Howard Webb, the English referee with the build of a brick house and the bluntness of a drill sergeant, should be able to sleep tonight after all. Brazil, denied a legitimate goal by Webb in the 55th minute, lurched into the quarterfinals after winning a penalty shootout against a Chilean side that scrapped to the bitter end. Brazil’s was not the performance of a champion side. It was, instead, a very lucky, very ungainly win. But a win it was—one that ensured Brazil’s passage to the next stage and saved Webb from the wrath of a nation.
Brazil is, by custom, everyone’s sentimental favorite: but this side is overrated and overhyped. Only Neymar, their lustrous forward and playmaker, would find a place in any of the five Brazil squads that won the World Cup before this one. And without Neymar, this Brazil team is no better than… Bolivia. Their defense is lackadaisical, their forwards frequently inept. The midfield is mechanical, and their goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, a source of constant anxiety.
Today, however, that same, lumbering Julio Cesar kept Brazil in the World Cup. He parried two Chilean penalty kicks in the shootout, and should take confidence from his improbable role as savior into his next game, which will be against a team much sharper than Chile.
That today’s game went to the edge of the precipice was largely due to Webb. He disallowed a goal scored by Hulk that would have given Brazil a 2-1 lead. A long, diagonal cross from Marcelo saw the ball reach Hulk, who brought it down to his feet from the top of his monumental chest. His arms were raised to balance his body, and somehow—perhaps based on the assumption that Hulk couldn’t have controlled the ball without an arm—Webb concluded that the Brazilian had handled the sphere. He called an infraction after Hulk put the ball in the Chilean net, leading to an eruption of disagreement from the heaving stands. For a change, the vox pop had a point.
Chile and Brazil were locked at 1-1 at this stage, and the disallowing of Hulk’s goal sucked the wind out of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, another sign—this time one of temperament—that this is a very ordinary vintage of Brazilians. Instead of sucking up their disappointment and returning to the task of putting Chile in its place, Brazil stewed in its own indignation, allowing the Chileans—man for man the shortest team at the Cup—to control play for the rest of the second half.
Chile threw everything it had at the Brazilians; but even at the zenith of its abilities, it lacked that extra notch of class that could have buried the hosts. One should be thankful, perhaps, for the final result. One shudders to think of how Brazilian society would have digested a defeat in the round of 16. Would all that pent-up opposition to the Cup, that mighty civic anger against corruption, waste and overspending on soccer stadia, have burst wide into the open? One will not know until the next round—the quarterfinals—when this mediocre Brazil team will once again flirt with defeat.