You might have heard of the place — they call it the Maracana. Sixty-four years ago, 200,000 people crowded into the then brand new, state-of-the-art stadium to bear witness — for most of them, painfully — to something truly historic: ‘The Fateful Final’ of the 1950 World Cup, in which Uruguay defied the odds and the gods to rip open an enduring wound in the soul of Brazilian football.
Nothing quite so seismic has happened yet at the new version of the old venue at World Cup 2014, but Chile’s stunning elimination of Spain and Lionel Messi’s wonder goal against Bosnia are two very good reasons why I will always be pleased to say ‘I was there’.
So I was happy to return yesterday, even if a pairing of Belgium and Russia was not, on paper, the most glamorous of this or indeed any World Cup — a fact reflected in the less than capacity attendance which would have been even smaller had not plenty of cariocas decided to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon watching the football and roaring ‘Brasilia, Brasilia’ as a prelude to tonight’s big game in the capital.
And, however ordinary the game looked on paper, unfortunately it was even less inspiring in the flesh. The Belgians, loaded with familiar names from the Premier League, had come to Brazil widely regarded as one of those ‘golden generation’ teams which could really shake up the tournament. But, they had been far from glittering in their opening game against Algeria, having to come from behind to claim the spoils through late goals by subs Marouane Fellaini and Dries Martens.
Manager Marc Wilmots duly rewarded the pair with places in a reshuffled starting line-up yesterday while, for Russia, Fabio Capello kept faith with Igor Akinfeev after the keeper’s howler had gifted South Korea a goal and a point in their opening game.
But it was his opposite number who was first to be called into action, Thibaut Courtois getting down well to parry Fayzulin’s shot. Fellaini, a far more central figure for Les Diables Rouges than he has been for the Red Devils — something to do with the devils you know, perhaps — was busy going box to box in what began as a deceptively fast and open contest in which the all-out efforts of both sides deserved better than the Mexican waves with which the crowd repeatedly amused itself. Perhaps they had a sixth sense of what was coming in the second half.
Russia should have taken the lead two minutes before the break but, having found a patch of clear air between Vincent Kompany and company as a booming cross came in, the highly rated striker Alexander Kokorin somehow directed his header wide.
Into the second half, both sides’ lack of cutting edge made for a stalemate with defences resolutely on top.
For the thousands of yellow-shirted neutrals present, the game as a spectacle badly needed a goal. Russia needed a goal most and it showed in their marginally better attacking stats, though substitute Kevin Mirallas almost got it for Belgium with a free kick which came back off the post. But, in the context of a tightly contested Group H, it seemed fear of losing was trumping the desire to win.
And then, almost right at the death, there was finally something to cheer about, though not if you were Russian. Belgium moved the ball swiftly upfield to Eden Hazard, always their likeliest lad. The Chelsea man’s trickery allowed him to beat his marker and get to the byline before pulling back a low pass that was the perfect invitation for substitute Divock Origi — on for Lukaku — to find the roof of the net.
“We didn’t play a very good match. The last 10 minutes were good, that’s all,” said Hazard afterwards. Nevertheless it sent Belgium to the knockout phase, having had all their World Cup goals scored by subs. Kind of interesting, but I still don’t think this is going to be one of those Maracana days I’ll be telling the grandkids about.
BELGIUM (4-2-3-1): Courtois, Alderweireld, Van Buyten, Kompany,Vermaelen (Vertonghen 30); Witsel, Fellaini; Mertens (Mirallas 75), De Bruyne, E Hazard; Lukaku (Origi 56).
RUSSIA (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev, Kozlov (Eshchenko 62), V Berezuskiy, Ignashevich, Kombarov; Glushakov, Fayzulin, Samedov (Kerzhakov 89), Kannunikov, Shatov (Dzagoev 82), Kokorin.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)