it better.
Against Uruguay, Neymar was actually outshone by Lucas, a short, stocky, muscular No. 10 whose forceful running and dribbling and deadly right-footed finishing earned him a hat trick.
Six times the boys from Brazil celebrated with some silly dancing routine -- but six times we got to see those radiant smiling faces, and nothing lights a soccer field up more than the real Brazilian game, and Brazilian smiles.
Of course this wasn’t a two-man show: the lanky fullback Danilo scored an impudent goal, while midfielders Fernando and Casemiro kept the game flowing with timely tackles and intelligent passing; Willian was nominally a forward -- he looked the part, played with considerable skill and verve, yet didn’t find the net too often, though he was usually involved in the buildup to the scoring. From the skinny Oscar came a soccer intelligence that his bright inquisitive eyes suggested. And, if you’re interested, they played a 4-4-2. Sort of. Maybe it was a 4-3-2-1, or sometimes a 4-3-1-2. Fluid, in other words. But above all, free-wheeling, with players enjoying themselves.
No, it didn’t have the almost unreal efficiency of Barcelona -- things broke down a bit too often for that. But it did have something that Barcelona -- or indeed any pro team -- does not, can not, have ... the enthusiasm and the unrestrained eagerness of youth.
Coach Ney Franco -- about whom I know very little -- no doubt deserves the highest praise for creating the organization necessary for team play, but not stifling the kids’ individuality and enthusiasm in the process.
I hope we shall see more of this merry band in action during the U-20 World Cup in Colombia this summer. In the Olympics, sadly, things will be different. That is an under-23 tournament, plus a couple of over-age players, so the chances are high that most of these boys will be replaced by older players. But for now, we’ve been shown that the spirit of the old, glorious Brazil is still alive, among the boys.
We can draw the conclusion that the modern game, the grownup game, finds the boys’ tactical fluidity too undisciplined, their all-out offensive play too risky, and their joyous spirit simply too immature. How utterly sad. This is, after all, supposed to be a game, isn’t it?