By Paul Gardner
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Superlatives are definitely called for to describe Germany's blitzing of Brazil. No one expected anything like that. Who would, when nothing like it, even remotely comparable, has ever happened before. The host team of a World Cup being utterly humiliated, letting in seven goals right there, in front of its own fans, in a semifinal game.
Plenty of people forecast that Germany would win. That was reasonable, based on the tournament performances of both teams: Germany, smooth and pretty much in charge against all its opponents; Brazil ragged, not convincing, and certainly not showing the style and the skills that have made the very term “Brazilian futebol” one to inspire awe and fear.
But ... 7-1? And -- as always with those colossal scorelines -- it could have been worse. The problem grows from simply being careful not to overdo the superlatives, to avoiding the use of apocalyptic terms. The end of Brazil? Or at least of the traditional Brazilian game? Maybe the end of the Latin American style? A German takeover?
But the more desperate the thoughts get, the easier it becomes to dismiss them. Things really are never as bad -- or as good -- as they seem at the time.
The Germans have not discovered the way to play perfect, unbeatable soccer. And the Brazilians are not going to pack up their soccer tents and vanish. I am more concerned here with that second notion. The Germans will, I feel sure, take care of themselves. They will keep their heads and will continue to be the No. 1 or the No. 2 nation in soccer.
No doubt they will also continue to play their rather-too-diagrammatic (for me) form of the game. And it is the question of style that separates Germany from Brazil.
Germany has a team, right now, that exemplifies the German style with confidence, skill and speed. On song, which they have been for most of the time in this tournament, they are mighty impressive.
Brazil has plainly lost its style. Has been losing it, I would say, for over 20 years. I need to modify that. Not “losing” its style so much as abandoning it. In the mid-1970s the Europeans came up with total soccer. It looked slick, it looked modern, it seemed scientific. And it won. It appealed to the new soccer technocrats, the ones who wanted the sport to be understood with charts and diagrams and formations. The new, scientific, coaches were on the march. We saw the first Brazilian example in 1978, when Claudio Coutinho coached a more European-looking Brazil. To failure. A “moral victory” insisted Coutinho, but the Brazilians weren’t interested in moral victories, they wanted their futebol back. They got it with two wonderful teams, in 1982 and 1986, coached by Tele Santana. But nothing was won.
For the 1990 World Cup, Coach Sebastiao Lazaroni fielded a team made up mostly of Brazilians playing with European clubs. He used a sweeper. Very Italian, very un-Brazilian. I recall the fury with which the army of Brazilian journalists assailed Lazaroni in Italy -- accusing him of deracinating futebol, of being a traitor to the Brazilian style. Not just Lazaroni -- the players were yelled at too, accused of being too comfortable, too well-paid in Europe, of having forgotten they were Brazilian and how to play like Brazilians.
By 1994 the technocrats had the upper hand. The coach was Carlos Alberto Parreira -- like Coutinho, he was from the physical training side of the profession. Discipline, meticulous organization, team play before individual skills -- all the things that Brazil was supposed to lack, were emphasized. Parreira dropped the superb forward Romario from the team because he was considered a rebel. Romario got the last laugh as Parreira was forced -- pretty much by public opinion -- to recall him when Brazil ran into trouble in the qualifiers. But Parreira’s team (greatly helped by Romario’s goals) won the 1994 World Cup.
The coaching was changing, but the players were slower to respond to the call of modern soccer. The individual stars were still there, though now viewed with some suspicion. An awkward truce between “European” style discipline and Latin freedom and artistry grew shakily. It worked, under Scolari in 2002, but has been growing more and more dysfunctional and less and less successful since. The breakdown was clear before the beginning of this World Cup. Scolari’s team, trying to be European and physical, yet built hopefully around Neymar, a “new Pele” asked to play that role in an unbalanced midfield where athletes dominated.
Even so, the defense ... surely that could be solidly organized? Maybe it was, but it fell ignominiously apart when Thiago Silva stupidly got himself suspended (not much discipline to be seen there).
Trying to play a well-drilled European-style defense -- with your main defender absent, with Maicon and David Luiz and Marcelo all more adventurous than seemed prudent, was asking for trouble. Against the Germans, of all people. It meant a lot of work for the defensive midfielders. Fernandinho responded by having a dreadful first half, while Luiz Gustavo was not much better. Dante, who plays in Germany, looked utterly lost with all that unpredictability around him.
But the really sad part was the threadbare quality of Brazil’s attack. Fred, just about as ineffective as you could be, Hulk not much better. Bernard busy but unimpressive. Which leaves just Oscar capable of waving the magic wand of Brazilian soccer. But with no one to respond to it.
Then the Germans pounced, and the Brazilian World Cup dream was in tatters after just six amazing minutes. Yes, the Germans met with little resistance, but they still had to get the ball into the net. And the finishing of the Germans, of Toni Kroos, Miroslav Klose and Sami Khedira, was as good as you’ll ever see. It needs emphasizing -- we’ve grown used to watching players mis-hit their shots yards wide. This was ruthless, raw, excitement.
For the Germans, there is the old riddle of how you improve on perfection. Generally speaking you don’t, though the Germans will no doubt be delighted to try. They will encounter the Shakespearean problem -- “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
It’s not so straightforward for the Brazilians. Evidently, a choice has to be made. The attempt to mix the Latin with the European shows no signs of working out. There are subtleties and nuances at work here, that do not respond to the almost mechanical requirements of modern coaching science. Maybe they never will, and maybe that’s a good thing. The idea that the global sport’s next step must be a sort of homogenized all-purpose activity without the idiosyncrasies and foibles that give it character and life is not one that appeals.