BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Because it is turning out better than expected, the World Cup is doing more good than harm to brand Brazil. The opposite is true for Brazil’s brand of soccer.
The national team’s grinding route to Tuesday’s semifinal match against Germany, its play pockmarked with fouls, gamesmanship and win-at-all-costs realpolitik, has driven a stake through the myth of Brazilian soccer as art and through the hearts of us fools who nurtured and clung to it.
I can’t have been the only one before this World Cup who dusted off precious memories of falling under the spell of Brazil’s yellow-shirted Selecao. Too young for the era of Pelé, Brazilians who bewitched me were Zico and the teams of 1978 and 1982.
Nelinho’s thunderbolt in the match for third place against Italy in 1978, arcing off his right foot across the penalty area and bending majestically beyond Italy goalkeeper and captain Dino Zoff. Falcao against the Soviet Union in 1982, letting a pass from Paulo Isidoro run between his legs to Eder, who flicked the ball up and volleyed it in.
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Eder celebrated by doing a forward roll. This wasn’t just soccer, it was narcotic. Those teams didn’t win the World Cup. But for those of us who weren’t Brazilian, that didn’t matter. We were hooked.
Even when Brazil reined in the beauty to win in 1994 and 2002, it still did enough to enchant. The story of Ronaldo’s resurrection, his eight goals with surgically repaired knee ligaments, put glitter on Brazil’s fifth Cup title 12 years ago.
Naively in hindsight, I tricked myself into believing this time Brazil’s players would want to live up to the standard of predecessors who put the five stars — one for each World Cup title — on the shirts they now wear.
This, the marketers assured us, would be the Copa das Copas — the cup to beat all World Cups, a return after 64 years to the country that took a game born in England and elevated it to a higher plane.
And there has been fabulous football, but only smatterings of it from Brazil, mostly from Neymar, the team’s principal entertainer who is now out with a broken back.
The pregame soundtrack played in stadiums to whip up the crowds includes “Thunderstruck” by hard-rock band AC/DC, appropriate for the muscular, functional soccer Brazil played in the group stages and to knock out Chile and then Colombia to reach the semifinal against Germany, a team easier on the eye.
Brazil has been a scrappy team, committing more fouls — 96 so far — than any other and collecting 10 yellow cards, tied for the most with Costa Rica. Against Colombia, Brazil’s players ganged up on James Rodriguez, taking turns to foul the 22-year-old because he was central to that team’s electric attacks and scored half of its tournament-leading 12 goals.
Some of Brazil’s goals have been unspectacular. Thiago Silva used his knee to bundle in against Colombia. David Luiz barely touched the goal FIFA credited to him against Chile. Striker Fred can’t compare with Ronaldo, Romario and other illustrious Brazilian goal-getters of the past. Fred’s only goal was a header against Cameroon. He hoodwinked the referee into awarding a penalty against Croatia by tumbling over like Bambi on ice.
Brazil has simply become like many other teams in doing these things.
In winning ugly, rather than playing beautifully, Brazil is marching to modern soccer’s tune that victory is all that matters. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and his players have 200 million Brazilians breathing down their necks, expecting deliverance. So they can perhaps be forgiven for doing whatever it takes to get that weight off their back.
“Our team in 1982 scored goals because we played beautifully, but didn’t win,” Zico said. “So we’re not part of history.”
Maybe not, but that team lives on fans’ hearts.
If it doesn’t win, this Brazil team won’t do that.