It was an opening win that delighted the partisan home crowd, but Dominic Neo feels it was a steely backbone rather than the expected Brazilian artistry that did for Croatia.
Brazil is a beautiful country. Expansive beaches, bikini-clad babes and shirtless hunks, grilled meats and colorful street festivals are depicted on postcards and travel books. Quite naturally, the Brazilian football team is associated with playing beautifully as well; joga bonito. And historically, they do play inventive, free-flowing football, a style that entertains. Pele and the original Ronaldo, anyone?
However, human beings have a penchant for and problem with narratives. We tend to associate certain traits with particular objects. And these associations develop into stereotypes – characteristics that stick with the said object. In the case of Brazilian football, we associate qualities of flair, creativity, guile, skill, and finesse with them. They apparently play football the right way – the “beautiful” way.
Yet, narratives can be misleading. Things change, people change. And this Brazilian team has evolved. Gone are the flip-flaps, stepovers and roulettes. Brazil, as evidenced from last night’s display, react rather than invent. Yes, they are still technically excellent: they had 62% of the possession and completed 385 passes, almost doubling Croatia’s 220 passes.
However, their attacking threat stems from their relentless pressing and rapid counter-attacking rather than intricate passing moves from the back or a moment of brilliance. Their opening goal was borne out of ferocity, not finesse – the excellent Oscar won the ball in a midfield scrap with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, released Neymar, whose scuffed shot from 20 yards eluded the reach of Stipe Pletikosa and nestled into the bottom left-hand corner.
The third goal was similar: Ramires dispossessed Rakitić in the middle of the park, slipped Oscar into the left channel, and the Chelsea attacking midfielder sealed the win with a toe-poke into the bottom right-hand corner. Oscar fully deserved his moment in the spotlight – he harried and pressed insatiably throughout the game, never allowing the Croatians time to settle and forcing them to get rid of the ball hastily. That 49% of Brazil’s attack came down Oscar’s right flank was telling of his stellar showing. His statistics were naturally impressive: a goal, 3 interceptions, 7/11 take-ons completed and 4/6 tackles made.
Thanks to the industry of Oscar, Neymar and Hulk, the distance between Croatia’s attacking quartet and the deep Croatian midfield base of Modrić and Rakitić became a chasm. They were limited to forays down the left flank, with Olic taking advantage of the space left behind by Dani Alves, who pushed into the attacking third at every opportunity. The precocious Mateo Kovačić was thus alienated from the action: he registered only 16 successful passes and zero take-ons. Starved of possession, the young playmaker could not affect the game.
It was not just Brazil’s hardworking attacking triumvirate that limited Kovačić and Croatia. Luiz Gustavo was outstanding as the midfield anchor. He distributed the ball sensibly (54/ 56 completed passes) and snuffed out the Croatian attacks effectively (five interceptions). His rather silly-looking facial hair belies a solid and uncompromising defensive fulcrum.
And just like the steely Gustavo, Neymar’s foul, which led to a booking, encapsulates this new Brazil. A cynical arm to the face of Modric sparked a mini-melee. Unnecessary, perhaps, but it does highlight the desperation and hunger of the Brazilian team to compete despite lacking inventiveness and flair.
Fred, who inexplicably completed 94 minutes of the game with only fourteen touches and ten successful passes, evinced this sense of desperation. He certainly did not show the toughness the rest of his teammates displayed when he sprawled to the ground ever so easily upon feeling Dejan Lovren’s hand on his shoulder. It was a soft penalty, but Lovren’s careless touch gave the referee a decision to make. It was the turning point of the game, especially with Croatia beginning to up the tempo in the second half. Just like the foul, Neymar’s penalty was not convincing, but it was enough.
Brazil barely deserved their win but their desire, coupled with some luck, pulled them through. Whether Brazil are capable of winning the tournament, especially with the anonymous and ineffectual Paulinho and Fred in tow, remains to be seen. What is certain is that they are determined to do so, in spite of their limitations. This new Brazil may not be the swashbuckling, top-heavy, mesmeric Brazil of old, but if they keep grinding out results all the way to a record sixth FIFA World Cup, they will not care too much for being the proponent of the beautiful game.
A delusional, self-absorbed man-child still waiting for the call to take over Steven Gerrard’s No. 8 jersey, you can find Dominic skewing volleys over school gates with his mates by day and living the real life on Football Manager by night.