Germany on top of the world as Brazil searches for a way back

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.
19 comments about "Germany on top of the world as Brazil searches for a way back".
  1. Kent James, July 10, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.

    This column is an excellent summary of the conflicting trends in high level soccer (especially as they relate to Brazil), but I disagree with the conclusion, and think it is not quite as nuanced as it should be. First, I think there is more than just Brazilian artistry v. German efficiency. For example, the tiki-taka of Barcelona/Spain does not rely on individual creativity (in the Brazilian mold), but is artistic and creative in its own way. I think the Germans have built on the tiki-taka's simplicity of the passing, and the emphasis on high pressure, cohesive defense, but to that, they've added a more direct approach (not quite "route one", but certainly much more direct than tiki-taka), as well as, most importantly, ruthless finishing (which I think is almost always the difference at the highest levels). I don't know if you it is possible to produce better finishers, but what the Germans have done, is made sure that the players know that the ultimate goal is scoring, not just possession. And while those in the Spanish/Barcelona mold obviously know that as well, I think they sometimes fear a loss of possession (or just plain don't like the more direct route), that in trying to "walk the ball in" (which, admittedly they can often do), they don't create enough scoring chances. They let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I love Barcelona/Spain but I do wish they'd attack more. But where I disagree with the column is the suggestion that teams must practice only one style; I think there is room for Brazilian individual talent within either the tiki-taka style of Barcelona, or the more athletic/efficient Germans. And I think even the Brazilians need to play an organized defense, and can't just rely on pick-up brilliance to beat teams. But Brazil in the last 20 years went much too far in that (defensive/physical) direction, and I'm hoping the humiliation will have the positive benefit of encouraging Brazil to go back to a more creative style. But they don't need to be Germans to be successful.

  2. John Soares, July 10, 2014 at 1:44 p.m.

    Good article....great points. Didn't know you were a philosopher as well:)!

  3. Frank Fonte, July 10, 2014 at 1:51 p.m.

    i'm not shedding any tears for brazil. they have been on the other side of large scores many times. so they have to find their way back. their domestic league is full of corruption. who are they developing as players ? they have fallen behind the rest of the world in terms of finding a way to develop their young players. their domestic teams simply sell off their stars for money ; and the team officials pocket most. or in the case of neymar's father, in his own pocket. this was a long time in coming. it will be interseting to see where they go.

  4. Basil Jach, July 10, 2014 at 1:51 p.m.

    The Germans proved you philosophy of the Latin players 100% wrong.

  5. ROBERT BOND, July 10, 2014 at 2:30 p.m.

    Like Kroos said, you don't win the World Cup in the semi-finals--we haven't won anything yet. DFB had better das nicht vergessen......that is our philoshophy...

  6. Mark Landefeld, July 10, 2014 at 4:49 p.m.

    As a TV commentator in 1986, Paul Gardner offered that W. Germany, down 1-0, had not offered any justification for being in the final. Down 2-0, they became the second team in WC Finals to come back from a 2 goal lead to tie -- off two restart goals. This was their trademark in tight games, defeating France in the prior semifinal with a game-winning restart goal.

    I can't ever remember PG offering praise about any German WC finalist. He has a blind spot for any of the attributes that drive them to championships.

    The current team is "too-diagrammatic"? Spare us your bias and start looking at what has put this program in contention at WC and Euros, and why everyone else speaks so highly of their style of the last 8 years.

    Except that might require a compliment to be sent Klinsmann's way (Heaven Forbid!)

  7. Santiago 1314, July 10, 2014 at 5:33 p.m.

    Hummm Bill** Do you mean that "Latin" Style that has won 15 Out of 19 World Cups??? Because you do Realize that Latin comes From Italy....and Spain and France are Latin Countries...Seems pretty Overwhelming that Teams Based on Gifted, Creative, Latin Individuals can Overcome The Northern European "Team" Concept...But we will have a true Test of that on Sunday...If DiMaria and Aguerro are Healthy enough, They can Pull it Off...Argentina will Muddle up the Middle(like they have all Tournament long) and not let the Germans Play Forward in a Direct Manor...Once the Speed of the Germans is Negated, they become very Pedestrian and are Devoid of Individual Thought/Creation from Back to Front...Only Ozil(Turkish, Is that Latin??? Hahaha NO) can beat you Solo...But BPL and La Liga teams Figured out how to Stifle him...I just hope it is as Good a game as Mexico 86... I was there, to see Valdano-Maradona-Valdano 120 Yard "Wall Pass"...That's ALL it takes... 2 Players...Hope they Show Hi-lites of that one on the TV broadcast

  8. Ramon Creager, July 10, 2014 at 5:33 p.m.

    I was shocked by the defensive lapses that allowed this to happen. I saw that Dante was lost. And Maicon also didn't seem to know what to do (not that others did much better). But I simply cannot understand how this can be allowed to happen at this level. Unplug Thiago Silva and...chaos? WTF? Are these not professionals? Does Brazil not have the deepest pool of players on this planet? This goes well beyond any 'Latin vs. European' style issues. These are dog whistles, red herrings. The real issue is this: regardless of how you wish to play you still must defend competently or you will get crushed like a bug. And I simply cannot understand how this team was not prepared to defend with any of their defensive pieces interchanged. Time and again I've seen others do it--heck, the US did it in this very tournament, vs. Ghana, when CB John Brooks came in for CB Matt Besler at the half and chaos did not ensue. This is why I think Scolari is ultimately to blame and must go.

  9. Mark Hardt, July 10, 2014 at 6:11 p.m.

    In this article Paul praises the Germans. In previous articles he bashed Klinsman. What Paul is forgetting is Klinsman was the chief architect of this new German Style. Remember Germany imploded in the 2000 Euros and they began a revamp. Klinsman came up with the fluid offensive oriented style Germany has even if Loew did most of the day to day stuff. So Paul which is it? Is Klinsman still terrible even though he has the keys to teaching the USA the dominant German style.

  10. beautiful game, July 10, 2014 at 6:43 p.m.

    Amici sportive, Bayern Munchen being heavily represented on this squad exemplifies the coaching style and demands of Guardiola, and answers most of the questions when it comes to overall German soccer IQ, mental readiness, organization and execution. Not all games can be one sided, but in this WC, they have proven how best to get results, no matter how, beautiful or not so beautiful, but efficient. What mattered most is survival in the knockout rounds.

  11. stewart hayes, July 10, 2014 at 6:54 p.m.

    We are seeing the decline of the improvisational attack. An attack that relies on the brilliance of 1-3 individuals to sort a away through an organized, compact, highly mobile, defense. What is impressive is the team movement required to create multiple attacking options in the final 3rd and the players that have the patience and vision to find the best option while very rarely giving the ball away until there is a shot at goal. I thought the Dutch could do this but they fell far short. Even the Germans have had me yelling for them to take players on 1v1 or make runs with the ball across the middle. They play risk averse soccer to a fault. I am eagerly awaiting the clash of styles on Sunday.

  12. David V, July 10, 2014 at 8:05 p.m.


  13. David V, July 10, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

    KENT JAMES: with all due respect, you've misunderstood Tiqui-Taca (TT) and the results of having to play against Tiqui-Taca... First: in the TT era, at the beginning, there were many high scoring games from the Spanish, and frequently a route 1, or something less than route 1, but fairly direct was used when the situation allowed (take for Example the 40 yard pass to David Villa against Sweden in the Euro2008, or the Torres goal against Germany in the final... pretty much route 1)... as teams began to see what the Spanish were doing to their opponents in 2006, 2007, 2008, they began the hunker down mentality, 11 men behind the ball, hope for a lucky counter attack and take that 5% chance you could steal a game from the Spanish (very much the way Switzerland stole one from them in the opener of WC 2010), and almost everyone tried it against them... then, enter Dutch thugs in 2010... Van Marwijk asks Cruyff "can we beat Spain in the WC Final the way Inter beat Barca in the Champions League final (of that year, some 6-7 weeks earlier)? ... he was saying, can we hunker down and get a lucky break and win... and Cruyff told him they could not beat Spain... so they adopted a buthering philosophy GOING INTO the final... you know the story (3 clear Red Cards should have been given to the Dutch in the first 25 minutes of the game, and Howard Webb was equally responsible for a horrible final, along with the Dutch)... what is remarkable, was that everyone gunned for them for 6-8 years and 98% of the time, no one had a chance against them... OK, you get it, they are the best team in history, everyone knows that now... but what you, with all due respect, and tons of othr people don't realize, the Germans, and no one in this era is facing the the Hunker-down opponents like Spain did for years... I guarantee you, if Germany played against opponent after opponent with 11 men behind the ball, they would not appear so lethal (generally effective yes, but not with high, high scoring games, and they would have to resort to patience and probing).

  14. David V, July 10, 2014 at 8:28 p.m.

    A VICTORY FOR FOOTBALL... the Germans having been chasing the Spanish for 6+ years... lost to them in Euro 2008, knocked out in the semis in 2010WC by the spanish, saw them destroy Italy in the final of Euro 2012, after being knocked out by Italy... When Spain won the Euro2008, and especially WC2010, remember (not that long ago), most of the world had been playing, as Cruyff likes to say "anti-football"... a big brutalizing, defensive affair... the world's game had turned ugly and Spain's WC victory was heralded as a Victory for football... the best team won, with an attacking creative mentality... Brazilian great Tostao, amongst several greats from yesteryear has said that this 2014 cup has been most enjoyable due to that renaissance which the Spanish started...most of the large teams, all at one point or another, said they would follow suit, they would take their queue from Spain, and become more creative, emulate the Spanish style...teams like Italy (good on them the last 4 years), England, the USA, etc, etc, etc., and including England... Germany did follow suit... they got rid of Mike Ballack (remember him stomping all over Xavi's feet during the Euro 2008 final? a Brute, the wrong kind of player, done with...) ... Bastian Schweinsteiger said he would study and emulate Xavi, which he did, the list goes on, and on... all the time, Jogi Low has been a humble man, showing grace in defeat, but working to implement that style, and helping his players to develop and mature... this has become a Germany that I could support and appreciate, not since the days of Kaiser Franz have I enjoyed so much this Germany... Brazil, on the other hand, and for whatever reason (do they not have the players they once had, or is it the less creative, flowing style of football most of their players now play in the English premier league that is part of the demise of what the world came to love about Brazil? or perhaps a bit of both), chose an ugly combative type of football (perhaps like the Dutch against the Spanish in 2010, after Cruyff told van marwijk that they could not beat spain) perhaps Scolari adopted this approach because he knew his team had no chance on the skill level (ANYONE who knows football could see this was a subpar team for years, and the ONLY reason why they were in the conversation about being champions was because of their history and because of the geography of 2014)... This is NOT and has NOT been the Brazil the world fell in love with in the late 50s, 60s, 70s, and the early 80s... Big Phil has been a big Jerk (compare him to Jogi Low and Vicente Del Bosque in both victory and defeat), the fans were vitriolic... what a tale of two countries...what a flip in headlines... "Creative Germans destroy way-over-their-heads Brazilian Thugs!!!" Part 1/2

  15. David V, July 10, 2014 at 8:29 p.m.

    Good on Germany... the route they took, was good for them, and it is good for football... One can only hope a creative, attacking team wins the Argentina-Holland game... let's hope the Dutch thugs on 2010 with their Kung-Fu kickers remain either on the bench or out of the psyche Take note folks... including the USA... get away from hunker-down-and-hope-to-survive hunker down, brutal football, it lost again, yesterday. Germany's victory yesterday, was a win for world football …....... (a footnote would be that Pep Guardiola has helped many of these German players with his philosophy instilled at Bayern Munich-further helping along German national team players playing for Bayern)... the game is about possession, about creativity, about attacking (and yes of course organization too, but NOT organization alone, mixed in with thuggery) ..... (originally written yesterday)

  16. Kent James, July 10, 2014 at 11:41 p.m.

    David V, how have I mis-characterized tiki-taka? Do you disagree that it is a possession-oriented game, built on many short passes? That's not to say they never hit a long ball, but when teams pack it in, their response (I think unfortunately) is to double down, and try to just make more short passes faster, often attacking in a 3 v 6 situation (with their teammates hanging back). It was a crime that a team as talented as Spain was forced to play against packed penalty areas throughout the WC in 2010, and to their credit, they were good enough to overcome even that. I think they should have adapted better, by using more balls on the flanks (even long ones), more crosses (just to piss Paul Gardner off), and more shooting from distance. That would force teams to challenge them farther away from the goal, which would then open up more space to exploit with the short passes on which they thrive. But my larger point was that tiki-taka strikes me as a very team oriented strategy, that doesn't thrive as much on individual flair (as Brazil does), but more team creativity (creativity with small groups). The difference between the step-overs and fancy footwork of Ronaldo (which I would put in the Brazilian mold of creativity), vs. the simplicity of Messi (simple cutbacks and changes of direction that are very basic, but just done so well and so fast that he's able to carve open defenses either for himself or his teammates). While Germany does not have Brazil's creativity, I do think they've improved upon Spanish technical proficiency by having a more varied arsenal.

  17. Vendetta diPirlo, July 14, 2014 at 2:22 a.m.

    Teams eventually play according to their national styles no matter what the coaches do. Brazil was coached to play Euro ball but they played sloppy defense like Brazil of old but no longer have the technical edge they still had with Ronaldo and Romario - the world has caught up with Brazi - anyone can learn tricks watching youtube. The Germans played like Germans and won. The Argies also played according to national character by wasting natural resources and getting depressed (Messi) playing nasty (Aguero should have been expelled). Italy did not play catenaccio and were removed (with help from the ref against Uruguay). England looked OK when they crossed the ball. Holland played catenaccio instead of using the whole team and the whole field - they refused to attack the wings in the semi against Argentina. I recall Cruyff running down the wings in Holland v. Argentina in '74 when the Dutch thrashed the Argies.
    What about America, does the US have a national character? the can do know how spiirt of pre politically correct US instead of the current characteristics of obesity/ignorance (general population) and incompetence (political elite).

  18. Jogo Bonito, July 14, 2014 at 9:19 p.m.

    I agree with PG that a future of watching hard-working, efficient soccer does not appeal to me. The future “look" of our sport lies not in the hands of the coaches, because they have failed miserably here. The “advancements” in coaching education has only brought us more tactical and predictable soccer. Coaches generally favor efficient, sturdy players over creative, skillful players. I think the future of our game lies in the hands of the referees. The refs can change our sport back to a game where size, strength and speed are only advantages if you can actually play. Michel Platini once said in an interview several years ago that he would like to see slide tackling get banned (much like typical indoor rules) because he felt that all the sliding and throwing yourself at the ball made it too hard for the great players. I do not agree that such a change is necessary, but I would like to see referees call fouls (and cards) when players slide in and make any contact with the player in possession. If a player slides and gets all ball then fine, but none of this getting ball and player stuff. Defending will mean actually moving your feet and trying to stay goal side standing up. If players had to think twice about sliding then the game would change drastically and we would see more skill, more dribbling and hopefully more goals. So referees (directed by FIFA I guess) can be the catalyst of change. It would be almost comical at first. With games that feature 2-3 red cards and a dozen yellows, but over time the game would change and maybe we’ll see more players like Messi and Neymar.

  19. Rick Estupinan, July 17, 2014 at 2:05 a.m.

    Paul is an Idiot !

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