Ken Early: Brazil’s cute hoorism helps them into last-16
Neymar failed to get on the scoresheet but the five-time winners had more than enough
Paulinho of Brazil scores his team’s first goal during their 2018 World Cup Group E win over Serbia at Spartak Stadium. Photo: Simon Hofmann - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
World Cup press boxes are usually positioned to give journalists the same sort of view of the match that you are used to seeing on TV - looking down from on high, with a privileged view of the overall geometry of the game.
This is particularly true at the Russian World Cup, where many of the new stadiums have stands so steep that on the upper tiers each row of seats has a railing in front to prevent people toppling forward. The press boxes are usually in the second tier and at some of the grounds you almost feel as though you'd be closer to the action if you were watching on TV.
Moscow's Spartak Stadium is different. The press box is directly behind the dugouts in the lower tier, and watching Brazil against Serbia from the fifth row of seats from the pitch was a radically different experience from seeing them play Costa Rica from the top of the stand in Saint Petersburg.
Watching from pitch level you have little sense of the overall tactical picture - the ability to make sense of the chaos is what sets people like Luka Modric apart from the rest of us - but you are left with a far greater feeling for just how sensationally good the best footballers are.
There cannot be many players who are more improved by seeing them play up close than Neymar. Watching from pitchside, there’s a paradox whereby you are not close enough to pick up the little tantrums that are so obvious on TV, but you are close enough to get a sense of the astonishing speed and grace of his movement, a feline and ethereal quality that the screen somehow does not quite transmit.
When you see him come to a complete stop and assume a kind of stationary swagger, daring the defender to make the next move, when you see him lift a foot over the ball and swish it one way and the other, then in the next instant take off at full speed, the way a fish darts suddenly from place to place – you are reminded that for all his silly egomania, the reason why so many people are prepared to spend so much time complaining about him is that he is a genius. If Neymar was just a normal player, nobody would care.
Watching the teams come out you immediately noticed how much bigger Serbia were – their players were 6’1” on average and Brazil’s just over 5’9”. Even if you hadn’t seen Serbia’s two attritional matches against Ireland in the qualifiers, you could have guessed what their game plan would be. They would put that physical advantage to work, pressing aggressively and looking to score from high balls and set pieces.
Lucky for Brazil that football isn’t about the pack weight. Neymar and Coutinho danced around them down the left, the speed and skill of their interchanges made more spectacular by the hard chasing they were getting from the big Serbs. These Serbs couldn’t afford to play nice. Midway through the half Neymar threatened to break away down the left, only to be chopped down at full speed by the covering Adem Ljajic.
Neymar hit the ground and rolled five or six times, in the sort of extravagant display of agony that you know would have millions of viewers watching around the world rolling their eyes in scorn. This would also have been the case back home in Brazil, where a national argument about his attitude has raged since the last game against Costa Rica.
Neymar spent much of the match embroiled in an ongoing feud with the referee Bjorn Kuipers, who denied him several appeals and eventually booked him for dissent. On Globo TV, commentator Galvão Bueno vented his irritation with some mildly critical remarks about Neymar’s immaturity.
The Neymar camp has been at loggerheads with Galvão since the 2016 Olympics, when the commentator was critical of his performances in the early matches, and also dislikes his regular co-commentator Walter Casagrande, who had the effrontery to describe Neymar as “spoiled” during PSG’s defeat to Real Madrid in February. Efforts have been made to get Globo to force the pair to tone down their commentary.
This time, however, Neymar received support from the former Brazil midfielder and free-kick maestro Juninho Pernambucano (perhaps it is mere coincidence that Globo terminated Juninho’s contract last month after an unrelated dispute).
Juninho called Galvão out for hypocrisy, arguing that he had hammered Neymar until Brazil went 1-0 up late on and Neymar produced a rainbow flick and a goal, at which point Galvão began to praise him. Apparently for Galvão, the situation on the scoreboard determines whether the players are good or bad people. Juninho went on to offer an interesting defence of Neymar’s behaviour and style. You call it cheating? Juninho calls it the Brazilian Way.
“How many times have we heard, ‘why didn’t he go down’? Also the same in the papers last week ... Guys, the whole football world knows and fears our simulations... It’s in our DNA. It’s ‘jeitinho Brasileiro’, for fuck’s sake, what do you want – perfect gentlemen?”
Jeitinho literally means “the little way” and it describes the sort of behaviour that in Ireland might be called cute hoorism. Juninho argued that the media in Brazil is always urging players to be crafty and cute, but then hypocritically complains when they get caught doing it. His argument wasn’t a universal hit, as many people disliked the implication that cheating was hardcoded in their Brazilian DNA, but you can see what he was driving at. In Neymar, Brazil’s football culture has got the superstar it deserves.
Of course, they have a different kind of superstar in Coutinho, who manages to be brilliant without annoying quite so many people. It was Coutinho who glimpsed a gap opening up in the crowded midfield and sent Paulinho through to score Brazil’s opener.
For ten minutes in the second half, Serbia forced their way higher up the pitch and rained crosses into the penalty area. They almost scored when Alisson fumbled a cross, but the ball did not fall kindly for Mitrovic. They poured their last energy into those attacks, and their only reward was to be stung against the run of play when Thiago Silva headed in Neymar’s corner. After that Serbia gave up the ghost, and Brazil will face Mexico in the second round in Samara on Monday.
SERBIA (4-2-3-1): Stojkovic; Rukavina, Milenkovic, Veljkovic, Kolarov; Matic, Milinkovic-Savic; Tadic, Ljajic (Zivkovic 75), Kostic (Radonjic 82); Mitrovic (Jovic 89).
Booked: Ljajic, Matic, Mitrovic.
Goals: Paulinho 36,Thiago Silva 68.
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Iran).