Down and Out in Belo Horizonte

After the referee mercifully blew the final whistle and put Brazil out of their misery on Tuesday afternoon, I pulled out my copy of the Bible and skimmed through the Book of Revelation.  Much to my relief,  I was able to confirm that Brazil losing a World Cup semi-final on home soil by six clear goals was not explicitly mentioned as a harbinger of the apocalypse, so I shelved my plan to run out and stock up on canned foods.  Given the size of our apartment, it’s not like we could have stored enough to last us any length of time, anyhow.  I remain a big proponent of city living, but I will concede that we’re at a significant disadvantage when it comes to preparing for doomsday.

The result in Belo Horizonte may not have been a sign of the End Times, but it was a seismic blow to Brazil’s collective psyche.  Soccer is such a massive part of their national identity that this defeat felt more like a military failure or an economic collapse than a sporting letdown.  At the end of the day, games are trivial things, and it’s silly to compare them with anything that carries real life and death consequences.  Even the most ardent Brazilian fans understand this, of course, but I don’t imagine that being reminded of it will comfort them all that much.  Losing by a goal or two would have been tough for them to swallow.  7-1, though, triggered an existential crisis.  After that 90 minutes, they were forced to confront the fact that they were nothing like what they thought they were.

For the players and coaches, the inquest will go on for months; for the rest of us, this memorable tournament roars on toward its final act.



Well, I got both of the results right, but it feels like a stretch to claim that I successfully predicted that Brazil-Germany match.  My only comfort is that I’m pretty sure that no one else saw this one coming, either.  For the record, here are my predictions (actual results follow in parenthesis, correctly-predicted winners in bold):

1.  Germany 2-1 over Brazil (Germany won 7-1)

Lots of folks backed Germany to advance here, but the assumption was that Brazil would put up a real fight and make it difficult.  After the Germans scored five in the opening half-hour, all of that was out the window.  Brazil’s only hope was to salvage a little pride in the second half.  In the end, they couldn’t even manage that.

The match felt like such an anomaly that it’s not clear what, if anything, we’re supposed to take away from it.  Certainly, any concerns about the Germans not being ruthless enough in their finishing have been laid to rest; on the basis of what we saw on Tuesday, I think we can all agree that Germany is the team that you least want to see across from you when you’re having a bad day.  For as poor as Brazil might have been, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that their opponents were excellent.  Again, the midfield three of Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Kroos absolutely dominated the game, while Klose and Muller kept popping up in dangerous positions.  The defenders always looked comfortable (as defenders tend to do when they have the luxury of playing with a five-goal lead).

So, what happened to Brazil?  Many will point to the absence of Neymar, but others will rightly retort that he wouldn’t have contributed any additional solidity on the defensive end even if he’d been there.  Perhaps more telling was the absence of Thiago Silva, but even that can’t have been the whole story.  As the ESPN commentators pointed out, Dante and Bernard (the replacements for Silva and Neymar, respectively) are accomplished footballers who play for big European clubs – bringing them into the side shouldn’t have caused a complete meltdown.

In the end, it seemed like a perfect storm – the incomprehensible pressure on the shoulders of the hosts, the psychological strain of playing without Neymar, a German team in wonderful form that punished every single mistake… it all added up to an afternoon that we won’t soon forget.

2.  Argentina 1-0 over Netherlands (Match finished 0-0 after extra time, Argentina won on penalties)

On the surface, this one sounds like it could have been a classic:  a rematch of the 1978 final, scoreless after extra time, decided by the ultimate dramatic spectacle of penalties.  Appearances, though, can be deceiving.  Somehow, this match managed to be a pretty dull affair, and I don’t have all that much to say about it.

The Dutch weren’t able to muster their first shot on target until extra time, and Argentina was only marginally more threatening.  Neither side ever looked like scoring.  This looked much more like a semi-final, with both sides adopting a very cagey approach and neither manager prepared to risk their tournament lives on reckless attacking.

Even the penalty kicks failed to produce much excitement, as Ron Vlaar’s initial miss seemed to doom the Dutch from the beginning.  Maybe Louis van Gaal should have saved that last substitution and tried the Tim Krul trick one more time, but something tells me that it wouldn’t have made a difference.



Third-Place Game:

Netherlands vs. Brazil

If ever there was a contest in which the teams were less keen to participate, I can’t think of it.  I’m sure that the entire Brazilian team just wants to crawl under the nearest rock, and the Dutch can’t be thrilled at having cemented their place as soccer’s nearly-men by falling on penalties just before the final hurdle.  Louis van Gaal has already said that he doesn’t want to play this match, but play they must.  Picking a winner here is a matter of trying to figure out which team is less crushed and, on that basis, I suppose you have to favor the Netherlands.  It’s going to take more than a few days for Brazil to recover from the beating that they took at the hands of the Germans, and it’s not as if redemption is on offer for the hosts. A third-place finish will do nothing to salve their wounds and, with neither side having much to gain, I expect this to be a dull, lifeless affair.  1-0 to the Dutch.

Championship Game:

Germany vs. Argentina

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Argentina would win this tournament.  It’s tempting to stick with them, and there are good reasons to do so:  prior to 2010, no European team had ever won the World Cup outside of Europe, and when Spain finally broke that hex, they weren’t forced to overcome anyone with a home-continent advantage.  Argentina will enjoy vociferous support from a healthy compliment of blue and white clad travelling fans at the Maracana on Sunday.  Perhaps more significantly, they’ll have Lionel Messi.  It’s always nice to have the best player on the field on your side.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to want to re-think my original position in light of what Germany have done in their last two matches.  Anyone who’s ever tried sports, at any level, can attest to the supreme value of confidence.  The Germans have that in spades now, and they’ll also have the backing of the entire Brazilian nation, whose biggest nightmare is the thought of their neighbors lifting the trophy on their soil.

As important as Messi is, I think that Javier Maschiarano might play the most important role in Rio.  He’ll need to negate the excellent German midfield, while keeping an eye open toward launching counterattacks.  He’s a world-class defensive midfielder, but he’ll have his hands full here.

Without Angel di Maria to run at defenders, the Argentine attack has looked muted.  If Aguero is fit, look for some better movement from him to free up some space for Messi.

Argentina is an experienced team with an experienced manager, and they won’t be naïve here.  I expect them to keep things tight, but, in the end, I think that Germany will find a way to pull this one out.  1-0 to Germany.