Neymar-less Brazil enter Germany clash with tempered expectations

SAO PAULO —

The greatest trick Brazil ever pulled, Blizzard writer Rob Smyth once wrote, was to convince the world that "jogo bonito" existed. It created a false impression, he said, of what sides should expect from Brazil and intimidated opponents, cowing them into submission before the game had even begun. Of course there was a time when Brazil’s football really was beautiful, in 1970 most notably, but not at this World Cup and, in truth, not for several World Cups before now. The phrase has become a marketing myth, a slogan for that troublesome alliance of Brazil and Nike.

Brazilian football expert, Tim Vickery, argues that jogo bonito died in the 1970s. The military dictatorship employed technocrats to manage the economy, he says, and did the same to football. The old-school coaches were replaced by statisticians with clipboards, measuring how far players ran, counting misplaced passes and generally unravelling the rainbow. Although the 1982 and, to a lesser extent, 1986 World Cups brought a reflowering of the old style under Tele Santana, they failed. By the time it won a fourth title, in 1994, Brazil had become desperate: Winning had replaced any notion of playing the game according to the old traditions.

That has remained the case ever since, and particularly so in this World Cup. The failure to win on home soil in 1950 generated a neurosis that still haunts the nation. The prospect of another failure at home is unthinkable. Brazil’s progress to the semifinal has been an emotional affair. The tension during the penalty shootout against Chile was extraordinary. There have been tears during the anthems, tears after goals, tears after saves, tears after the final whistle, and most of all, tears after the back injury that will keep Neymar out of the rest of the tournament. 

In the days since the quarterfinal match against Colombia, Brazil has been in a state almost of national mourning. When Neymar released a video message on Sunday, television shows stopped to broadcast it. As audiences wept, presenters struggled bravely on, jaws thrust out as though to prevent them wobbling. The president, Dilma Rousseff, sent the forward a letter. The sense of national hysteria was reminiscent of the mawkish atmosphere in London after the death of Princess Diana.

BREAKING THE BANK

For Neymar, who at just 22 has borne astonishing pressure with admirable good grace, the injury is, of course, awful. This had been billed as his World Cup and he had, just about, lived up to the hype. That he should be devastated is natural and it would be the hardest of hearts that didn’t feel sympathy for him. 

"It’s equivalent to a catastrophe," Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari said of losing his star playmaker last Friday. "Neymar is out reference. He is a player that would make the difference in any team. We have lost the one player we did not want to lose, and it’s for the semifinal and final. It was a big shock. The image of Neymar being carried off a stretcher towards the plane, the difficulties, the tears."

And yet there is something rather sinister about the demand for vengeance that has bubbled beneath the grief. The challenge from Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga that caused the injury probably should have been called as a foul — it wasn’t — but it was by no means the assault many have made it out to be. It was robust, yes, and perhaps clumsy, but it was a challenge in keeping with a game that, while nothing unusual by the standards of 20 years ago, was notable in the modern era for its physicality. And for that, the principle responsibility lies with Brazil’s Scolari.

Scolari is a master at turning his squad into tight-knit family unit, generating a them-against-us siege mentality. He is also boorish, cynical and at times unpleasant. Before the Colombia game, he spoke of the need to "get physical." The second-round match against Chile had produced the most fouls in the tournament — 51, 28 committed by Brazil — the quarterfinal produced even more: 54, 31 of them committed by Brazil. Twice in the first 15 minutes of each half James Rodriguez was clattered, a pattern that smacks of a plan.

Tactical fouling, rotating the offender so as to avoid cards, has been a pattern of Brazil’s play throughout the tournament. They have largely got away with it, partly because FIFA seems to have urged referees to take a less interventionist approach — we’re on course for the World Cup with the fewest cards since 1986 — and partly because at least two referees, Yuichi Nishimura in the opening game and Carlos Velasco Carballo in the quarterfinal, seem to have been influenced by the occasion.  

Neymar’s injury was the result of that approach. Colombia was kicked, received no protection, so kicked back. Neymar was the unfortunate victim, so Scolari must now find a way of playing without him, presumably by using Oscar centrally and Willian wide on the left. Scolari hinted in training Sunday that the Chelsea midfielder is his first option come Tuesday. ”You can’t compare Neymar to any other player, he has a lot of quality,” Willian told reporters. ”I have a different style. He is more of a striker, scores more goals, while my strong suit is to set up my teammates.”

Scolari has, absurdly, played the underdog card throughout. The Brazilian manager even claimed that nobody had expected Brazil to get through the group stage. Brazil now enters the semifinal, without Neymar, as the underdog. Germany is favorite and that changes the dynamic. Unthinkably, on home soil, Brazil goes into a match not expected to win. The pressure has been eased, although not in the way anybody would have wanted.