Quarter-Final: Method in the madness
And, breathe. To misquote Shakespeare, “madness in great ones must not unwatched go”. No, there was no (evident) corruption in the state of Estadio Castelao, Fortaleza. Instead, two evenly matched teams madly went at each other’s throats in an absorbing, frenetic contest, roared on by 60,000 vociferous fans. There might have been more technically accomplished games in this World Cup but the electrifying atmosphere and breathlessness of the game made this an absolutely mental affair. Riveting and awe-inspiring, this was a game that delivered on its hype, and then some more.
The match was played at a breakneck pace and the desire displayed by both sides was unrelenting. Forget small, intricate triangles and neat passing – players ran at the opposition with reckless abandonment and great skill (here’s looking at you, David Luiz). And the madness continued throughout: defenders took goal-kicks; challenges flew in as the referee struggled to control the game; players punting the ball desperately up the field with 20 minutes to go (the usually composed Marcelo, mind) and giant mutant grasshoppers flew onto the players. Both teams completed a low number of passes (Brazil 232; Colombia 207) but that was irrelevant in an enthralling, end-to-end contest. Why tease when you can go for the jugular, over and over.
And both teams did so, committing an inordinate number of fouls along the day (Brazil 31; Colombia 23). Billed as a battle between the wonderkids, Neymar and James Rodriguez, their teammates tried their hardest, quite literally, to destroy this pre-game narrative. Tackles flew in mercilessly on the talismans. Neymar may have suffered rather badly (4 fouls suffered), especially after he had to be taken off on a stretcher following a crunching challenge by Zuniga, but it was Rodriguez who was on the receiving end of harsher treatment (6 fouls suffered). Rodriguez suffered 12 fouls in the entire tournament. That 50% of those fouls came from this game was not a coincidence but a deliberate attempt to stymie Colombia’s main attacking threat.
Fernandinho, in particular, crashed into Rodriguez at every opportunity. Coming in for the suspended Luiz Gustavo, the Manchester City midfielder ensured that the Colombian playmaker could not dictate play in the final third. He inexplicably avoided a booking – or two, some might argue – for some cynical and aggressive challenges on Rodriguez. It was an ugly hatchet job, but a job well done – Colombia struggled to click into gear with their creative spark being snuffed off time after time.
This is not to say Neymar and Rodriguez did not impose themselves on the game. Neymar may have had a poor game by his standards (only 4/11 successful take-ons; 22/ 31 completed passes; no shots on target) but his pinpoint, whipped delivery for Thiago Silva’s opener was excellent. Equally impressive was Rodriguez’s deft through ball to release the lively Carlos Bacca, who drew the foul for the penalty. And Rodriguez slotted the penalty into the bottom corner, with a maturity and composure that belies his young years.
While they may have left the pitch – and hopefully for Neymar, not the tournament – in tears, but both of them, especially Rodriguez, who notched an astonishing six goals and two assists in five matches, have emphatically announced their arrival as arguably the next generation’s superstars. It seems odd to make such a statement after their big money transfers, but in this day and age of inflated transfer fees, justifying the hype on the biggest footballing stage is rather necessary.
And both teams, too, made statements to the international footballing arena. It is such a pity to see Colombia exit the tournament but they left nobly, exerting the gusto and gumption that they have exercised throughout. They have impressed many with their clinical, high-tempo counter attacking game, as they blew away Uruguay, Japan, Ivory Coast and Greece. A more assured backline might have seen them go further, but their devastating attack – Juan Cuadrado (26), Segundo Ibarbo (24), Jackson Martínez (27), Juan Quintero (21), James Rodríguez (22) – have left their mark in Brazil 2014 and hopefully in Russia 2018 too. They came into the tournament as promising underdogs, without their main man, Radamel Falcao, and they have left as exciting, genuine contenders, with a new star in the “ha-mazing” James Rodriguez (that was terrible, I’m sorry).
Meanwhile, Brazil have not quite lived up to their tradition. This 2014 version has lacked flair and guile, but sheer determination, a high-tempo pressing game and prowess from set-pieces have dragged them into the semi-finals. Buoyed by an unbridled and fanatic home crowd, Brazil have grinded out results against quality, on-form opposition (Colombia, Chile and Mexico). Say what you want about the lack of joga bonito, results always take precedence; they are proven winners. They are, somehow, only two more wins away from a record sixth FIFA World Cup championship. They might just pull it off, especially with those mental fans behind them. However, they will have to do it without their influential captain, Thiago Silva, who is suspended for the semi-finals against Germany. And with Neymar a serious doubt too, they will need all the support that they can get from their ardent fans.
On top of a powerful will and amazing fans, they have players who can produce moments of utter, mesmeric class, as evinced by David Luiz and his spectacular thirty-yard free kick. This has been a thoroughly mad and entertaining World Cup that has repeatedly defied logic (Spain being decimated; Fred being a professional footballer). It would be fitting for a team, which has quite inexplicably overcome more technically inventive and daring teams to reach the semi-finals, to win the whole damn thing. I do not know whether Brazil have the necessary quality to reach the end, but what is certain is that this madness of the 2014 World Cup must absolutely not go unwatched.