My World Cup: Still Waiting for Brazil

By Paul Gardner

We've had to wait a long time for Brazil in this tournament, and it seems to me we're still waiting. Brazil's performance yesterday during its 2-1 win over North Korea was hardly vintage Brazil. We got the thinnest shadow of the beautiful game. We got Dunga's Brazil, the pragmatic Brazil of which Dunga has boasted time and again.

He has only one reason to be satisfied with this scoreline -- that it is a win. Three points. The assumption seems to be that Brazil will now go on to get whatever points it needs from either Portugal or Ivory coast, or maybe both, and will sail firmly into the next round.

That may happen. But there is another consideration here. One that during the 90-plus minutes of relentlessly Brit-oriented commentary that Martin Tyler and the legendary Ally McCoist gave us was never even mentioned. Namely goal difference.

This is a very tough group. I’d say that both Portugal and Ivory Coast, playing cautiously and emphasizing defense -- in other words, playing more or less as they did against each other yesterday -- are capable of getting a tie with Brazil. Certainly if Brazil plays as it did against North Korea.

Should that happen -- or should one of those two actually beat Brazil -- then it will be goal difference that decides Brazil's fate. The advantage then swings to Portugal and Ivory Coast, which will now understand -- as Brazil (to say nothing of Tyler and the legendary McCoist) seemed not to -- that they must go for goals against the Koreans.

It doesn’t have to be a mountainous scoreline, either. That late Korean goal reduced Brazil’s goal difference to a flimsy +1.

Admittedly, I’m assuming in that scenario that North Korea has no role to play other than that of punching bag. But such was their play yesterday, that the North Koreans may feel encouraged enough to play for a win from now on (I think it’s a pretty fair bet that a scoreless tie was the limit of their ambitions against Brazil).

Brazil plays Ivory Coast next, a game which I think it must win. While Portugal, should it be thinking the way I’m thinking, will be trying to work out ways of scoring goals against a packed North Korean defense. Except I doubt it will be as packed as it was against Brazil, for the Koreans’ ambition may now well be to spring a surprise by beating Portugal. In which case, more attacking, less defense, more chances for Portugal.

A whole series of scripts: the ultimate nightmare script for the Brazilians is that Ivory Coast holds them to a tie or beats them while Portugal beats North Korea by a minimum two-goal margin.

Leaving Brazil to beat Portugal resoundingly in its final game on June 25 to be sure of qualification. Of course, I believe that Brazil can do it -- it’s always a good idea to have faith in Brazil’s ability to win -- but it's making things difficult for itself. Less pragmatism and more flair -- in other words, more Brazil -- is my prescription (not least, because that’s what I want to see).

But there seems to be a hitch here. Dunga does have two creative players on his team, Robinho and Kaka. Trouble is that Kaka is going through a miserable patch. He was not a significant influence in the Korea game. Robinho did a lot better.

For all my criticism of Brazil, there were -- of course, there were, how could there not be? -- moments of sheer Brazilian magic. Not nearly enough of them, but they were there -- on both goals. Maicon’s opening goal was simply stunning. Its brilliance will of course be trashed by the party-poopers who will insist that it was all down to a goalkeeper’s error. No skill from Maicon, then.

Well, a plague on the goalkeeper-error mob. Maicon’s shot (that’s what it was) taken at the end of a full-speed run, was hit with ferocious force; it seemed to be taken with the outside of his foot -- something that, to me, says shot, not cross. As the goal netting bulged, there came to me memories of 1970, of that wonderful goal by Carlos Alberto against Italy in the final, also the result of a surging overlapping run and an unstoppable shot.

Goal to Maicon, and all the praise I can muster for his superb skill. We got more Brazilian skill on the second goal -- a superbly executed pass from Robinho, the ball gliding, untouched, right through the heart of the massed Korean defense, arriving perfectly to meet Elano, racing gleefully forward to firmly sidefoot it into the net.

[Reminder to ESPN’s Tyler and the legendary McCoist: we call that sort of pass an assist in this country. I guess no one has bothered to inform you? On another point -- my congratulations to ESPN, which seems to have had the good sense to drop their fatuous “One Game Changes Everything” catch phrase or punch line or sales slogan or whatever it was supposed to be.]

It has to be faced: most of the 14 games so far played have been disappointing. The anti-soccer tribe will be having a field day at the anemic scorelines -- and who’s to argue with them? We’re averaging an almost derisory 1.6 goals per game! I wonder how many more of these distorted tournaments it’s going to take before it hits the soccer biggies -- by which I mean particularly FIFA and IFAB, the rule-making guys -- that they have to do something about this.

At one time I might have called it a trend for soccer to get lower-scoring and less exciting when the big games came around. It is no longer a trend, it is now an indisputable and deplorable fact. Far from trying to make things better, FIFA -- by bloating the World Cup up from 16 to 32 teams -- has made matters worse. Maybe the knockout stage will be better. The clever tactical and mathematical points-winning calculations won’t mean anything then. But something else, equally damaging, will replace them. The penalty-kick shootout, plus all that it means in terms of teams playing deliberately for a tie. Somehow we’ve managed to allow ourselves to be convinced that a team that wins one of these tacky little shootouts is fit to be called the winner of a game.

We use that method because teams simply cannot score goals. Twice we’ve anointed world champions using this totally specious gimmick. Prepare yourself. Come the day of the final, July 11, 2010, we may be forced to use it again.

7 comments about "My World Cup: Still Waiting for Brazil".
  1. Jim Hougan, June 15, 2010 at 10:13 p.m.

    Nilmar showed more flair in his few minutes than the Brazilian side as whole. He was dangerous every time he touched the ball.

  2. William Harris, June 16, 2010 at 1:29 a.m.

    Always an ax to grind, this columnist! The snide comments and faux 'Beautiful Game' (but only as Gardner defines it - a meandering yardstick, to be sure) commentary is...tiresome.

    Hang it up, grandpa. You have become like the pathetic geezer who croons about the "babe" he dated 'back in the day', criticizing/ignoring the hotties your grandkids are dating because they couldn't possibly hold a candle to your beloved 'Mabel'.

    .....and unsubscribe me, please.

  3. Loren C. Klein, June 16, 2010 at 9:53 a.m.

    I apologize in advance if I sound a bit harsh, but the sheer lack of intelligence in this article has bothered me to the point that is really needs to be properly deconstructed. Unfortunately, a proper reconstruction is more than the response software can allow, so it requires two posts.
    (1) Brazil do not need to worry about goal difference in order to top their group, as the qualifying campaigns of Ivory Coast, DPRK, and Portugal showed, not to mention yesterday’s matches. Coming into the World Cup, people who just look at the names and can name a couple of players on the team, yet never watch any of their national team matches (Read: Paul Gardner) would expect a swashbuckling group of death. However, even watching a couple of highlights would have shown that (A) Portugal can’t score to save their lives because Cristiano Ronaldo loses all of his talent when he puts on a Portugal shirt (B) Ivory Coast rarely scores when Didier Drogba isn’t on the pitch, and has problems against organized sides in general (C) North Korea will be impossible to break down for most teams because they put so many men behind the ball, and (D) Dunga has created a *team* for Brazil that adds physicality to their traditional counterattacking style, and consists of players that are willing to not dance around on the ball when just a simple pass to break down the defence will suffice. Yesterday showed that all of these sides behaved to form because (A) Ivory Coast looked like they were out of ideas when Drogba wasn’t on the pitch (B) It took a single call for Ronaldo to point for the remainder of the match (C) North Korea came to defend with ten men behind the ball, looking for the odd counterattack, and (D) Brazil have a side that is tactically patent enough to wait until they can break down an organized defence, then rip it apart at will when they get stretched. Any discussion of running up the score on North Korea is completely ignorant of the basics of soccer because you can’t run up the score on a team that defends as tight as North Korea does, no matter the number of alleged samba footballers you have on the field. Regardless, there’s no need to worry about goal difference because Brazil are organized and athletic enough to brush aside Ivory Coast, and with 6 points they only have to draw with Portugal to win their group. Any statements about North Korea trying from a win from here on out is pure fantasy as they have spent the last decade defending in numbers and only countering when they can’t be outnumbered if things go wrong. It’s pure ignorance to expect a team that typically puts only four men in the box for a corner kick and when breaking forward leaves the entire back five behind to throw all of that out of the window, especially in as tightly controlled of a nation as North Korea. I guess the only explanation is that Gardner was using the same invisible telephone that the North Korean coach alleges he uses to talk to the Dear Leader from the sidelines.

  4. Loren C. Klein, June 16, 2010 at 9:55 a.m.

    (2) This lambasting of “Brit-oriented” commentary is completely unfounded and simply stupid. I have the World Cup iPhone app and I listen to the live game audio, and to be frank, you can say what you want about Martin Tyler, Ally McCoist (Who states the obvious and not much more), & Ian Darke, but if the choice is between him and the absolutely grating Shep Messing, clueless Tommy Smyth, & dire JP Dellacamera, I know where people are going to go. I know these Johnny Foreigners talk funny and say things that we don’t understand in our culture, but to assume that because they are foreign they aren’t as good as our announcers is simple xenophobia. To be honest, the only American announcers that wouldn’t disgrace themselves in comparison to the British crew brought over are the ever-underrated Glenn Davis, the surprisingly insightful Kyle Martino (Who seems to have a lot of upside thus far), and Kansas City’s Sean Wheelock, who is known and loved by British listeners due to his regularity on BBC 5Live’s World Football Phone-in. I’m really at a loss as to how someone could criticize ESPN’s coverage for a lack of insight, as ESPN really picked off the cream of the English footballing crop, as in comparison to the BBC and ITV over in the UK, ESPN is running quite the informative and decent ship. But we can’t give the English any credit, can we?
    (3) It’s pretty much common knowledge that thus far the World Cup matches have been underwhelming, but it’s what one would expect in an initial match of the tournament, as teams are by and large coming out with a game plan to not lose the match rather than try to win it, as the first matches are drawn between the sides that are closest to each other in ability. As the second round of group matches is about to begin, sides who now need three points will be forced to get out of their defencive shells a bit more, opening play overall. Gardner’s whine about “how many more of these distorted tournaments it’s going to take…” evidently means that he didn’t bothered to watch Euro 2008, a universally-applauded tournament for its attacking football, the last two seasons of FC Barcelona in Spain and in the Champions League, and this past season in Europe, which saw goal scoring shoot up to nearly decade-long highs. Tactically, attacking football is in the ascendency because of these developments and though for the most part the initial matches showed flashes of this from sides we expected (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Holland) and even some we didn’t expect (Nigeria & South Korea). As I said above, now that everyone has a match under their belts, and many sides need to get three points in order to get out of their groups, we will see these defences start to open up.
    This article was simply dreadful, and its ending with the whine about penalty shootouts seems rather fitting: ill-conceived drivel without any sort of an offer for a solution, with the implication that any idea not from the US isn’t a good one.

  5. Mike Gaire, June 16, 2010 at 10:34 a.m.

    I have to agree with William Harris, about the only thing Paul Gardner seems to specialize in is raining on everybody's parade! Cynical and boring!!

  6. Kent James, June 16, 2010 at 5:40 p.m.

    This is a great column; Gardner is simply pointing out that Brazil's abandonment of the attacking game for which they are justifiably famous in favor of Dunga's athletic efficiency (and whose abandonment rightfully drives Gardner to despair), might come back to haunt them. In other words, even by Dunga's definition of success, his negative tactics might fail.
    As for the British orientation of the announcers, I believe Gardner is mocking the "legendary" tag applied to Ally McCoist. I happen to think that ESPN did bring the best British announcers (Derek Rae, Ian Darke, Martin Tyler), who I think are better than most US announcers. On the other hand, the US does have many good color commentators (I think Harkes and Chris Sullivan do quite well, though no one's perfect), and nothing against the British, but it's a bit insulting to have only one American announcer for an American audience. This is especially true for Ally McCoist, whose Scottish accent requires much to much concentration to try to understand. I have nothing against the Scots (I have a decent dose of Scottish blood), but speaking so that the audience can easily understand you seems like it should be a pre-requisite for a commentator.

  7. Miguel Dedo, June 16, 2010 at 6:40 p.m.

    I watch with the "mute" switch on, do not listen to the audio because the vuvuzela noise is so unpleasant. Could not the ESPN sound engineer take it out of the signal they transmit?

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