world_cup_june_29 (2006-27)

The Knock-out Stage

Now, this was a very interesting game. Ghana is a serious (if seriously flawed) team. It has the most important component of a consistently winning side: a strong midfield. It is good midfield play that usually controls a game through time of possession, development of scoring chances, and shutting down of the opposition’s attack. When Ronaldinho is playing well, Brazil’s midfield is tremendous. But Ronaldinho was off this game, committing unforced errors and lacking his customary, almost prescient vision. 

Brazil rather surprisingly dealt with these circumstances by playing more or less like Australia played them in the group round. They often stayed behind the ball, let the Ghanaians come at them, and tended to avoid the midfield problem in their own attack by using fast breaks and playing long balls to their forwards. The danger of such a strategy is that you need your defense to hold up, which it did, even if in its customary rather loose and nerve-racking fashion (including a stunning leg save by goalkeeper Dida).

But the Brazilians were also helped by Ghana’s inability to finish, a common problem plaguing even many world-class teams. They set up numerous chances on goal only to have the final shots miss the net or hit the keeper. True, they were disadvantaged by having their star player, Michael Essien, out of the game due to prior yellow cards, but his playing wouldn’t have helped much—although brilliant, he too is a midfielder, and displayed his own inability to score in earlier matches. 

Meanwhile, one of the great things about Brazilian soccer is that everybody can finish (maybe because Brazilian kids typically play defense or keeper only by default—most are goal scorers at heart).  And Ghana made things easier by trying numerous offside traps high in the defensive zone, thus leaving lots of space near their own goal for attackers who slipped by. Brazil scored three beauties: the first by Ronaldo, his record-breaking 15th, an elegantly ruthless feint on the keeper fewer than five minutes into the game; the second a perfectly executed fast break culminating in a slam dunk by Adriano (although he was pretty clearly offsides); and the third another strong move on the keeper, this time by midfielder Ze Roberto, at the end of the game. There you have it. Brazil wins again. Enough said, right?

No, not hardly.  We heard ESPN commentator (and former U.S. national team player) Marcelo Balboa endlessly criticize the Brazilian side during the game, exclaiming after a rare play he admired, “ That’s what Brazilians do; we just haven’t seen enough of it!” We even heard jeers from the crowd, some no doubt directed at the linesman who missed the offsides call in the second goal, but many clearly related to Brazil’s performance—no beloved overdog attitude here. And when it was over, someone asked Brazil’s coach Carlos Alberto Parreira if Brazil is playing beautiful soccer, to which he replied: “History does not remember beautiful football as much as it remembers champions.” What’s going on here?

Well, that’s what happens when evaluations of the “artistic” enter the picture. People are disappointed because, in this game, it was Ghana that played like Brazil, with clusters of short, penetrating passes in beautiful build-ups, while Brazil played like any number of ordinary teams (well, ordinary teams that can score goals). No other World Cup side would be second-guessed in a 3-0 victory, its fourth straight, over a tough opponent.

But with Brazil, largely due to its own legacy and attitudes, the issue of “jogo bonito” (the beautiful game) is always at the forefront. The 1970 Cup winners, led by Pele, were the epitome of winning with flair. However, since 1982, when Brazil is perceived to have failed to reach the semifinals because of too much emphasis on creative offensive play, its national teams have been more explicitly focused on winning than on the means by which they do so; as Marcela Mora y Araujo wrote for the Guardian last week, “Brazil aren't interested in playing pretty.”

However, Coach Parreira is wrong—people do remember beautiful soccer, and that’s what they love about Brazil. The object of most teams playing in the World Cup is to win. The object of Brazilian teams playing in the World Cup is… what? To many minds it should still be to play beautifully no matter what happens. To abdicate the role of soccer-artists is unforgivable. And I can empathize, having grown up in the heyday of the jogo bonito. Better to lose playing your game than win by playing any other.

But, upon reflection, I realize that the beautiful game is a myth, and always was. Pele and the others wanted, above all, to win. It’s just that their skill level was so high (and maybe that of the opposition so low—there are more strong teams out there now than ever before, after all) that it looked like they cared more about displaying it than victory. The beauty emerged as a consequence of their talent, not as a goal in itself. And it still does today—if Ronaldo’s goal against Ghana was not beautiful, then I don’t know what is. There’s plenty of jogo bonito left.

So, Brazil is doing whatever it has to do. Instead of merely insisting on imposing its style of play, it is also adapting to the weaknesses of the opposition and beating them by capitalizing on them. So far, so good, but it remains to be seen how they do against a team strong enough in its own right to seriously limit Brazil’s options. And next, in the quarter-finals, is France, whose generally uninspired play through the early rounds may be elevated by old man Zinedine Zidane’s storybook goal that sealed their victory against a tough and skilled Spanish team.  This, a rematch of the 1998 final in which Brazil was soundly beaten (and beaten primarily by Zidane, who headed in two goals), could be a real test.