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Steve Braunias' World Cup Diary: day 24

Jul 7, 2014 Sport


“I can’t feel my legs”

Neymar’s terrible sentence – can a footballer say anything worse? – after he was taken out by Juan Zuniga’s knee1 with five minutes to go in the Brazil vs Colombia quarter-final are the five words that chase every other word into silence as Brazil prepare to lose the 2014 World Cup.

Brazil, so flat and dreadful in the games leading up to the quarter-final, so pants, finally looked like world champions against Colombia. They exploded in the first 20 minutes, “ambushed” the Colombians, as the man from The Guardian wrote. They were fast, mobile, clever, shot wickedly from range, showed intelligence and purpose.

Apart from Fred, but that didn’t matter. It does now.

“We’re looking for Fred on the pitch, trying to find him,” Brazil’s Willian said at a press conference yesterday. “We will keep on trying.”

Good luck with that. Fred has spent the World Cup in absentia, a missing person. He’s even lost his creepy little moustache.

It might be better if he remains invisible in this week’s semi-final against Germany. The one thing worse than Fred nowhere near the ball is Fred with the ball.

If Brazil just use him as a decoy, and Germany bother to put a man on him, then they might have a chance. Even without Neymar’s guile and influence, Brazil pose a threat. Marcelo kicks like a mule. Luiz kicks like two mules.2

The team held their shape against Colombia, and smothered the fabulous Rodriguez. Germany don’t have anyone as good as Rodriguez. Their star midfielder is only the clumsy Ozil, who is playing almost blind behind those lovely, heavy eyelids.

But the Germans don’t do individual brilliance. They do patterns and collective responsibility. They were so dull to watch against France; it wasn’t a case of winning ugly, it was a case of winning boring, the triumph of hard labour and Joachim Low’s expert coaching.

The most attractive feature of Germany is the wild haircut of one of Low’s assistants. “Like something out of Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” marvelled Martin Devlin, on TV One.

So here are ELP with the greatest sporting event anthem in history.

Celebrating a goal with your hands shaped into a heart

It’s not as lame as the thumb-sucking celebration – a pox on that one – but it’s still pretty lame, football’s equivalent to LOL and the witless (:

It was prevalent in the qualifying games but there was no sign of it in the quarter-finals. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity. The free-scoring World Cup closed up shop in the quarter-finals – 2-1 was as abundant as it got, with two 1-0 games and that exhilarating 0-0 between Holland and Costa Rica.

But Holland hit the bar, three times, and it’s reasonable to expect they’ll find a way past Argentina’s defence in the semi-final. Their chances are improved by the fact that Argentina don’t have a defence.

It only dawned on timid Belgium in the last few minutes of their quarter-final. A header over the bar, a goalmouth scramble – that was as good as it got for the Belgians.3

The freakish possibility exists of an all-Europe final in South America. Holland are better than Argentina. But Argentina have…Higuain! Such a dumb ox in Argentina’s shirt for so long, he metamorphosised in the Belgium game into his old self, the one who used to bang them in all the time for Real Madrid and got 17 for Napoli last season, and who got a hat-trick for Argentina in the 2010 World Cup.

With Messi playing the old Riquelme role – wandering and dream-like, sublime, patient, calm – it was left to Higuain to play the old Batistuta role, and strike terror at defences. His goal against Belgium was brilliantly opportunistic, a fast swipe at the ball when it dropped to him from a deflection. He was superb the rest of the game, always threatening, always alert.

Argentina also have that other guy. So here is one of Messi’s favourite singers, apparently.

1 The verdict of that tackle from former Brazil star, fat Ronaldo: “Evil, violent.” Ronaldo saw Zuniga’s knee as a lethal weapon, a loaded gun. It was aimed point-blank. But it was just a knee and even worse things have happened than the threat of paralysis.

September 5, 1931, Rangers vs Celtic at Irbrox stadium, 75,000 people watching as Celtic’s goalkeeper John Thomson dives at the feet of Sam English to make a great save.

“That was his last save,” wrote John Rafferty in Soccer: The Great Ones. “Behind the goal Rangers supporters danced with glee…David Meiklejohn, one of the greatest Rangers captains of all time, looked grimly towards the disgusting manifestations of joy, then left the group on the field and strode towards them.

“He was a terrible figure of anger and a hush spread before him. He raised his hands above his head and demanded silence and there was no denying him.

“The tumult ceased and those who watched knew for the first time that John Thomson was severely wounded. His fiancée in the stand screamed and rushed to the pavillion. His brother hurried to be at his side.

“Stretcher-bearers carried him to the dressing room, a doctor quickly diagnosed a compressed fracture of the skull and he was removed to the Victoria Infirmary nearby. The game proceeded self-consciously.

“He died at 9.25 that night without gaining consciousness and he was just twenty-three years old.”

2 Luiz’s amazing free-kick was one thing; his comforting of James Rodriques after the game was an even lovelier thing to behold.

Rodrigues was devastated by the loss, a distraught, weeping figure as he trudged around the field. Luiz was moved by his distress and went to his side, holding him, stroking his face, no doubt reminding him of his brilliance and genius. He swapped shirts.

Inevitably the moment served as a reminder of one of the defining images in the history of the World Cup, when Pele and Bobby Moore exchanged shirts after the Brazil vs England game in Mexico, in 1970. It’s one of football’s most iconic photographs, the two great athletes standing in the Guadalajara sun.

In Jeff Powell’s biography Bobby Moore, Moore said, “When you play against people of that ability, at the highest level, for those stakes, you don’t have to speak the language to come to know each other.

“At that time Pele hardly spoke a word of English, yet, without thinking, I knew him as a nice, quiet, sincere man, a gentleman and a sportsman.”

Moore died in 1993. Pele is 73, and remains football’s worst pundit. Everything he predicts is wrong.

3 As suggested in a pre-World Cup diary, Belgium really were the new England – a team that rides in on a lot of hype, with excited talk of “a golden generation”, but goes out in the quarter-finals.

Watching them afforded little pleasure. They were stuttering, incoherent; they kept being played offside, like suckers, like amateurs. What was the point of Belgium? Against Argentina, their greatest single idea was route one.

Eden Hazard, whether by his insistence of the coach Marc Wilmot’s tactical decision, played in the role of the big man on campus – he wanted to be a midfield supremo, who surveyed the scene, understood it, and made his decisions accordingly, a Pirlo, a Xavi, a Platini. But he was a Beckham, not really up to it, ineffective, out of position.

As for England, more tomorrow, when documentary evidence will be produced to establish the thesis they were the old England – not just the same old England, but the old, old England, the England of 60 years ago, in 1954, the last time they came into the World Cup with such low expectations and still managed to disappoint.


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