Can this be Brazil? The hosts stagger through to the quarterfinals

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 creme of 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 brio is 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.
20 comments about "Can this be Brazil? The hosts stagger through to the quarterfinals ".
  1. David V, June 30, 2014 at 1:18 a.m.

    If this tournament were not in Brazil, they would not be favored... it's really an ugly subpar Brazil and their fans have been ugly too...

  2. Gonzalo Munevar, June 30, 2014 at 2:50 a.m.

    It is indeed sad to see the wonderful Brazilian magic gone. And during their own World Cup to boot.

  3. David Crowther, June 30, 2014 at 4 a.m.

    Don't despair. It's still possible to watch a team play like the Brazil we used to know. They are wearing the Colombian uniforms.

  4. Andy Wagner, June 30, 2014 at 7:31 a.m.

    This is because of the players leaving their country to play in Europe. In the past, the majority of all Brazilians stayed and played in their homeland. A classic example of this was the extreme difficulty in getting Neymar away from Santos. When they set their price which was unheard of figures, they threw the money and away he went. All Brazilians from milk tooth to the senior level train the same way. This defection within the development levels by so many players is hurting the beauty of the game. I cannot say I blame them for securing their financial futures. Stop bad mouthing the Brazilians. Are you telling me the US look any better. At least the Brazilians hire a coach who is Brazilian.

  5. Jordan Thompson , June 30, 2014 at 7:55 a.m.

    The pressure of these guys playing in their home country has hit home. I am brasilian. They are crying all the time. It's too emotional for them. When Chile scored, they took it personally, and that's when their performance suffered the most in the game. The fans did not help, they too were too worried about failure. Everything went wrong against Chile. A total lack of confidence crept in the team. You could see it in the eyes of Willian, he was mortified on the field, and then again before he took that penalty shot, and he missed. Fred is a loser and needs to be kicked out immediately, he missed two golden opportunities gifted from Neymar during the game in the first half. He wasted the first half, and ruined the game for Brasil. We all lost faith at that point when Felipão put him back in the second half...!!!

  6. Brian Something, June 30, 2014 at 8:34 a.m.

    I wish Gardner didn't write one of the same four columns every week year after year. I agree with most of what he writes but it's still tiresome.

  7. Mark Hardt, June 30, 2014 at 8:55 a.m.

    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.

    the US can't make this mistake against Belgium. Try at least one offensive surprise. Either start Yedlin or start Wondo-Johannnssen.

  8. David Mont, June 30, 2014 at 9:06 a.m.

    Andy Wagner: stop blaming Europe for how Brazil is playing. It's ridiculous. In 1974 and 1978 all Brazilian players played in Brazil, yes those two Brazilian teams were very poor, playing defensive, very physical, at times thuggish, soccer.

  9. M B, June 30, 2014 at 9:52 a.m.

    Big Phil was selected as the coach after the loss to Mexico in London for the 2012 Summer Oympics. That told the tale. Big Phil is about hammering out results physically. He's never been about flair and real true Joga Bonita skill. He's like having Alemao (remember him from 1994? In Dallas) as a national team coach. There will be only a few flashes of that wonderful Brazilan ball skill and passing interchange work under the Big Phil tutelage. Sadly. Even if Brazil advance, the game itself loses. But, also: Climate conditions at kickoff and in the ensuing 120 minutes. Not at all condusive to this sport. FIFA once more has bowed to European television times for marketing, advertising, the millions of Euros, Pounds, and Swiss francs to be earned. These should all be night games with 8 p.m. kickoff times in Brazil, Brazil time. Anything else is utter nonsense. The ideal play for the Germany-Algeria match (well, minus the rain) at 56 to 57 degrees F today is the temperature ones needs for this sport. Not 86 - 92 degrees F with humidity and dew points that make tempo play, real endurance, sprints, etc. impossible.

  10. Kent James, June 30, 2014 at 10:11 a.m.

    Some day Paul Gardner will recognize that the physical play he loathes is abetted by the diving/embellishment he defends. Howard Webb had a very difficult job; the game was played intensely, with many physical challenges, but also by players who embellished fouls, dove, and whined about everything (how many times was Webb completely surrounded by players arguing his call?). So Webb has the difficult job of determining which clashes are fouls, and which are attempts to game him. Referees will make errors, so the important decision referees must make, is when they err, is it better to err on the side of calling things that are not fouls, or letting things go that are? If diving/simulation were eliminated, a ref could err on the side of calling a bit too much, and the game would be played very cleanly. But diving/simulation makes this impossible; calling too much allows players to use the ref to gain an advantage (Robben comes to mind...). At this level, FIFA should use video evidence to retroactively punish people who dive. Also, you must give credit to Webb for resisting (mostly) being influenced by the home crowd; not only did he resist the potential pks the crowd wanted (and I think he was correct in the non-calls), but he called back a key goal Brazil scored when Hulk trapped the ball with his bicept (which again, he got right). Give him credit for guts, if nothing else.

  11. M B, June 30, 2014 at 10:26 a.m.

    I want to see a match referee that makes it an entire 45 minutes without ever having to once blow his whistle. Then we might see a game worth viewing. Right now the repetition of stoppages and the length of the stoppages make all these games farces. Howard Webb is so overrated. If one watches the Spain-Netherlands final of four years ago, it is painfully obvious how he killed off the game. He's not the only factor that made that final unworthy. No, he's not. But his 90 minutes in Johannesburg serve as a prime example of what a referee cannot be. This Brazil-Chile only tells us this once more. I hope it was his last game. Hulk scored legitimately. Sadly, with England out, Webb will probably still be in play. A man who loves the sound of his own whistle. That is not match officiating. That is not fan-focused. A person sees this all very differently when travelling thousands of miles to these matches, spending all the hotel accomodations money and then the public transport time/money an wholly overpriced match ticket. One only gets a meager approx. 52 - 54 minutes of actual ball movement in what is supposed to be a 90 minutes sporting contest. It's all one big, sick joke.

  12. R2 Dad, June 30, 2014 at 11:50 a.m.

    I thought Webb had, for him, a better-than-usual performance which does not speak very highly to his match standards. The early, card-worthy fouls deprived him of his BPL approach, which is to talk these players down from unacceptable levels of reckless challenges. By allowing those two early non-cards, he spent the entire first half trying to tamp down the player interpretation of his leniency (IMHO). He was deprived of influencing the match through his chatty nature, and was stuck issuing a boat-load of cards after. The second half was easier for him, but as mentioned above the tone and tenor had been set. A portugese and spanish-speaking ref might have had more success with that strategy but how many FIFA refs have that and would be considered impartial? The pressure is getting to Brazil--don't see how they can get through 3 more games. I worry if Brazil goes out before the final, how unstable the crowds/protesting might become. No one in the media wants to talk about this, for good reason.

  13. M B, June 30, 2014 at 12:22 p.m.

    R2 Dad, you mention the unrest in Brazil right now - something that is getting a media blackout here. Just about. Why? I am more concerned about that, the welfare of the decent common man in Brasil than these stupid matches featuring very poor quality of play. But your comment hits the nail on the head. The unrest (as we experienced first a year ago during the ConFed Cup 2013) gave FIFA even more reason to help massage and manipulate so that Brasil reaches the semis vs. The Netherlands. Trust me, they will be in the semis. Colombia will not be there. Manipulation is the order of the day (just as it is when they do the December group draws).

  14. M B, June 30, 2014 at 12:28 p.m.

    I agree with and applaud Mr. James comment above about using post match video review to punish those who fake being injured, hurt, hit, fall over, lie down in anguish or roll about as well as the Robben-like dives that ones like Suarez of Uruguay have made as their trademarks. Only post match video review that result in stiff and inflexible penalties with monetary fines for both player and national federation, match bans of 4 - 5 (competitive matches only, friendlies don't count) or more depending on the severity and a heavy dosage of media lampooning for extra measure. Only this will provide a sport more worthy of actually being called legitimate sport. Let's let the media come up with a manliness scale and show the player who takes fouls but never theatrically sells it to a ref or wastes even a fraction of a second of time simulating that it is worse than it was. Do any such players exist anymore?

  15. Dick Burns, June 30, 2014 at 5:46 p.m.

    For years Paul has railed against Kicks From The Mark as a tie breaker. But he has never offered an alternate. Over the years we have tried other ways including counting corner kicks, the 35 yard shoot out, etc. without satisfaction. Any suggestions Paul? Beside staying on the pitch until they all drop? They tried that in the college championship years ago and they might still be there if they did not tear the Super Dome down.

  16. beautiful game, July 1, 2014 at 6:46 a.m.

    Paul brings out a point about the 'unfairness' of settling the contest in PK fashion. FIFA/soccer need to reinvent itself into the 21st century. Treat the overtime as a 'new extension' of the game by allowing three subs for each side; that gives a natural result more opportunity to settle the contest. Off-sides only called when there is daylight between players; divers get suspended the next game after review. Also, a stricter enforcement of the 'professional foul' with yellow card even if the dead ball stoppage is several minutes away

  17. Claudio Garcia chamorro, July 2, 2014 at 11:38 a.m.

    STOP the complaining endeavor display here

    If we would have gotten further Klissman would have been the man - not ???

    I, personally do not agree with Klissman 100% BUT REALITY IS .... He did better than expected !!!

    We are not sore losers !!

    Our team played with heart and determination ...
    And the boys did their best !!!!

    So high five the efforts and ACCEPT that we did not go out like the Gods of Football ... ITALY or SPAIN or ENGLAND .... Teams that were expected to WIN IT !!!!

    Look into the Latin Communities - large % of these kids are poor and CANNOT spend the $2K - $3K + a year expense mandated by the so called Academies of Football in this country !!

    If they were BONA FIDE ACADEMIES - they would be FREE FOR ALL PARTICIPANTS !!

    Then and only then - you would see the real talent under our noses !!!!

    BUT we are already so caught up in the money making idea that if I teach the sport I must charge !!!

    Those that REALLY KNOW the sport ....
    How much are players charge in Holland, Spain, Belgium, etc. For maturing young talent ???

  18. Claudio Garcia chamorro, July 2, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

    Sorry - I placed this by mistake here !

  19. G O, July 4, 2014 at 1:05 a.m.

    As for how to decide a deadlock at the end of 30 total minutes overtime: I personally did like very much the NASL method of settling ties. Others probably recall it better and I am sure there are sufficient video archives easily viewed through something like YouTube. The main points of the NASL style shootout were a shot clock with the seconds counting down, the field player starting on the midfield line with the ball, no limit on number of touches that the field player can choose to make, total freedom of movement from the goalkeeper to do whatever he thinks necessary to stop the field player and/or shot on goal. If the shot clock hits zero, then play is dead; the kicker took too long to achieve a goal. this was far more entertaining than simple dead ball very short kicks from the penalty spot. This NASL method to decide a tie at the end of overtime highlighted perfectly the skills (or lack thereof) of both field player trying to score and the goalkeeper trying to prevent. That's the way to do it. The fans would love it much more. And true skill would come to the fore and be appreciated by all. Watch a Cruyff, Best, or Pele handling this. Even Kyle Rote Jr. Or the flair of an absolute perfect chip over the goalkeeper but just snuggly slipping under the crossbar. Sublime skills were frequently on display.

  20. David V, July 6, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.

    claudio... what planet are you living on? England has never been expected to win anything... because they got lucky 50 years ago, and many ignorant Americans are duped into thinking 4th Division English soccer coaches and players are something (over the last 40 years)... doesn't make them favored for anything... they can't event start more than 2 players per team in their own league... the liklihood of England wining a world cup in the 21st century is about equal, or less than the USA winning it..

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