Whether or not Group G was this World Cup’s Group of Death, it appears to have taken place in 1966, at Goodison Park, with Eusebio scoring every goal. The game Lineker and co. are expecting is taking place in some fantasy world far from the realities of the group table. No-one is saying Brazil v Portugal is destined to be as bad as it turns out. But there are clues. Brazil are through. Portugal need a point, or at least to lose by not many. Both sides have changed nearly half their teams. Brazil’s strengths are supposedly their two holding midfielders, the best goalkeeper in the world and a boring manager who’s built the team in his own image. And Portugal have kept a thousand clean sheets in their last thousand and three games.
Yet virtually all of this is overlooked in favour of more clips of Eusebio (didn’t he run funny!!) and the usual Pele bits from 1970 – believe me, you know the ones. “You can’t tire of seeing that sort of stuff,” insists Shearer, incorrectly. There’s friction between Clarence Seedorf and Hansen over the relative merits of Cristiano Bloody Ronaldo (CBR). Seedorf claims CBR can’t “carry a struggling team on his shoulders.” Hansen counter-claims that CBR did it at Old Trafford for three years. It will be news to Man Yoo fans that their team were “struggling.” The basis of this friction is the access Seedorf has to all the star names at the tournament, access and recognition that Hansen and Shearer can only ever dream of. Seedorf has spent a fortnight showing them up…in his second language, too. They’re miffed. But you still wonder how they could all, Seedorf too, be so wrong about today. “Anything less than 4-4 and you can sue,” says Lineker, which is inane twaddle even for him. Even I’ve written “but they’re two changed teams who are already qualified,” and, as you’re probably asking yourselves, what do I know about football?” Jonathan Pearce is little better. “Sundrenched,” “throbbing,” “samba,” “sumptuous,” “flair,” “style,” and “grace the final” all get an airing within seconds, and he’s not introducing Mick McCarthy.
Then… nothing happens. At all. Until midway through the half when Brazil centre-half Juan tips the ball round the proverbial post to stop CBR racing in on goal. Juan only gets a yellow when the picture would be perfect for an illustrated version of the law dealing with denying goalscoring opportunities. Both Pearce and McCarthy furiously excuse the referee’s mistake – as if it was Howard Webb with the whistle. CBR is either “too high up the pitch” or not “running down the middle.” But if he’s unable to fashion a clear goalscoring opportunity from there, Real Madrid deserve a refund. After 27 minutes, it eventually dawns on someone in a BBC shirt – almost inevitably McCarthy – that “they’re not going to kill themselves for a result here,” though Felipe Melo and Pepe might. Shearer later bemoans the seven first-half yellow cards (“there hasn’t been a bad challenge in the game”), but he’s clearly in the toilet when Melo and Pepe get together – Pepe’s stamp on Melo’s ankle looking more gruesome in slo-mo than a Jon Dahl Tomasson miss.
McCarthy tries to disapprove; this is the BBC, after all. But he can’t disguise his dark admiration at the tackle that gets Melo booked (I didn’t hear Lineker refer to “Melo getting a yellow” but you can bet he though about it). “He nails him,” McCarthy declares, a smile in his voice for the first time in the match, “caught him good and proper.” Melo is almost immediately, and very wisely, substituted. Portugal’s Eduardo pushes a Nilmar shot onto the post and Luis Fabiano heads wide from close range. But that’s it for first half chances. “They’ve let us down,” says Hansen, upset that the teams have put qualification ahead of the need to entertain him. If anything, the second half is a shade worse. Both sides have settled for 0-0, although one or two Portuguese have momentary lapses of memory, notably CBR, who creates a couple of chances.
One is for Raul Meireles, who covers sixty yards quicker than CBR himself but Julio Cesar brilliantly saves his effort – all the pundits criticise Meireles for the miss, seemingly unconcerned that the ref’s given a corner. McCarthy calls it “parasite football,” by which he means Portugal are looking to feed off Brazilian mistakes. But it could just as easily be rhyming slang by this stage. Pearce has long since given up, and starts comparing the Jabulani match ball to “the ones you used to buy at a petrol station.” Perhaps conscious that he’s done this before, he adds a story about the ball ending up in rosebushes and his dad mending it and…Pearce even gives up on the tale at this point, which is a sort of relief. McCarthy is cheered up by a tackle between Ricardo Carvalho and Julio Baptista that makes my telly shake. But everyone wants this one to end, the vuvuzelas being occasionally drowned out by booing, mostly by Alan Hansen. Pearce is so keen for the final whistle that he gets righteously indignant about the five minutes stoppage time to be added on. “There’s been nothing in this half,” he claims, clean forgetting five substitutions and some extensive treatment to Julio Cesar which involved removing about four vests. “He only added one minute in the first half, and there were seven yellow cards,” Pearce continues, believing for no clear reason that thirty seconds should be added on for bookings.
Eduardo saves a deflected shot by clumsy Brazilian sub Ramirez and the Group of Death is over. It’s McCarthy’s last game, which suggests that he’s off home while Martin Keown and/or Mark Bright… aren’t. His last words are a comment on a clash for the ball between Julio Cesar and Portugal’s Danny: “Now will you go to church.” No, me neither. I know I go on about them, sometimes at the expense of the match (although that’s a good decision here, I’d suggest). But it is hard to imagine such incompetent punditry in other areas of the BBC. It is as if Robert Peston and Hugh Pym debated on-screen the merits of increased public sector spending prior to Osborne’s budget. Brazil v Portugal was so tight even Dunga got frustrated. But even this match deserved better punditry than this.
Thanks once again go to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.