Nice to know there’s one thing you can count on at this topsy-turvy World Cup.
For all this wailing and moaning about Brazil ditching its “beautiful game,” the five-time champs sure looked pretty running over Ivory Coast on Sunday. Sure, the first goal was brute force, the second one involved two unpunished handballs, but the third was so pretty even Pele would be proud.
The theme so far in South Africa is survival. Spain came in as a favorite and promptly lost its first game. England was forced to hold a team meeting after two listless draws. Netherlands is through to the knockout round, but has impressed few with workmanlike performances in its forgettable first two games.
Brazil, however, is living up to its advance billing.
“Brazil can go all the way,” Ivory Coast coach Sven-Goran Eriksson said. “To beat Brazil you must be almost perfect.”
Brazil coach Dunga has set off a national debate with his shift to a more defensive style, and snub of the great Ronaldinho. Brazil, fans cried, isn’t Brazil without its trademark flair and free-flowing style.
But there’s a method to his madness. Ronaldinho and Co. had some of the prettiest moves four years ago in Germany, yet they were on their way home after the quarterfinals. Dunga, meanwhile, was part of that hard-nosed team that won the 1994 World Cup. Beauty is irrelevant if no one’s watching you.
Besides, it’s not as if Brazil has morphed into an ugly football team. It’s the true definition of a team, and one that plays a complete game.
The defense simply strong-arms anyone who dares get in its way. Burly Maicon may as well be a man playing among boys for the imposing force that he is, and the next person who beats Lucio will be the first. Ivory Coast did have a couple of threats on counterattacks, but there was always a feeling they were futile, that Brazil would find a way to turn the attacker around or force an off-balance shot.
Yes, the stat sheet will show that Didier Drogba scored. Made Brazil look silly, too, with a perfect header off a give-and-go with Gervinho. But Drogba’s goal in the 79th minute was the definition of garbage time, with Brazil’s mind already on its travel itinerary for the round of 16.
At one point in the second half, the Brazilians looked like cats playing with hapless mice. Clustered at midfield, Ivory Coast would no sooner close in than the Brazilian who had the ball would deftly send it to a teammate. Though Brazil barely advanced the ball, it was mesmerizing to watch and the Ivorians could do nothing to disrupt it.
And that goal by Elano? What a beauty.
Charging down the left sideline with an Ivory Coast defender hard on his heels, Kaka made a silky-smooth cross to Elano. Ivory Coast goalkeeper Boubacar Barry never had a chance as Elano played a perfect volley with the side of his left foot from 10 yards out. Players can practice that shot 1,000 times and never make it. Yet Elano made it look as effortless as dribbling.
Even Luis Fabiano’s handball can be overlooked among the rest of his jaw-dropping artistry. He passed the ball to himself twice, chested it and then banged it into the goal with a hard left-footed shot. It was more than a little reminiscent of Pele’s “Sombrero” at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Yet the most impressive thing about Brazil is that we haven’t seen its best. Not even close.
More than a few of Brazil’s passes were off the mark. Kaka is still recovering from the groin and thigh problems that sidelined him for big chunks of the season at Real Madrid. Though much more effective Sunday than in Brazil’s first game against North Korea—he also set up Luis Fabiano’s first goal—he’s creating plays for his teammates more than dazzling by himself.
Brazil is winning. And that is a beautiful thing.