Within a few hours yesterday we got a look at Russia playing Sweden in Euro 2008, and then Brazil taking on Argentina in a World Cup qualifier. Two so-so European teams, then the South Americans, who
happen to be the FIFA-ranked No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the world.
And what do you know -- the European game was a far superior game. Russia was the best team on view while Brazil was the
worst. I wouldn't want to project an incredible upheaval in the pecking order of world soccer on the basis of a couple of games -- but there was no doubting who looked good and who looked lousy
The Russians had started Euro 2008 with a feeble game against Spain, who trampled all over them 4-1. Things were better for Russia against Greece, who it beat 1-0, but the
Greeks were not difficult opposition. But against Sweden, in a must-win game, Guus Hiddink's team played superbly, indeed brilliantly at times.
Possibly the return, from suspension, of
playmaker Andrei Arshavin made all the difference, but this was really a total team effort, and no one spent more energy -- and used it all skillfully and intelligently -- than midfielder Yuri
Zhirkov. When they come to awarding a Man of All the Matches prize for this tournament, this was a performance that should walk away with it.
I'll confess that it's been over 60 years
since I've seen a Russian soccer that has impressed me. The first occasion was the now-famous visit of Moscow Dynamo to England in 1945. They came, mysterious, bearing flowers (we'd never seen
before) and in England we mocked them. But they played a type of soccer that we'd also never seen before, quick-moving players, on the ground passes, neat and exciting. Then they
retreated back behind the iron curtain and we forgot about them. Though the memory of something different, something special never left me.
It's taken all those years for it to be
rekindled. Maybe I have Dutchman Hiddink to thank for the pleasure I got from yesterday's Russia -- but the players, led by Zhirkov, Arshavin, Konstantin Zyryanov, Sergei Semak and Roman Pavlyuchenko,
produced the dazzling dish that capped everything that Hiddink had cooked up.
Both Russian goals -- and there should have been more than two -- came from incisive running, intelligent
and accurate passing at speed, and fine finishing. What more can you ask for? Well, there is more, because three of those players are comparative youngsters -- Zhirkov, Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko are
all in their mid-20s.
With the memories of the light-footed Russians (that's not an adjective that the Russians usually call forth) fresh in my mind, I watched Brazil, and was duly
Argentina was the better team, Lionel Messi the star of the game. The only star of the game, the only one to demonstrate Latin artistry and creativity. I suppose I ought to
make allowance for the heavy historical baggage that this matchup has to bear, the fact that neither side wants to lose. But I've seen plenty of these Brazil vs. Argentina encounters, at all age
levels, and never have I seen one as devoid of good soccer as this one.
From the start, the aim of both teams was to break up the play before it began -- so we got a game with 45 fouls
-- none of them especially bad, most of them of the tactical, game-stopping variety.
This was utterly disappointing, a huge bore. Brazil bears the major share of the blame. It was
Brazil's home game, it was Brazil's responsibility to carry the game, to attack, to score. But its play was incoherent, almost totally lacking in the wonderful skills and surprises that we expect --
heck, that we have a right
to expect! -- from Brazil. In blaming Brazil, I'm blaming Dunga. He has let it be known, quite clearly, that he doesn't give damn for all the stuff about Brazil's
Beautiful Game -- he just wants an effective team. Which means -- in my translation anyway -- that as long as you win, it doesn't matter what you look like.
OK. And if you don't win -
and Brazil has now played three barren games on the run (including the losses to Venezuela and Paraguay) - then what? Then one hopes the Brazilian fan will let his voice be heard, and send Dunga
packing for what is, make no mistake, a betrayal of the living essence of the Brazilian game.
How odd that Dunga's philosophy comes over as yet another attempt by a Brazilian coach to
get Brazilians to play like Europeans, while at the same time we have Hiddink producing a Russian team that in its best moments yesterday, moved with the silky grace and skill of Brazil.
Luckily for South America, I can report that all is not lost. Yesterday's Bolivia vs. Paraguay qualifier was tremendous entertainment and full of good, inventive soccer between two teams that always
wanted to play real soccer. Bolivia's surprising 4-2 win was sparked by the midfielder described by the commentators as the best player on the field - No. 10, Joselito Vaca. Remember him, MLS? The
player you didn't want? Exactly the sort of player that New York -- who had him here as a MetroStar, then let him go -- could do with.