Brazil turned match into a war so they have to accept casualties

A game plan based on beating up Colombia was never going to end well

Brazil’s Fernandinho commits one of several fouls on Colombia’s James Rodriguez during the World Cup quarter-final in Fortaleza. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.

Brazil’s Fernandinho commits one of several fouls on Colombia’s James Rodriguez during the World Cup quarter-final in Fortaleza. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters.

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 07:03

The car was speeding down Rio’s eastern motorway in the direction of Copacabana. The driver dodged from lane to lane but he wasn’t paying any attention to the road. Instead his eyes were fixed on the little TV screen suspended from the windshield. The habit of watching television while driving at high speed is disturbingly common in Brazil. The car zoomed into the tunnel on Avenida Princesa Isabela and I thought of that other princess, who died many years ago.

The TV was showing A Falta.

Neymar braces to shield the ball, Juan Camilo Zúñiga jumps and his knee crunches into Neymar’s lower back. The next image is of Neymar, his chin buried in the grass, screaming in pain. The voiceover was saying things like “agressão” and “violencia”.

Assassinato!” the driver shouted.

It was an insensitive choice of word considering Colombia’s history at the World Cup, but Brazil takes its own World Cups rather seriously. This is a country in which a nationally famous playwright, Nelson Rodrigues, can, without much irony, refer to the defeat in the 1950 World Cup final as “our Hiroshima”. The footage of Zúñiga breaking Neymar’s back has become Brazil’s Zapruder film.

It was the second day of the World Cup quarter finals but Messi, Robben and the rest seemed like intruders on private grief. At half-time in the first quarter-final between Argentina and Belgium, Brazilian TV did not show a second of replays or analysis.

Broken prince

Nobody cared about Higuain’s goal. Instead they cut straight to a live news feed that showed several men standing around beside a helicopter in which, viewers understood, the young prince of Brazilian football lay broken.

Eventually one guy shuffled to one side and the camera caught a glimpse of Neymar’s face in the shadows. Somehow he knew he was on TV and he lifted his hand, the pulse monitor still attached to his index finger, and gave a thumbs up.

Before the Netherlands-Costa Rica game that afternoon, Neymar released a video thanking the nation for its support and promising that the remaining 22 players of Brazil would go on to win the World Cup. Even with eyes reddened and puffy from crying, he showed himself to be a remarkably natural television communicator. He is this country’s Princess Diana and also its Bill Clinton.

When the feed cut back to the studio, grief-stricken women were wiping away tears. The audience rose to applaud and chant “Neymar! Neymar! Neymar!” Aliens could have invaded Brazil on Friday evening and it wouldn’t have made the front page of any Saturday newspaper. The attention of 200 million people was focused on the monstrous injustice of Neymar’s injury.

Great warrior

President Dilma Rousseff sent him an open letter, hailing him as a great warrior who brought joy to the people’s souls, and pronouncing herself his number one fan. Companies took out full-page ads with such slogans as, “Força, moleque” (something like ‘Come on, kid’). By the tone of the media coverage, it seemed as though this was the single worst thing ever to happen in Brazil.

Poor Zúñiga has become an instant national hate figure. Ronaldo called the challenge “evil”. The Colombian released a statement saying that Neymar was one of the best players in the world and he never meant to hurt him. Fifa responded to the Brazilian outrage by opening an investigation into the foul, which had not been penalised in any way by the referee.

Brazil wants justice for Neymar and Zúñiga is the scapegoat but the real culprit is the man in their own dugout. Maybe Big Phil should have considered the downside of a game plan that hinged on beating up the opposition’s best players. There was always a chance Colombia would take it lying down. Brazil had turned the match into a war. When you go to war, you have to accept that there are going to be casualties.

Zúñiga was just doing what everyone else was doing. There were 54 fouls in the 90 minutes, 31 of them by the team in yellow. The two Colombian dangermen, James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado, were ruthlessly targeted, suffering six fouls each. Brazil’s hard men hit James twice early in each half. If Zúñiga’s blood was up as he went into that challenge on Neymar, maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Brazilians had fouled him five times.

Nike still propagates the notion of “o jogo bonito”, the beautiful game, the idea that Brazilian football is all about creativity, self-expression and fun. As pretty much everyone knows, the image is now so far removed from reality as to be almost satirical. The events of the last couple of days have helped to illuminate why Brazil has become the opposite of what it once was.

Winning is all

The rest of the world used to admire Brazil’s style, but for the Brazilians themselves it was always more about the substance. It wasn’t really about how they won the World Cup. The only thing that mattered was the fact of winning it.

Every day you hear the word “hexacampeão”, often shortened to simply “hexa”. Not just the championship, the sixth championship. The word links the victory they are hoping for to all the victories of the past, an accumulation of titles that nobody else can match, and that is what Brazilians care about, more than any consideration of style or attitude.

The beautiful game has been superseded by the cult of victory, and Brazil takes winning far too seriously. No Brazilian player can ever again take the field thinking he is going out there to enjoy himself. There is too much at stake. Forget Garrincha, going back to beat the man a second time just because he felt like it, and Socrates, strolling around in his “democracy” headband.

The Brazilian team now is more like a company of navy seals – desperate commando cut-throats who will do whatever it takes to win because to lose is a disgrace worse than death.

Brazilian television had to cut away from pictures of Neymar’s helicopter to show the second half of Argentina versus Belgium. The scenes after the final whistle were strikingly different from what we had seen in Fortaleza after Brazil had beaten Colombia. The Brazilians looked shattered, as though they had awoken from a nightmare. Some of them knelt on the pitch and prayed, others wept.

The Argentines just looked happy. They went to their fans in the corner and sang along with their “Bad Moon Rising” – themed chant, asking Brazil how it feels to have their daddy in the house. Even Messi was singing. They know now that only the Netherlands stand between them and the final at the Maracana, and the Dutch looked tired against Costa Rica.

This tournament is turning into a great laugh for Argentina. To steal Brazil’s World Cup in their own back yard would be the greatest joke of all.

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