By Paul Gardner
RIO DE JANEIRO -- So Brazil is through to the quarterfinals. Of course that’s good news, not only for Brazilians, but for the tournament itself, which would have suffered a tremendous deflation, a colossal anti-climax had the hosts been knocked out so rapidly.
None of that will be much comfort to Chile, which played well -- though not as well as it can play, not as well as we saw it play in the qualifiers, when it was arguably the best of the South American teams.
Chile, truth be told, did not deserve to lose this game. Firstly, for the obvious reason that no team deserves to lose a vital game in this way -- by losing in the ridiculous shootout. That is never going to be fair, and that certainty sits heavily on the conscience of the sport, a sport -- we are asked to believe -- that has devoted its most serious thought to the problem of tiebreakers and can do no better than come up with a rigmarole with all the seriousness of a children’s playground routine.
There is another, much more worrying, reason why the Chileans should feel aggrieved at their loss. Just this: that they lost to an absolutely dreadful performance from Brazil. I think this had to be the worst game that I have ever seen Brazil play, in over 50 years of watching -- and admiring -- the team.
The scoreline, 1-1, for a start. Brazil had to rely on what looked much more like an own goal from Chile’s Gonzalo Jara than a score by David Luiz, which was the official version. Chile’s response came quickly, just 14 minutes later, when Brazil’s defense might just as well have laid down a red carpet for Alexis Sanchez to walk on toward the goal.
But the scoreline was a mere symptom of the malaise that had infected Brazil. You wondered -- well, I did -- time and time again, Can this really be Brazil? A team unable to pass the ball accurately, worse not really attempting to compose passing movements? A team that was constantly resorting to long balls -- the chief target for them being -- apparently -- the center forward Fred. I’m pretty certain that Fred didn’t win any of them. Why would he? He doesn’t seem equipped to be strong in the air.
In fact, the entire long-ball barrage by Brazil was a hopeless waste of time and energy. It was worse, it was a nightmare -- Brazil, the creme de la cremeof intelligent, skillful attacking soccer, besporting itself adorned in all the crudities of a third division English team. Really, the ultimate soccer nightmare.
This was a Brazil devoid of style, a Brazil with no subtlety, no guile, no artistry -- looking, in fact quite clueless in all those areas. Defenders repeatedly clearing the ball into touch or hitting it high into the air or attempting to pass it with a long ball to no one. Midfielders constantly giving the ball to Chile (a fault that was balanced by the Chilean tendency to give it straight back). And an attack featuring the ineffectual Fred, who was later replaced by the far-from-fearsome Jo.
There was also Neymar. By far the liveliest of the current team, Neymar tried his best to let everyone know that the Brazilian briois not dead, that it is still possible to feel that familiar quickening of the soccer senses and emotions when the Brazilians are at play.
But Neymar had a problem. He was badly bruised by a rough tackle from Chile’s Charles Aranguiz in only the fourth minute of the game. A foul crying out for a yellow card, both for its recklessness and because it provided the referee with the perfect opportunity to make it clear that he would not be tolerating any more such roughness.
More’s the pity that the referee was England’s Howard Webb. English referees are more than likely to be, as Webb was here, tolerant of physical play. And Webb is not known as a referee willing to give cards early in a game. That, of course, is a non-action policy that sends its own message -- that physical play is likely to be tolerated. Webb did not give a yellow to Aranguiz, nor had he cautioned Fernandinho a minute earlier. Webb ended up with the worst of both worlds -- allowing too much physical play and having to give out seven yellow cards anyway.
So: Chile, abandoning its former open style for a more defensive, close-marking (i.e. physical) game; a threadbare Brazil whose superb natural talents seemed to come through only in the bruised Neymar; and a referee willing to condone excessive physical play.
And we got what we got. Very little good soccer -- and most of that coming from Chile. A Brazil performance that hit an all-time low. A game that trundled sadly into the final disgrace of a shootout.
I’ve given you my view of what I found to be a poor game featuring an alarmingly perverse performance by Brazil. Of course, there are other views. One that has caused me some sorrow is that of Gary Lineker. Lineker I always regarded as one of the best of the modern English players, a darting, exciting goal-scorer in the Jimmy Greaves mold, a player with a great respect for fair play and sportsmanship. He is now one of the best of the English TV commentators. Which makes it mighty puzzling to me that he can go before the camera soon after the Brazil-Chile game and spout this: “What a breathtaking game of football ... I rarely remember anything quite as exciting as that penalty shoot-out ... The first 45 minutes was as good and as entertaining a 45 minutes as I’ve seen in a long time, it was physical, it was athletic, there were chances at both ends ... then the shootout, Neymar having to take his penalty ... and at the end Neymar collapses to the floor -- I thought that was one of the most incredible images, probably the best of this World Cup.”
There was more of this over-the-top stuff. But not a mention of the quality of the soccer. Was it the game that was so enthralling -- or was it the shootout? To his credit, Lineker did mention a couple of “iffy decisions by Howard Webb,” but then told us that “you admired his bravery” in making them.
Well, I didn’t. I thought Webb’s performance here showed us, again, why English referees -- or, if you prefer, English refereeing -- do not fit comfortably into top level international games.
But the biggest failure here was the abject performance of Brazil. The awful possibility presents itself that Brazil as the shining bastion of pure soccer is crumbling, and that we shall be left with a sport that is exciting only because, as Lineker puts it, it is physical and athletic. And because it ends in synthetic -- but dramatic -- shootouts.