World Cup

07.04.14

Brazil and Colombia Bring the Ugly Game

France and Colombia fall by the wayside in the World Cup quarterfinals, setting up a battle between heavyweights Brazil and Germany.

Yes, yes, we all know that they call it the jogo bonito in Brazil, the beautiful game. The phrase is football’s most enduring (and for some, endearing) cliché. But for long stretches in the World Cup quarterfinals in Fortaleza tonight, Brazil and Colombia treated us to a jogo feio, an ugly game.

It was also a compelling game, desperately competitive. Both sides pack an impressive physical punch, and for much of the game the tackles and challenges were uncompromising. Men clattered into each other and boots flew in the air, often dangerously; and yet, it was not until the 64th minute that the Spanish referee, Carlos Velasco Carballo, flashed his first yellow card.

What a cruel card it was, on Thiago Silva, Brazil’s upright captain, and for that he misses the semifinal game against Germany. There had been 40 “uncarded” fouls committed until that moment, one or two of which might have merited a red from a disciplinarian referee. But Silva, hapless Silva, got his merely for tangling with the Colombian goalkeeper in a clumsy melee of limbs.

Although the punishment of its captain was undeserved, Brazil’s 2-1 win was a just result. Colombia conceded a goal in only the seventh minute, off a Brazilian free kick that an unmarked Silva put coolly in the net. The defender tasked with shadowing Silva was a statuesque presence in the goalmouth, watching the ball loop nicely on to the Brazilian’s feet. It was the softest of goals.

Brazil played to an obvious plan, which was to stifle James Rodríguez, Colombia’s goal-scoring phenomenon, and to deny the Colombians too many shots on goal. Of the teams in the quarterfinals, Colombia had had only 20 shots on goal in the preceding stages. (Only Costa Rica had fewer.) But it had an impressive conversion rate: 11 of those 20 shots resulted in goals. So Luis Felipe Scolari’s team had a clear objective: don’t let Colombia take a clear shot.

The plan worked almost to perfection: Colombia sizzled when in the vicinity of Brazil’s goal, its skillful forwards and midfielders harrying the Brazilian defense; but the men in yellow shut them down, time after time, with Maicon, Fernandinho and David Luiz outstanding in their strangling of Colombia.

David Luiz, in fact, sealed the game for Brazil. In the 67th minute, Rodríguez earned the game’s second yellow card, rather like punishing Bambi while the deer hunters go scot-free. A 30-yard free kick resulted and the rangy Brazilian, his hair a beehive of curls, cannoned the ball into the Colombian net. It was a ferocious strike, bringing to mind those Brazilian free kicks of old. The goal offered ecstasy to free-kick aficionados, who have had little to cherish at this World Cup. (Is it the Brazuca ball? The humid atmosphere? The tired legs?)

James Rodríguez pulled a goal back on the 80th minute, through a penalty, after Julio Cesar, the Brazilian goalkeeper, bundled a Colombian to the ground. It was his sixth of the World Cup. It was also, alas, his last.

Earlier in the day in Rio de Janeiro, a meticulous Germany defeated France 1-0, helping itself to a spot in the World Cup semifinals for the fourth consecutive tournament. It was fascinating to see two multi-ethnic teams conform so snugly to national stereotype. Despite having players of Ghanaian, Algerian, Polish and Turkish origin on the one hand, and the usual splendid array of North Africans, West Africans, and Antillais on the other, Germany and France were—respectively—Germany and France. The former was efficient, industrious, and committed to a master plan, the latter stylish extemporizers, modest of heart when the going got tough, and maddeningly inconsistent. 

The two teams were closely matched on paper, with France the neutrals’ favorite for its flowing style of play and mélange of talents. But it hadn’t had a testing game until this one, unlike Germany, which was given the fright of its life in the round of 16 by Algeria. That near-death experience made Joachim Low, the German coach, tear up his tactics sheet and start afresh, putting Philip Lahm at right back (where he belongs) and starting with Miroslav Klose. He also had the services of Matts Hummels, who hadn’t played Algeria due to injury. France paid the price. Hummels scored in the 13th minute off his head and blocked a sure shot on goal from Karim Benzema in the 76th, right in the German box. The punsters on Twitter had a field day: Hummels pummels France, they said.

Corny they were, but oh so right. 

UPDATE: As of this writing, news of the utmost ghastliness has emerged from the Brazil camp. Neymar, the team's one world-class striker, its only player who can be relied on to score goals, has been ruled out of the rest of the World Cup with a fractured vertebra. In the 87th minute, Juan Camilo Zúñiga, a robust Colombian defender, kneed Neymar in the small of his back, sending the Brazilian crashing to the ground. In immense pain, Neymar was stretchered off and taken straight indoors. Without him, and Tiago Silva, Brazil will go into its semifinal against Germany severely weakened.