world_cup_june_27 (2006-27)

Game-by-game commentary with local musician/soccer fiend Hector Qirko

Group Stage

Game 1

Game 2

Game 3

Brazil’s Road to the World Cup

I grew up playing, watching and thinking about soccer—and pretty much only soccer. I never played a baseball game until age 17. Never even threw a football. And when I say soccer, I mean Brazilian soccer. As a kid I lived in several South American countries, and spent ages 9 through 11 in São Paulo, where Pele played for Santos. I played on school teams, on the street, on the beach, and when it rained too hard my friends and I would mark our parents’ floors with chalk lines and play a version with plastic chips.

When Brazil won the cup in 1970, I thought nothing of having my mom drive us around Caracas, where we lived at the time, honking the horn and waving Brazilian flags. So while I love the game no matter who plays it, when the cup rolls around it’s Brazil’s performance I pay the most attention to. But in this I am not that different from the rest of the immense World Cup audience. Even though the tournament involves 185-plus countries, two years of qualifying rounds to determine the teams that make it to the finals every four years, thousands of top notch players, millions of rabid fans and literally billions of viewers, in the back of most people’s minds is always the same question: What will Brazil do? 

That’s because, for 50 years, Brazil has produced the best soccer in the world. Why this is so is not entirely clear. Certainly it has something to do with its large population (and so large pool of potential soccer greats), economics (for millions of poor Brazilian boys, soccer is a clear and legal route to success), and above all culture (soccer is, as Alex Bellos says, the “strongest symbol of Brazilian identity”). But whatever the reasons, Brazilian players are on average the most skilled in the world, and their national teams win more than those of any other country. 

Brazilian soccer is also widely regarded as the most beautiful, admired for its emphasis on creativity and improvisation as opposed to team discipline or physical force. This is, of course, an oversimplification—no team can compete at the highest levels without being strong in all these respects—but it is true that Brazilian skills on the ball, coupled with their philosophy of play, have led to some of the most exciting soccer ever seen. This is why so many love them (“global overdogs,” John Lanchester calls them) and why the Brazilians are seen, even by themselves, as the artists of the game. So here’s a quick look at how they’re doing in 2006.

Group Stage

Game 1

In this, their first finals game of World Cup 2006, it looked like in about 10 minutes the Brazilians took their measure of the Croatians’ energetic mediocrity and decided that, no matter what the result, they would not deign to seriously exert themselves. Except for Ronaldinho, who looked like an exuberant puppy out there, they behaved for all the world (pretty close to literally) as if the game were a Wednesday shift at the factory, just get it done and make it to the weekend. Ronaldo, whom pundits claim to be overweight, injured, dissolute or all of the above, was perhaps simply more bored than the rest—he whose 12 World Cup goals bring him closest to the supreme deity Pele, after all—with an vacant look in the eye as he wandered about a bit on the field. He seemed to have other, more metaphysical concerns. 

At one point near the end of the first half, Kaka casually moved a step or two to the left and thus out of the way of a couple of defenders, and almost indifferently blasted a shot into the top left hand corner of Pletikosa’s goal. The paper said that, in typical Brazilian magical fashion, the goal was conjured from nothing. But it seemed instead to come from Kaka’s momentary desire to amuse himself, as did much of the play of his teammates.

Left back Roberto Carlos, who earlier had taken a couple of monumental shots on goal from preposterous distances, under no pressure inexplicably kicked the ball to the Croatian closest to the Brazilian goal, all the while smiling to the planet. On the other side Cafu, who likes it a bit rougher than the rest, occasionally tripped opponents apparently just to watch them fall. In fact, for most of the second half the defense seemed to decide, just for fun, to let the Croatians get in there and take some shots at goalkeeper Dida.

Brazil wins, 1-0. Next?

To us mere mortals, the Brazilians are often maddening. How can they be so gifted and indifferent at the same time? Many call them lazy, especially those from countries like the United States, where working hard and playing as a team are the great societal values sports must always reinforce. Watching the players return late to the field after halftime, strolling and chatting, it’s hard to disagree. But I think the key to understanding them is simple: Think Charlie Parker. They, like he, play at a level incomprehensible to most, and thus are fundamentally unappreciated even in fame. They’d rather not play at all than engage at too low a level—after all, what can that bring other than danger to an artist? And so, yes, they can be beaten, if ultimately only by themselves. But not today.

Game 2

The Brazilians appeared to have decided that they would indeed play some “futebol” this time around, perhaps impressed by the novelty of playing the determined Australians. Ronaldo, while receiving the same ridicule from the announcers as last game, was in fact much more active, and set up the first goal by Adriano, which, as in the case of Kaka’s score against the Croatians, appeared to come more as a result of a casual decision to put the ball in the net than by anything actually developing on the field. Robinho, who replaced Ronaldo halfway through the second half, raised the game’s tempo, and his vicious shot to the post set up the second goal, an easy tap-in by the surreally-named Fred. 

The second half was distinguished by sufficient activity on the part of Brazilians to suggest that they do indeed know what they’re doing out there, but was also full of their typical defensive lapses and almost incomprehensible giveaways. Ronaldinho continued to impress in his midfield ball control; Roberto Carlos as usual epitomized both the power and recklessness of the team; Cafu was surprisingly quiet, even invisible, except when he smilingly shook the referee’s hand after being given a yellow card.

In this I thought I caught a glimpse of something: I was once a very good ping-pong player, almost inevitably playing weaker opponents. When one of my shots hit the net, yet dribbled over for a point, I would apologize. Although it infuriated my adversaries, I was sincere. It just didn’t matter, one way or the other—I was still the better player. Except for the vigorous after goal celebrations, the Brazilians so far display as much concern as you might find in a Sunday pickup game on a Rio beach. They don’t look ready, but neither do they appear unprepared. They seem instead indifferent and a little perplexed, as if they question all the hoopla surrounding a world soccer tournament when, regardless of what happens, the Brazilians will still be the best in the world. And so, although it apparently doesn’t matter, with this victory they assure themselves a place in the second round. 

Game 3

Japan, on the other hand, quite correctly (although it was hopeless no matter what) decided to use team speed to attack, inevitably leaving their midfield and defensive zones open to Brazil’s precision passes and ball control. This led to a very pretty Japanese goal, but also to about 25 Brazilian shots on net, and although the Japanese goaltender Kawaguchi did his best, especially in the first few minutes, there was ultimately no way to withstand that.

What should be of more concern to those hoping for someone other than Brazil to win the cup is that, because of the starting lineup and substitutions, a lot of their extremely deep squad got feet on the ball, including even the back-up goalie in the last 10 minutes (an excellent coaching decision). Already six different players have scored Brazil’s seven goals, which is pretty scary.

The defense still looks its usual inconsistent self, but veterans Roberto Carlos and Cafu sitting out and getting a rest spells trouble for future opponents. (And by the way, you might have been hearing how European teams like England and especially Germany are big and fit and can push around the smaller Latin Americans, but Brazilians are not typical in this respect—they too are very strong, and have absolutely no compunctions about playing a rough physical game if needed). And finally, giving Ronaldo chances on goals (he scored two, tying Germany’s Muller for the World Cup record at 14) is not a good idea, as it’s not speed he relies on, but quick moves and turns in close-quarters, and the more touches, the better he’ll get.

All of which suggests that Brazil is in good shape for whomever they face in the next round. They take all three group games and place first with the maximum possible nine points. Look out.