A weekend simply stuffed full of TV soccer, impossible to watch it all, both because of overlaps and because soccer-fatigue sets in sooner or later.
Of the 16 games available over two days,
the pick of the bunch, no doubt about that, was the first one, early on Saturday: the Olympic semifinal between Brazil and Cameroon. And, wouldn't you know, this plum, this sure-fire barn-burner,
turned out to be the worst game I saw.
Regrettably, Brazil's pedestrian play should not have been a surprise. Coach Dunga has let it be known, again and again, that all he wants his teams to do is to win, and it matters not how they do it. All he wants is that his teams play "efficient" soccer. Presumably Brazil did that against Cameroon, as it won the game 2-0. But it was grim to watch.
Actually this game presented a double betrayal. Brazil's play, turning its back on jogo bonito, the beautiful game that has been the team's hallmark for decades, was bad enough. But what is one to say of Cameroon?
For most of us, it was Cameroon, in the 1982 World Cup, that gave us our first glimpse of just how good African soccer could be.
We had, before that date, seen Zaire in the 1974 finals, but they departed quickly, having shipped 14 goals in three games and scored none -- a record that tended to confirm the opinion of those who
saw African soccer as a joke.
The Cameroon team in Spain '82 changed all that with its superb play, a wonderful amalgamation of slick on-the-ground passing, ball skills and impressive athleticism. It tied all three of its games, and failed to qualify for the second round -- to the disappointment of many who felt that only a sudden attack of caution prevented it from beating Italy in its third game.
Cameroon was back in the 1990 World Cup -- but a change was already visible. To the admirable qualities had been added a rough edge -- two red cards in its opening game against Argentina told the story. That year, Cameroon reached the quarterfinals - the furthest any African team has ever progressed in the World Cup - before losing to England. Cameroon outplayed England for much of the game but were undone by their own foul play, giving two penalty kicks to England.
Now the Olympics have shown us a Cameroon team that relied on constant fouling as a way of stopping Brazil. There was just nothing to admire about this team. You feel that Brazil -- the old Brazil -- would have shrugged the fouling aside and destroyed Cameroon with skillful soccer. But not Dunga's Brazil, which replied in kind, doing plenty of its own fouling. Cameroon picked up six yellow cards and a red, Brazil got five yellows. There could have been more. Foul count after 120 minutes: Brazil 27, Cameroon 29. An appalling game.
What has happened, then to Brazil and Cameroon? My answer to that question is, in a word, Europe. Virtually all of Cameroon's top players now play in Europe. Of the 18-man Olympic team, 15 are with European clubs, only two play in Cameroon. It is the same story with Brazil: 12 of the 18 play their club ball in Europe, and, of course, Brazil have in Dunga a coach very much in love with European notions that emphasize the physical aspects of soccer and the importance of tactical discipline.
The contrast between Brazil and Argentina is interesting. Argentina's Olympic squad is also largely Europe-based (15 of the 18 players) but it plays with a style much more closely related to the traditional Argentine game than anything European. The coach, Sergio Batista -- and the national team coach Alfie Basile -- evidently have a faith that Dunga has lost: that a traditional South American style is good enough to cope with the European approach.
All of which sets the scene for an intriguing Argentina vs. Brazil semifinal on Tuesday. To simplify: the South American Argentines against the Europeanized Brazilians. We saw this a year ago in the final of the Copa America, when Argentina took all the praise for their beautiful soccer, but Dunga's "effective" Brazil squashed them 3-0 in the final.
A lesson for Argentina? Conclusive proof that Dunga has got it right? Hardly -- but a result that can not be considered encouraging for devotees of the beautiful game. Dunga has continued his "effective" approach -- it is on view at the Olympics, before that it was seen in June in a World Cup qualifier against ... Argentina. This time the Argentines unquestionably played the better soccer. The game was tied 0-0, and the Brazilian fans booed their own team. Maybe then, that was a lesson for Dunga?
We'll find out on Tuesday. The Argentines have not changed their style. The question mark hovers over Dunga -- will his men play like Europeans or Brazilians? Argentina with Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero, Brazil with Ronaldinho, Pato Alexandre and Jo -- to name only a few -- all superb attacking players. On paper this has to be a hell of a game, the true Olympic final. And a game with something to tell us about the nature of modern soccer.