The most unforgettable football match I’ve seen in the flesh?
The question was posed on foot of last week’s column which was that strange thing for strange times, what you might call a retrospective preview of RTÉ’s showing on Thursday night of a classic Irish double bill, showcasing Don Givens’ hat-trick against the USSR in 1974 and Shane Long’s one of the ages against Germany in 2015.
And since I’d attended the former as a teenage supporter and the latter as an ageing journo, both of those games would certainly have to feature in my personal pantheon, up there alongside a handful of other extra-special occasions I’ve been lucky enough to witness from a ringside seat, including Ireland beating Italy in Giants Stadium, the 1-1 draw with Germany in Ibaraki, ‘The Miracle Of Istanbul’, ZZ blowing his top at the World Cup Final in Berlin, Spain kicking off their period of dominance by winning Euro 2008, and Barcelona, at their exhilarating best, dismantling Manchester United in the Champions League Final at Wembley.
Yet the one which, above all others, will stay with me to the grave – and I dearly wish it was otherwise - has to be the World Cup semi-final in Belo Horizonte in 2014, when the host nation suffered what was surely the most profound and shocking humiliation in all of football history.
Germany 7 Brazil 1. Read it, even now, and weep. Me too. Not very professional, I know. In fact, maybe I should have been taken off the case because I'll freely admit that, as they used to say in 'The Sweeney', I was emotionally involved, guv.
The truth is that, for yours truly, getting to cover a World Cup in Brazil was the realisation of a life-long dream, the ultimate pilgrimage for a football nut who’d been weaned on the incomparable magic of Pele and Mexico ’70 and then been brought to the verge of tears by the exit of the beautiful team of Zico and Socrates in Spain in 1982.
And though nothing Brazil had done since had come close to matching the bewitching highs achieved by those exceptional teams – indeed, there were times, as in 1974 and 1990, when altogether more pedestrian versions pretty much betrayed the cause of ‘o jogo bonito’ - such was the enduring hold that the canary yellow and cobalt blue retained on my football soul, that I still celebrated like a fan when first Romario, in 1994, and then Ronaldo (the original), in 2002, helped take the country’s total of World Cup wins to a record-breaking five.
Hence too, the cocky legend emblazoned on the Brazilian team coach at their own tournament in 2014: ‘Brace yourselves, the sixth is coming’.
Needless to say, by the time the Germans had completed the grisly spectacle of performing a live autopsy on the hapless hosts, that prediction had taken on a darkly comic hue, a cosmic-scale version of Steven Gerrard’s ‘we can’t let it slip now’…
In truth, this was a Brazilian team which had been cruising for a bruising right from the off in that tournament. And (for once) that’s not me being wise after the event.
Here, on the eve of their round of 16 game against Chile, is a chunk of the preview I filed from my base in Rio at the time: “This is a Brazil team with a default setting of functionality rather than flair but, worse, much worse, a Brazil team which too often malfunctions when addressing the very basic elements of the game, like making crosses count and passes stick and avoiding being robbed in possession.
"Far too many times over the course of 90 minutes they look like trouble waiting to happen, especially at the back, where sloppiness, lapses in concentration and general harem-scarem defending have been the disorder of the day.”
The shining exception, of course, was Neymar, an extraordinary player in an ordinary team. But after the Brazilians had survived a nail-biting penalty shoot-out to eliminate Chile, their 2-1 victory over Colombia in the quarter-final came at a huge cost, a brutal knee in the back putting the golden boy out of the tournament and plunging the country into a couple of days of what felt like national mourning.
Brazilians, of course, know their football, and in my travels around that amazing country, from Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon, I had met few locals up to that point who hadn’t harboured serious reservations about ‘Big Phil’ Scolari’s side. But as the Selecao continued to battle their way through the competition, all such doubts had been parked as the nation came together in a bid to carry its team, as if by sheer force of will, all the way to the Maracana on July 13.
Now, into that heady mix of pride, hope and an almost desperate desire for their boys to deliver, was added the spice of martyrdom, with even the players themselves succumbing to the febrile national mood when, for their team photo before the semi-final in Belo Horizonte, they held up the shirt of the fallen hero.
The atmosphere inside the Stadio Mineirao before kick off that day was extraordinary, the emotional temperature already off the scale as the vast majority in a crowd of 60,000 gave an acapella rendition of the national anthem which was one of the most spine-tingling expressions of patriotic fervour I’ve ever heard.
Then, what turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened, happened: the football started.
Within just ten minutes, Brazil were a goal down, to Thomas Muller. And, après lui, le deluge.
Between the 22nd and 28th minutes, as the hosts appeared to suffer what can only be described as a complete collective nervous breakdown, Germany scored four more times. Astonishingly, with barely half-an-hour gone, it was already game over - bar two more German goals, the mother of all consolations from Oscar and, long before the final whistle brought a preposterously one-sided match to a close, the beginning of a nation’s agonised post-mortem.
First there was stunned disbelief, then a tsunami of grief – I’ve never seen so many people reduced to helpless tears in a football ground – and very quickly the mutation of those initial raw emotions into a wave of poisonous anger and ridicule which, over the succeeding days, swept the entire country, with prime targets from the team’s manager to the country’s President, getting flayed in the ferocious backlash.
Germany would go on to deservedly beat Argentina in the final but it’s that mind-boggling semi-final in Belo Horizonte which will forever define, and disfigure, the World Cup of 2014.
It was the day that Brazil, of all nations, gave the world the ugly game. And being there to see it happen is an experience I will never forget, no matter how hard I try.