Brazil holding out for a hero

World Cup Semi-Final
Brazil v GermanyTonight @ 9pm

The picture spoke with 199 million voices. In a local newspaper over the weekend, they ran not with a shot of celebration from the victory in the quarter-finals but of three supporters sitting shocked on a kerbside.

It summed up the mood of a nation in mourning and there’s been no escaping it. Turn on the radio and there’s a psychologist in studio to talk about how they should deal with this, revert to television and the host of a chat show tries to hold back the tears as the crowd start chanting ‘Neymar, Neymar’.

Yet for all the endless chatter about their special one, as of now nobody knows how to answer the question that for so long they dared not to ask: What are they without him?

While it’s a testament to his rise from huge potential to deservedly inescapable prominence, it’s also a projection of just how limited Brazil are too.

And while everyone’s entitled to savage the team for daring to complain about the tackle that ended his tournament and probably their chances — after all, it was Brazil themselves that set the tone for the type of challenge that injured Neymar — there’s no rhyme or reason to complaints about their cynical and often nasty nature when it’s needed.

For a hugely underwhelming squad in a World Cup of flawed teams, it’s solely survive and advance.

Win this tournament and it’s the destination, not the journey, that’ll ever be talked about here forever more.

With this group of players, what else was Felipe Scolari supposed to do?

Play nice and they lose, so their game plan has against better teams needed to be about covering for a lack of quality with a huge quantity of fouls. In fact as of now, the two games pockmarked with the most stoppages both contained Brazil.

Of the 51 fouls versus Chile, 28 were by the hosts and of the 54 versus Colombia, 31 were theirs. Then again, there’s nothing new in that and Brazil, to a point, are merely keeping with a prominent part of their recent past.

There’s a huge misconception about Brazil being somehow guardians of the beautiful game because for all the great players they’ve produced and memories they’ve made, it’s an often ugly history too, that begins at the 1974 World Cup.

With the country in the midst of a dictatorship and with an obsession around technocracy, it was imposed even on their greatest passion that had been long based around artistry. It was then that Claudio Coutinho — a man with a military background and a love of soulless statistical progression of sport — was made technical coordinator and a U-turn in their footballing philosophy took place. Since then they’ve mostly maintained the same course.

Granted, that tournament may have been as bad as it got, particularly during their elimination to the Netherlands.

Just as they did here against Colombia, they took to the field with a clear plan to stop Johan Neeskens. Marinho Peres floored him with an elbow, Luis Pereira was sent off for a waste-high tackle and a new chapter in Brazilian football was penned.

By 1978, Coutinho was manager and their philosophy switched from a team based on individualism and creativity to a team based on systems like cogs fitting into a functional machine.

If 1982 was the major exception, there was still an ugly side, even amongst all the genius of Tele Santana’s side.

For instance Maradona’s red card in their meeting was part frustration at the scoreline, but it was also part frustration at having been kicked from pillar to post. And now their methods of containing James Rodriguez can join the black list from Leonardo’s elbow fracturing the skull of Tab Ramos to Rivaldo’s cheating in getting Hakan Unsal sent off in 2002.

For a long time, Brazil have been primarily winners that do whatever it takes to reach the top and even in the often rough-and-tumble world of South American football, they’ve a reputation for being as physical as they are skilful.

It’s a complaint that could once be made about German sides but tonight, you’ll have a strange contrast. Around 2000, realising they weren’t producing players of sufficient quality, they reinvented how they make footballers, and started creating a very different type of player for what was becoming a very different type of sport. Now it’s paying off and in many ways it’s as if they and Brazil have switched their traditional roles for this semi-final.

But if the hosts have long been about both magic and malice, they’ll get their answer in Belo Horizonte to that unspeakable question of what this side are without Neymar. The magic has now gone. What’s left behind won’t be pretty, particularly pleasant or solely belonging to the present.


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