“The referee made the right call. An ugly goal like that is illegal.” Fired off during Brazil’s nerve-racking last-16 game against Chile in Belo Horizonte, the tweet mocking the poor finish in Hulk’s controversially ruled out goal did the rounds among Brazilians.
But if, come Tuesday, a Neymar-less Brazil edge out Germany with a shinned goal by the Zenit St Petersburg striker, few would complain. While fans and media have been quick to point out that the Seleção have hardly played eye-catching football in their second hosting of the World Cup, the fact they stand one match away from the final – and a possible end to their home jinx – trumps style issues.
That had become evident even before Neymar suffered the horrendous assault by Juan Zúñiga towards the end of the second half of Brazil’s quarter-final against Colombia in Fortaleza. In fact, the Seleção’s golden boy was having a pretty mundane game while David Luiz and Thiago Silva ruled the roost and Fernandinho led a fouling relay that had James Rodríguez as the baton. However, the image of Neymar being ferried on a stretcher to a helicopter reinforced the belief that grit will be necessary to lead Brazil to their sixth World Cup and their first at home.
Brazil have shocked purists. On 17 July it will be the 20th anniversary of the day they showed the world that winning ugly was possible: that was the date on which Brazil beat Italy 3-2 on penalties in the 1994 World Cup after a goalless draw over 120 minutes. Never had the title been decided in the supposed lottery and never in the history of Brazil’s participation had a team been met with such disdain – even by their own fans. In that competition, Brazil collected meagre results that included a 1-0 win over a then semi-professional USA team in the last 16 before tangling with the Italians in the decider.
The man in command was no less than Carlos Alberto Parreira, who is now technical director and sits on the bench with Big Phil Scolari. Vilified by Seleção legends and sections of the media, he stuck to a 4-4-2 plan in which a clogged midfield, anchored by Dunga and Mauro Silva, exploited the pace and skills of an attacking partnership formed by the slick Bebeto and the infernal Romario. Park the bus they did not, since Brazil scored 10 goals – five of them for Romario – but the pragmatism was as evident as the lack of fantasistas.
“Listen, at that time Brazil hadn’t won the World Cup in 24 years and our qualifying campaign was pretty shaky – we had to qualify by beating Uruguay in the Maracanã at the last game,” said Parreira in a recent interview. “We had a plan and stuck with it: the World Cup was a short competition and we wanted to win it with the talents we had at hand. I still hear we didn’t play beautiful football. But what is beauty? To me it’s to be efficient. We were unbeaten champions and that will never change.”
Scolari himself is a fan of the nitty-gritty. Before deploying a star-studded Brazil in the 2002 World Cup he became famous for winning the incredibly difficult Libertadores Cup with teams that were marked more by their fighting spirit than finesse on the ball – Big Phil’s critics would hiss and call his brand of football “Uruguayan”. But when the Seleção looked lost in the 2002 qualifiers and risked missing out on the World Cup for the first time, few people complained when the Brazilian football confederation knocked at Scolari’s door.
Acceptance was not as widespread in 2012 when Big Phil returned to the rescue, this time to find a group of young players in which Neymar easily stood out. Without emulating Parreira’s project he assembled a side tailored to explore the boy’s talent. Unfortunately, Scolari could not control the dip in form in some of his trusted soldiers, Paulinho in particular, and the side that nipped Spanish ankles in last years’ Confederations Cup looks jaded at the main event.
Still, they have reached the last four for the first time since 2002. The Colombia game was not marked by poise and David Luiz’s peach of a free-kick had to share space with Fernandinho’s cynical persecution of Rodríguez and other Colombian’s shins – Brazil left the pitch with 31 fouls to Colombia’s 23.
Brazil will also be missing the captain Thiago Silva, although they have appealed his booking, for the Germany game, so no one should feel surprised if the Seleção turn up in Belo Horizonte in the hope of a quick window for a sucker punch. And if fans roar their support even when balls are punted to the stands, as they did during the Colombia game, jogar feio – the ugly game – may not be not that bad after all.