world_cup_july_1 (2006-26)

Quarter finals: Brazil vs France

by Hector Qirko

Well, it was a test indeed, and Brazil failed it. There will be no “Ordem e Progresso” flag-waving in my neighborhood on July 9.

The main reason was France’s Zidane, who was nothing short of magnificent.  I can’t recall ever seeing a player control a game better, or more elegantly.  Brazil couldn’t have pried the ball from him with a crowbar, and his midfield passes were consistently and devastatingly accurate. Although they didn’t score, the French seemed to have the ball almost the entire first half, and Brazil only limped in to the break because of the threat its counterattack posed, plus Thierry Henry’s many failed runs (something he’s been doing all tournament—somebody needs to remind him that he becomes a much more dangerous striker when he brings the ball in himself).

But Brazil lost all chance of winning when it came out for the second half with the same players it fielded in the first. It had the better team, but much of it was on the bench. When asked about problems with his roster Parreira said he had none, just “23 solutions,” but he didn’t use them to solve this game until it was much too late. Had Cicinho, Robinho, and Adriano come in after the break, by which point it was obvious to anyone that the French were more than the starting team could handle, I don’t think even Zidane’s play could have stopped them. But they didn’t come in until Brazil was down (and in fact even later than that: the lone goal, a nice finish by Henry off a Zidane free kick, was in the 57th minute, and Brazil’s last substitution wasn’t made until 20 minutes later). 

The team was then in the position of having to play desperately, which is not its forte. It was sad to see Ronaldinho trying aborted runs on his own instead of setting up plays, and Ronaldo (who should have been taken out of the game instead of Kaka) flopping for foul calls after repeatedly failing to penetrate the congested French defense. 

And worst of all is that France gave Brazil plenty of opportunities.  It’s no accident that the goal came off a set play—Brazil’s defense held up fairly well to the French attack. And in the last 20 minutes, instead of settling in and holding the ball, France repeatedly gave it away to the Brazilians who did push hard for the tie. But France won and moves on, and Brazil looked flat and even incompetent in defeat. The dream is over, what can I say.

So where was the post-jogo bonito pragmatism we heard so much about? Why did Parreira wait so long to make the necessary strategic changes? Who knows. Maybe he tried but the players didn’t cooperate. Maybe it was out of respect for the veterans that in the past produced so much brilliant play and so many victories. Soccer has its rituals, after all, and taking out an uninjured player too early sends a message that Parreira perhaps didn’t think his champions deserved. 

It could also be the old “dance with the one what brung you” philosophy—if it got you this far, it’s good enough to take you all the way.  But as Gordon Edes wrote in the Boston Globe (about baseball, actually), “Forget what you've always heard: You don't always dance with the one who brung you. Sometimes, you have no choice but to reach out for whoever will get you through the night, even if they've never been here before.”

However, it’s probably simply that the Brazilians couldn’t imagine losing. Parreira said, after the game, “I wasn’t prepared for defeat. It never crossed my mind….” The players’ comments echo that reaction. The confidence, if not arrogance, that is such an integral part of Brazil’s domination of the sport may ultimately have been what brought them down. And the beautiful game paradigm may be more difficult to replace than it seems. It may be significant that the Brazilian press is generally blaming the disappointing World Cup run on style rather than strategy: “Football without fun, without life, without joy, without personality, without the Brazilian way of playing” as wrote Fernando Calazans of O Globo .

Anyway, it’s over, and here also ends my emotional investment in this tournament, although I’ll watch the rest of the games with interest. My father, who was Albanian, spent years in Italy and so always rooted for it to win the cup (after all, Albania hasn’t made it to the finals just yet). At this point I’d like to see the Azzurri win, out of respect for the good times we had arguing about soccer. But deep inside me is an 11 year-old boy disconsolately kicking a muddy football at his parents’ São Paulo garage door, waiting (God willing and the creek don’t rise) for 2010.