Neymar’s absence means hosts could show hard streak again against a side wedded to structure and organisation
There was a moment after Brazil’s defeat of Colombia last week when Luiz Felipe Scolari leant back in his chair and tried to reflect on what his team had achieved so far. Scolari, in full flow, can be a captivating public speaker and it was not only the football he addressed but more what it meant for the people of this country and the way it manifested itself in that 90 seconds of noise and colour and accelerating, raucous emotion before every match.
“For many years Brazil has been trying to embed into our children the importance of the national anthem,” Scolari said. “We have said that in schools it must be sung at least once a month and we have tried to spread the message that children should grow up cherishing this anthem. Then we play these games and I see the way the people are. The crowds have been fantastic, wherever we go, and it seems to me it’s 50% children, from 10 to 15, doing the singing.
“We have to consider this important for our country. We have to see the way people now think of the national anthem.” That was the point Scolari started banging his ribs. “Let’s feel that in our chests,” he told his audience.
It was quite some speech and, as always with Scolari, there was a streak of defiance, too. “Don’t forget, one and a half years ago nobody believed in us. Ten to 15 days ago nobody believed we could get through the group phase. Nobody believed we could get past the last 16. Nobody thought we would get this far.”
He was applying a sprinkling of managerial licence with that one but everyone understood the wider point when Brazil were contemplating the next phase of this World Cup with a reduced 22-man squad and the missing guy – you may have heard a little about him over the last few days – among the small elite of people in this sport who can be described as authentic superstars.
Neymar’s absence should, in theory, work in Germany’s favour in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday night but it is not always that simple in football. Brazil still have great momentum behind them and possess the streetwise edge that most champions need. They also have the fervour and spirit of togetherness that prompted Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, to remind everyone this was not a normal game against 11 men. His team, he said, would be facing “an entire country” at Estadio Mineirão and his assistant, Hans-Dieter Flick, was not convinced either that the Neymar factor was as devastating for the host nation as everyone attending the game in yellow and blue seems to fear. “Brazil will be able to compensate,” he said.
Flick followed that up by warning that Germany’s opponents had already shown against Colombia and Chile they would “go to the border of what is permitted”. Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up a similar theme. “The Brazilians are no longer just the magicians,” the Bayern Munich midfielder said. “They play different football. There is a hardness to their game. We have to be prepared. And, of course, the referee.”
Yet Germany have undergone a noticeable shift themselves. While Mesut Özil has struggled to the point that Bild is running a campaign to have him removed from the team, Germany’s success has been built on old-fashioned qualities of structure and organisation.
“No longer as attractive and beautiful as it was in 2010 but more oriented towards having a stronger defence,” as Lothar Matthäus, their former World Cup-winning captain, put it. “We have become spoiled over the last eight years with such a technically stylish team and we did not expect this from Germany. But if you want to become world champion you have to win matches and that means ugly victories, too.”
Their longevity will always make them formidable opponents but this is not a flawless team. Mats Hummels might be a strange player to identify when he has demonstrated in this tournament why Franz Beckenbauer described him recently as “both an extremely elegant defender and an efficient midfielder”. Equally, there is a story about Hummels that is worth sharing when judging the importance of the Neymar issue.
It goes back to Manchester United’s time with David Moyes as manager, when the Premier League club spent a long time looking closely at the Borussia Dortmund player with a view to a possible transfer. In the end they concluded that for all his obvious talent he was let down by a lack of mobility. “He can’t run,” as one person involved in the process bluntly put it.
In particular, United had misgivings about whether he would have been able to cope against players with the agility of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. A lot of people may judge that as harsh – not least Moyes’s successor, Louis van Gaal – but it was the culmination of several months of scouting and there is a reasonable theory that Germany’s defence might be susceptible to fast, agile players trying to run behind them.
The problem for Brazil is how to put that into effect. Neymar might have been just the type of opponent to expose any shortcomings. Instead Oscar will probably play the Neymar role, bringing plenty of his own gifts but not the same nimbleness. Willian, perhaps, has the speed and directness, coming in from a wider position, to create issues for Hummels and his central defensive partner, Jérôme Boateng.
Brazil’s media have been asking again whether Willian could be a modern-day Amarildo, the player who replaced Pelé in the 1962 World Cup. Pelé was injured 27 minutes into the group match against Czechoslovakia and the opposition’s Josef Masopust tells the story of calling his team-mates together and passing on instructions to leave him alone.
“There were no substitutes in those days. He played on but was clearly hurt so I told my team-mates that when Pelé had the ball they were not to tackle him. It would have been easy, but it would not have been right to tackle an injured man. I saw it as a human gesture. There was a different attitude in 1962 and, years later, he said it was the most sporting thing that he experienced in his entire career. We weren’t soft but we played fair.”
One certainty is that Juan Camilo Zúñiga, the player who nobbled Neymar, is not being viewed the same way in Brazil. Fifa has confirmed it will not take retrospective action against the Colombia defender and the same organisation has also thrown out Brazil’s appeal against Thiago Silva’s suspension.
“We know we suffer big absences with Neymar and Thiago Silva,” David Luiz, who will take over the captaincy, said. “But now is the time for us all to demonstrate our pride and character. We have the whole nation behind us, supporting us. This is the game of our lives, a World Cup semi-final, and it’s a huge test for us without Neymar.
“He is like a brother to us. But we’ve all spoken with him and we’ve told him we will dedicate this trophy to him.”