Never meet your heroes, they say. It is possible that a lot of people met theirs yesterday in the form of the 2010 version of the Brazilian national football team. A team that was widely-tipped to win the competition is out at the quarter-final stage for the second time in a row, and it seems unlikely that many people will actually miss them that much. On more or less any other day of the tournament – of any tournament – this would have been big, big news. Events in Port Elizabeth were overshadowed by what was to follow in the evening, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth having a quick look at how they managed to get things wrong.
They hadn’t been firing on all cylinders in their previous matches, but the assumption was that they had plenty more in the tank. They had showed their brilliance sporadically, but there were indicators that not all was not right in the Brazilian camp in their previous performances. The laboured win against a North Korea side that showed something of their true colours in conceding ten goals against Portugal and the Ivory Coast, a lifeless goalless draw against Portugal in their final match – the clues were there. Perhaps we were choosing to not see them. What we can say for certain is that they needed to raise their game against superior opposition. We thought that they had more in the tank, but they didn’t.
Still, however, it seemed to be plain sailing yesterday afternoon, especially after Robinho gave them a first half lead with a goal of stunning simplicity after just ten minutes. Eight minutes into the second half, though, came the turning point of the match with the equalising Dutch goal, an own goal from Felipe Melo. It was a most curious goal, a cross from the right hand side that Melo deflected past the onrushing Julio Cesar. Whose fault was it? At first it looked as if Cesar had made a horrendous mistake, but the replays confirmed Melo nicking the ball away from him at the final second. Did he call for the ball? If so, was the call loud enough? A lot of opinions of Cesar as the best goalkeeper in the world disappeared in a puff of smoke at that moment.
From then on, Brazilian minds seemed to start wandering, as if a fog of self-doubt descended over them with Melo and Cesar’s mix-up. The Netherlands started pushing on for the win, and mid-way through the half, Wesley Sneijder was given the freedom of the Brazilian penalty area to snatch the lead for the Dutch. It was more poor Brazilian defending. The move was telegraphed, with Dirk Kuyt moving to the near post for the flick, but his marker stayed static. That it was Sneijder, the smallest player on the pitch, who scored was almost as much as we needed to know about Brazil’s defending at that particular set piece. The sending off of Melo five minutes later was little more than a nail in the coffin, and rather than being pinned back in defence, the Netherlands looked as likely as not to extend their lead in the final ten minutes.
Hindsight gives us twenty/twenty vision of course, and Brazil’s defeat had been as signposted as Englands or Frances. In picking a dour and practical squad for the tournament and leaving out such players as Alexandre Pato and Adriano, Dunga left himself no margin for area. Brazilians expect their team to win the World Cup, and they hope that they will do it in style. If we remove the style from that equation, all there is left is the requirement to win. That Dunga has confirmed that he will be resigning less than twenty-four hours after the match might even indicate that he realises the scope of his miscalculation.
In addition to this, he alienated the press with his removal of the almost completely open access that they are so used to. This, with seven hundred members of the fourth estate in town, was also a mistake. The little room that he may have had for manoeuvre vanished with that move, and before a ball had even been kicked. They had to win the tournament, and that was that. Nothing less than that would suffice, and what is startling about Dunga’s misjudgement is that he didn’t have to do it. The Dutch coach, Bert Van Marwijk, could be forgiven for applying a pragmatic approach. A country with a population of just over 16.5m people may have to make sacrifices of a stylistic nature in order to be successful. Brazil, with a population of 192m people and possibly the vastest footballing resources on the planet really had no such justification.
To that extent, Dunga was hoist by his own petard, wrapped up in a straitjacket of his own creation. Dunga by name, Dopey by nature. For the rest of Brazilian football, though, there will perhaps now be a sigh of relief. At least he has had his spell in charge prior to their hosting of the 2014 World Cup finals. With qualification for that tournament not required, his replacement will only have the 2011 Copa America and the 2013 Confederations Cup to fine-tune his team in a truly competitive environment. The good news for Brazilian football supporters is that the vast resources are still there, and all that is needed for them to reclaim their aura of invincibility is for the new coach to husband these resources successfully.