By Paul Gardner
There's not much point in trying to make out that the Confederations Cup semifinals gave us sublime soccer. Both games were rather ragged affairs. The problem in the Brazil-Uruguay semi was the endless series of mistakes, by both teams -- mistakes that usually led to the ball being lost, which in turn led to scrappy attempts -- fouling and borderline fouling -- to get it back.
Brazil deserved its win, if only because it did at least try to make full use of its resources by attempting to play an attacking game. That is the essence of Brazilian soccer: simply, to score more goals than he opponents.
It’s a wonderful philosophy, but it’s come off the rails lately because Brazil is finding it hard to score. It had all sorts of problems against Uruguay, problems that were greatly enlarged by Uruguay’s decision to play a heavily defensive game. Of course, when you do that, you know from the start that you’ve greatly reduced your own chances of scoring, so you’re hoping for a break, just one will do it, that will more or less present you with a goal.
Uruguay got their break 13 minutes into the game. A clash of bulky defenders -- David Luiz pulled down Diego Lugano on a corner kick, and referee Enrique Osses of Chile shocked everyone by doing what refs so rarely do -- he called the foul and awarded the penalty kick.
Up stepped Dead Eye Diego Forlan, to deliver a pretty good kick -- only to see keeper Julio Cesar make a wonderful (and legal) save. Bad news for Uruguay -- you can’t afford to waste those gifts. They did actually get one more gift -- chaotic Brazilian defending in the penalty area resulted in the ball, far from being cleared, ending up in front of Edinson Cavani, who merrily slammed it into the net.
Which tied things at 1-1, Brazil having taken the lead after some neat skill from Neymar had presented Fred with a half-chance, which he then miskicked into a goal.
But ... Uruguay. A team containing no fewer than threeof the world’s top goalscorers - Forlan, Cavani and Luis Suarez, yet it persisted with its crabby defensive play, play that denied all three forwards any real chance to use their skills.
Yet, here we had the TV commentators, marveling that Uruguay had a “game plan,” and it was working, shutting down Brazil, see how successful it was as the first half approached its ending with the score at 0-0 ... whoops, that was when Fred got his goal, and suddenly this game plan didn’t look so brilliant.
Anyway, what game plan? Playing Scrooge-soccer from a bunker of nine defenders, with the accompanying chorus of tactical fouls (Uruguay fouled 24 times to Brazil’s 14) ... that’s a game plan? It looked much more like what it was -- the barren tactics of a scared coach who didn’t consider his team good enough to take on Brazil by playing real soccer. The sort of soccer, incidentally, that Uruguay had played so excitingly three years ago in South Africa.
Uruguay got what it deserved, beaten by Paulinho’s late headed goal. We were then invited by the TV guy to “feel sorry for Uruguay, they’ve worked hard ...” Not me. I’m looking at those three fine strikers, wasted, that stat of just three shots on goal, those 24 fouls and I can feel only relief that it’s Brazil we shall see again, in the final.
But what sort of Brazil is this? Anything but irresistible, I’d say. Defensively, Brazil looks very shaky indeed, downright chaotic at times. While attacking fullbacks have been a Brazilian trademark for as long as I can remember, they’re surely not supposed to constitute the main force of the attack. Yet here we have Marcelo and Dani Alves more involved than Fred, more than Neymar. That doesn’t seem right. A prolific goalscorer is lacking, too, as is a traditional No. 10 as the focus of the team’s wiles and artistry.
Maybe that’s a role for Neymar, but not yet. Nor does Oscar seem ready for it. So it goes begging, and Brazil is the poorer for its absence.
Uruguay’s negative play, designed to negate and frustrate Brazil, came up short. But in the other semi, we had the Italians frustrating Spain. But this was different. With the Italians, this is not a tactic, this is their philosophy. This is the way they play soccer. For a while, in the 60s and 70s, when catenaccio reigned, the philosophy became an ugly affair, a destructive approach, anti-soccer it was often called. But those days are past. We still have the Italians as the best defenders in the world, but the framework is much more generous now, the opportunities for open play, for sprightly attacking are much greater.
Which is what we saw against Spain. Solid, disciplined, skillful defending wedded to plenty of speedy, canny attacking play. Yes, Spain was frustrated, but by effective soccer, not by a defensive bunker. Italy actually had 6 shots on goal, to Spain’s 5. When it came to hitting the target, this was not Spain’s day, some of its shooting was almost laughably wide of the mark.
But the Spanish are a confident crew these days. Their approach, their soccer, never altered during the 120 minutes of play. No wild long balls, no hurried passing, as the time advanced. Faith in their skill-based style kept the Spanish hopes alive -- and facing them, we got the same faith, in a different type of skill-based game, from the Italians.
That ought to have meant a feast of top-class soccer. But top-class soccer doesn’t always guarantee excitement. Maybe the meeting of these two giants causes a too-rarefied soccer atmosphere. Whatever, this game could have done with occasional interludes of Brazilian chaos or Neymar trickery. In a word, it lacked emotion.
Quite appropriate then, that it should end up in that most synthetic of all sports episodes, the shootout. Which I despise. This time I do feel sorry -- for Italy’s Leonardo Bonucci, who fired his shot wide and so “lost the game” for Italy. But there you are, that’s what our brilliant leaders have done for us -- invent a tiebreaker that ensures there will be a single player, a pitiful victim to bear the weight of the loss in this activity that they’re always reminding us is a teamsport.
Whatever, we’ve got the final most people wished for. Host Brazil against world champions Spain. A charged-up Brazil facing a probably depleted Spain, who played their semi a day later than Brazil, and had to endure the stresses and strains of overtime and the shootout.
So it looks like Brazil? I’d say yes were it not for the fact that I find Brazil so unreliable in defense, and so equally untrustworthy when it comes to goalscoring. But the driving forces of their game on Sunday will no doubt be excitement and emotion. They may just be enough to overcome smooth, efficient beauty of Spain’s game.