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Lotta goals in the desert – World Cup Daily Diary: Day 16

Neymar

Neymar
Photo: Getty Images

Brazil finally become all they can be, and Croatia do their thing of refusing to end a match in 90 minutes. They must really like each other! Let’s spin it right round!

Game of the day: Brazil 4 – 1 Korea Republic

Brazil seems to be just about the only organization on Earth that treats the weight of its history like a gift rather than a burden. There’s still something, some kind of feeling every soccer fan gets just hearing the word, “Brazil.” Recent history says they haven’t been any more special than some other international teams. Spain won two consecutive Euros with a World Cup in between. Germany went to two World Cup semifinals, a Euro semifinal, a Euro final, won the World Cup in consecutive tournaments. Hell, not all that long ago Chile won consecutive Copa American’s in back-to-back summers. Funny to think about now.

And yet, you think about Brazil and see those shirts, and the feeling is that they send an All-Star team out there every tournament. That they just play a different sport, and there is something hallowed about them as a collective, even if you watch most or all of these players week in and week out with their club teams. The Raphina that plays for Brazil just isn’t quite the same guy who was on Leeds and now Barcelona, to pick one at random. That reverence stems from the idea, or hope, that at any moment they’re just going to dance their way through an opponent or an entire tournament. That it will be 1970 again. They may not have invented the sport, but they’ve perfected it. That’s what they think, and they’ve convinced most of the rest of us. Even if there’s been not a whole lot of evidence of that in this century.

The thing is, joga bonito hasn’t been a thing in a long while. At least not at the World Cup. Sure, Brazil have shown up with some great teams. The 2006 team sure felt like that All-Star team where they had a contender for best player in the world at the position at every position. But they never lifted off, and went meekly out in the quarters. The 2002 team, the last to win it, was seen as more functional than inspirational. OG Ronaldo was only coming back from having his knee turned into a wormhole, and they just had useful players around more than a ton of generational ones. But it all fit together. The 2010 team was unremarkable and played like it. The 2014 hosts were even less remarkable aside from Neymar, slogged their way to the semifinals where they got as exposed as any team has ever been exposed. The 2018 team was better, and maybe should have done more than it did, a quarterfinal loss to Belgium. But it never hit the heights either.

It had been a long while since we’d seen Brazil just totally Brazil someone. We envision goals that are works of art, scored at will, the game played in heavenly fashion that only Brazil and their look on life can produce–joyous, uncaring, celebratory, unburdened. In the moment more than anything. It’s rarely been the case in the past 20 years or longer. Maybe it’s because their entire team plays in Europe with the same systems and tactics as everyone else. Maybe it’s because the talent gap between the best nations and the lower ranks of the 32 that qualify is shrinking all the time. Maybe it’s because players everywhere are fitter and are more easily drilled into defensive shapes and tactics and can run longer to nullify more talented teams. All of it, some of it, wherever the answer lies, a transcendent Brazil is something that had been only in the history books and something of a fantasy.

We can connect to past generations of fans who worship at the altar of the 1970 or 1982 team now, if only for one game. Brazil blitzed Korea today, scoring three goals that were basically paintings, dancing their way through it all, bringing the party back. Their third and fourth goals were pretty much the ideal of what a goal should be, a combination of anticipation, chemistry, creativity, and bravado that Brazil are supposed to embody.

It’s a little easier to break out the choreography, both before and after scoring, when you’re already up 2-0. But Brazil sauntered to that 2-0 lead. They opened the scoring when Raphina was able to find space out wide, his cross fortunately escaping everyone to find an unmarked Vini Jr. on the other side to almost finish with a coolness that bordered on rude. Their second sprang from the other hallmark of this Brazil team, their energy and pressing, as Richarlison nicked the ball away from an unsuspecting Woo-Young Jung, who cleared Richarlison’s ankle instead of the ball as a result.

Korea had probably hoped to keep it tight and try to spring on the counter, and they produced some chances. But the thing about this Brazil side is because they don’t rely, or even need, the fullbacks in attack, even when their opponents turn the ball over or get into space, there’s still four or five Brazilians back, depending on where Casemiro is. There is rarely space to run into behind them or around them. Maybe some team can find a way to exploit the space between their attacking five and defending five. Maybe a team can get at Eder Militao, who is not used to defending wide as he’s usually in the center. Maybe. But it’s a lot of maybes.

And this attacking five is so in tune with each other and so in harmony, it’ll be a challenge for anyone to keep them quiet. If they need a goal Casemiro can push farther forward and give them more numbers. If they need to protect a one-goal lead they have two or three options to join him in shielding the defense. They can reload their wingers after an hour or 70 minutes if the starters are gassed from the high-energy game they play, even without Gabriel Jesus.

It has been a long time since Brazil had the team that always matches the ones we have in our heads from the stories we’ve been told to the play they put on the field. This one looks like doing it.

And now that I’ve said all that…they’ll get Modric’d next round.

Other results: Croatia 1 – 1 Japan (Croatia 3-1 on penalties)

This Croatia team, this era of it at least, is so weird. There’s no question it has great players, and that midfield, and the results are the results. But it got to 2018’s final with three extra-time wins, two on penalties, and for all of Luka Modrić’s brilliance they never actually looked all that good. They never looked all that under threat either. They would just play 120 minutes evenly, and then go through.

That could be just a compliment on their resolve and togetherness. Or it’s just dumb luck. They honestly never looked any different, i.e. better, at 2021’s Euros, where they scraped out of the group and then gave up five to Spain in the second round in a truly bonkers game.

They didn’t look great here either, especially in the first half where their lack of a true striker seemed to hurt them (know their pain). Perišić on the left or Modrić through the middle carved out openings a couple times, but couldn’t find that final pass or shot. Japan were better, deservedly took the lead on a neat corner routine. They defended energetically and did their thing, which was get out on the break.

You would have thought Japan was conditioned to play with a lead, given how they like to play and how they’d beaten Germany and Spain, which was striking on the counter. But they retreated into a shell as the game wore on, the press went away, and their lack of threat only saw Croatia push up the field more and more. Which usually means it’s time for a Ivan Perišić header at the back post:

If this looks familiar, four years ago…

From there, Croatia looked pretty content to just not give anything away, taking a goal or chance if it came but not working all that hard to create one. Perhaps they figured with the control they can exert through Brodzović, Modrić, and Kovačić that something will eventually pop up, but more importantly they’ll never be threatened with giving up a winner.

That’s pretty much how it went, and extra time was the dirge that it usually is when everyone’s exhausted and also playing not to lose. Japan’s penalties were awful, and maybe that’s what they’ll unfairly focus on in the coming days, but penalties are cruel by definition and rarely provide a definition of what a team’s tournament should be regarded as. Japan can look proudly at beating both Spain and Germany, about their growth and how their principles and system paid off. To go further than this they’ll just have to find an additional way to play.

Goal of the day

Lots to choose from. Perišić’s header was pinpoint and ruthless. Korea’s consolation was a thunderbolt from 30 yards on a volley from Seung-Hon Paik. But Paqueta’s goal, the whole construction of it, just makes you shake your head:

Did VAR fuck anything up?

Free of that today, thank god. There was a brief moment where we thought Japan’s goal would be chalked off thanks to a paper-thin offside, but nope. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Did FIFA/Qatar fuck anything up?

Couple days old now but makes for awfully dispiriting reading on what could get into stadiums as far as fan signs and wear and what couldn’t. Everyone knew beforehand what the outside factors were in a match between Switzerland and Serbia, given what happened last time they played. You’d think FIFA would be up to date and detail security on what to look for, but alas.

Did Alexi Lalas say anything stupid?

Think the tournament length is getting to him. Rather tame today. He’ll need the days off to recharge and help us fill this section in the quarters.

A eulogy for the departed

We basically already did Japan’s, so a farewell to Korea Republic and especially Heung-Min Son, their country’s best player who put the team on his back against Portugal and got them here, a genuine delight to watch, who is assuredly headed back to the Premier League to score against Liverpool in both the league and Champions League, because it’s a thing he does. And yet I love him no less!



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