The way I look at it, Brazil owes us something. Us. Meaning the vast world soccer community that has -- with good reason -- treasured Brazilian soccer as the glittering truth of the sport, the Beautiful Game at its pinnacle.
But after that craven World Cup collapse last year, the Brazilians need to do something to re-assure their fans that Tuesday July 8, 2014 Germany 7 Brazil 1 was not the end of the world but simply a bad day at the office.
A look at the next generation, the under-20s, might tell us something. They’re currently in Uruguay, playing in the South American Championship. In the final six-team group of the tournament, Brazil sits in third place, which will be good enough to ensure it a place in the U-20 World Cup, to be staged later this year in New Zealand. Doing OK, I’d say. But is OK good enough for Brazil?
Brazil-watchers will not have been overly impressed. Something is lacking. Well, there is plenty of ball skill, there is plenty of athleticism. But that happy, joyous spirit that used to take the field with each Brazilian appearance just hasn’t been around much.
It came as a welcome surprise, suddenly, the brio burst forth in the game against Peru. After a languid 0-0 first half, a supercharged Brazil turned the second half into a thrilling reminder of what Brazilian soccer has traditionally offered. Dazzling interplay, all the excitement of impossible passes and daring dribbling, with, it seemed, barely a moment to catch one’s breath. Poor Peru had no answer to all this bewildering movement.
The second half had barely begun when the first goal arrived. From Nathan, the No. 10. Pele’s number, and Rivelino’s and Zico’s, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho too. The magic number. Nathan had been OK, but certainly not magical. Outshone really, by Thalles, who was to get two goals in this rout. But ... this was against Peru, the weakest team in the group, already eliminated.
Three days earlier, Brazil had played Argentina. The Latin American clasico, maybe the last surviving clasico ... a real test of Brazil’s quality.
The soccer was always enthralling, at times dazzling, from both teams. But Argentina always had the edge. Brazil seemed satisfied to play out a 0-0 tie, which they did until the 87th minute, when Angel Correa pushed a beautifully paced forward pass into the Brazilian penalty area for Leonardo Rolon to finish smoothly. Three minutes later a deft header from Rodrigo Contreras made it 2-0 Argentina. A bit harsh on Brazil, but you could argue that it didn’t matter. Brazil was qualified anyway for New Zealand. And the other prize on offer from this tournament -- a place in the 2016 Olympic tournament -- had no interest for Brazil, it was qualified automatically as host nation. But that’s not much of an excuse for Brazil’s lack of sparkle. Since when has it been acceptable to lose a game to Argentina?
That win, and a subsequent 3-0 win over Paraguay has put Argentina on top of the group with 10 points. In second place is Uruguay, with 8 points. The two meet on Saturday to decide matters. A tie will give Argentina the triple -- the South American Chamionship, entry into the U-20 World Cup, and an automatic berth at the Olympics. Uruguay can take the champions wreath and the Olympic place away from Argentina by beating it (the second-place team will move on to a playoff against a Concacaf team for an Olympic berth).
If Brazil has fallen short of what might have been hoped for, Argentina has proved the revelation of the tournament. Coached by Humberto Grondona, son of the legendary Julio (who died last year after 35 years as President of the Argentine soccer federation), the team has excelled by sticking faithfully to the skills and style that have always ensured that Argentina has been not only one of the world’s top soccer nations, but has been second to none in producing fabulous players, including many of the true artists of the game -- from Alfredo di Stefano through Angel Labruna, Omar Sivori, Norberto Alonso and Diego Maradona up to Lionel Messi.
So, as with Brazil, you look first at the No. 10. Tomas Martinez. Skilled, for sure, but not a dominating figure. The player who has caught the eye for artistry has been the captain Angel Correa, a constant problem for opposing defenders with his intricate dribbles and sudden darting moves and runs. At a comparatively tiny 5-foot-9, he joins a long line of diminutive Argentine forwards -- most recently, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola -- with dynamite goalscoring talents. Already playing for the San Lorenzo first team at age 18, he was snapped up in May 2014 by Atletico Madrid for an $8.8 million fee. A month later, during his Atletico medical, a small tumor was located on a heart ventricle. Luckily, a benign tumor. Correa underwent open-heart surgery in New York. After nearly 10 months out of the sport, he resumed play with Grondona’s team in December 2014 -- and is clearly one of the liveliest stars of the current tournament.
There is a pattern there, for it was Atletico Madrid that signed Sergio Aguero, then Diego Costa. Shouldn’t be all that surprising, given that Atletico’s coach is the former Argentine national team player, Diego Simeone, popularly known as El Cholo.
It might look as though Simeone has missed out on another of the U-20 stars, the No. 9 from River Plate who’s been doing all the scoring; now, with one game to play, he has nine goals in 8 games, equaling the tournament record. But it can’t be that El Cholo doesn’t know about this guy -- his name is Giovanni Simeone. El Cholo’s son.