Johannesburg (AP) - The World Cup was treated to
its final, just two games too early. For drama and intensity, the spectacle
of the Netherlands stunning and bullying Brazil will be hard to outdo at
The five-time champions are such footballing giants that
there is always an earthquake-like thump when they are brought to their
knees. Yet, this time, their 2-1 loss didn’t feel like a massive shock.
Kaka and his amigos mistakenly thought they could lift
the heavy gold statue without showing up in South Africa with the beautiful
game that made Pele and his teammates world-famous.
Coach Dunga gambled that merely winning would be enough
to assuage the critics on the beaches and farms, in the cities and
shantytowns back home who worried that Brazil’s traditions of entertaining,
dancing football were being betrayed.
Dunga was right. Had Brazil won, the manner of it
wouldn’t have mattered. But losing wasn’t part of the deal. In the end, the
manner of Brazil’s play was far more important than Dunga made out. In
kidding themselves that efficient, often unglamorous, percentage football
would take them to the July 11 showpiece match, the Brazilians forgot to
light up and really spark in South Africa. They were definitely good but not
Brazilian brilliant, and that was their undoing. They let Argentina claim
the crown as kings of attacking, inventive football.
Dunga blamed a poor second-half against the Dutch. But
that was only half the story.
In five World Cup games, Brazilian beauty came only in
flashes and it wasn’t enough. Maicon’s oooh-aaah! strike in the first match
against the North Koreans, squeezed between the ‘keeper and his post from
the tightest of angles, was, in fact, a mirage, because it misleading
suggested that Brazil would be both flashy and victorious. With hindsight,
the 55 minutes it took Brazil to break open the Korean defense should have
set alarm bells ringing.
Luis Fabiano’s illegally handled second goal took some of
the shine off Brazil’s 3-1 defeat of Ivory Coast. A goalless draw with
Portugal was not only boring but again showed that Brazil couldn’t call up
goals at will. Only half an hour into the round of 16 elimination game
against Chile did Brazil finally turn it on.
Never mind, we told ourselves, this is Brazil. They’ll
find a higher gear when they need it.
Well, they needed it against the Netherlands. But instead,
they lost their heads. Turns out that Brazilians get hot, bothered and lose
their focus when niggled by the likes of Mark van Bommel, who was a real
bully in the Dutch midfield, and Arjen Robben, who did not score but made a
real pest of himself with his light-footed runs.
A turning point was Felipe Melo’s stupid hot-headed stamp
on Robben’s thigh. It got him sent off with 20 minutes left, scuttling
Brazil’s chances of recovering from their 2-1 goal deficit.
Also vital was Maarten Stekelenburg’s astounding save of
Kaka’s shot on 31 minutes. Had it gone in, it would have been curtains for
the Netherlands, giving Brazil a 2-0 lead.
The lead-up - Robinho wriggling past two defenders,
passing to Luis Fabiano, his subsequent backheel to Kaka - was the most
delightful piece of Brazilian play at this World Cup. Had Brazil done that
more often, Brazil would still be here, not making excuses.
“I just called home and my son was crying,” Felipe Melo
said after the match. “I have to apologize.”
But the fault was collective not individual. And it
didn’t help Brazil that Kaka was not at his best in South Africa. Like other
stars of world football - think Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Samuel Eto’o - he
failed to live up to his billing.