By Paul Gardner
Not, by any means, an uneventful game. Not short of action, suspense, tension. So plenty to get excited or emotional about. And that’s not bad for the opening game of a World Cup. There have been some real stinkers.
Nevertheless, this game was a disappointment. Because it was Brazil, and because the quality of Brazil’s soccer left a lot to be desired.
With Brazil, we’ve come to expect something special. With Brazil, playing at home, with all the color and the drama and the tumult of its own fans yelling support, we almost have a rightto demand something superior.
We didn’t get it. Within seconds of the start, Croatia was attacking and Brazil’s defenders seemed content to lump the ball any old where. This is Brazil?
So wait for them to settle down, wait for the game, their game, the Brazilian game, to start to flow. The smooth control, the slick passing -- both slick and quick -- the trickery, the wizardry, the magic. We waited. And waited. And we’re still waiting. It didn’t happen. For brief moments her and there, yes. But as a style, as an underlying force giving the game a character, jogo bonito,the beautiful game was nowhere to be found.
That should not be a surprise. We’ve been watching Brazil lose its way for some years now. The falling off has been there for all to see -- and it is not Brazil’s fault. Faced with European dominance of the sport -thanks to money, certainly not to superior soccer skills -- the Brazilians have Europeanized. How not to, considering that all their best players now play for European teams?
The fantasy that marked the classic Brazilian teams does not breathe easily in Europe. It gets suffocated by the realpolitikof European tactics --defensive, physical, and clever -- oh yes, they’re clever all right. Clever enough to want Brazilian and other South American players, then pragmatic enough to make sure that fantasy takes a backseat to the sterner demands of discipline and work-rate.
The modern Brazil that has come from these developments is an unsatisfactory hybrid of artistry and industry, unable to totally abandon the zest of its natural game, unable to totally embrace the unsmiling practicalities of the Europeans. We -- meaning I -- had hoped that back home (where so few of the Brazilian players now live) the true Brazilian soccer spirit would blossom again. It doesn’t look like it.
Not -- and this is the most disappointing thing -- because the players choose to play a more no-frills, practical game, but because the players -- these players we watched yesterday, most of them -- did not look to have the necessary skills to play jogo bonito.
A fundamental requirement of jogo bonitohas always been superb ball control, the ability to tame the ball instantly however it arrives, at whatever angle or speed, without any apparent effort. That is the platform on which the marvelous individual skills and the rapid movement of the ball from player to player thrive. With it -- where you have players who need more than one touch to trap a ball, who are vulnerable to tackles because they show too much of the ball, who cannot pass accurately and swiftly -- you do not, cannot, have jogo bonito.
I have never seen a Brazil team as sloppy in its passing as the one I watched yesterday. Repeatedly, the ball was clumsily controlled, poorly passed, and -- most disturbing of all -- was simply given away to Croatia.
A word about Croatia: Not a great team, for sure, but made to look a lot better than it is by a Brazil team that allowed them to see plenty of the ball. And a Brazil team that was frankly a shambles, defensively. And, alas for Croatia, they didn’t get any breaks from Yuichi Nishimura, the Japanese referee. The penalty decision, in particular, was bad, giving Brazil a goal it scarcely deserved.
Jogo not-so-neat-o, for sure. Can the Brazilians win the World Cup playing like this? Probably they can -- provided they pour on the pressure, provided the fans demand incessant offense. The risks of defensive screw-ups will have to be balanced to a large extent by spending as much time as possible threatening down the other end of the field.
Time to relieve the gloom a little. Neymar had one or two moments of pure wonderment, but not enough. For me Oscar was Brazil’s best player, someone who really looked like a jogo bonitoplayer. But that’s the thing. Jogo bonitois not a one-player happening. It needs a group. And Oscar rarely got any help from anyone. Did he and Neymar, his most likely partner, combine even once for anything significant? Neymar’s goal was a solo effort. So was Oscar’s.
I shall not expect anything classically Brazilian from this Brazilian team. Perhaps the best we shall get will be the excitement of a team indulging in all-out attack, as though its very life depends on it. And it might.