Neymar will miss the rest of the 2014 World Cup after Colombia’s Juan Zuniga delivered a knee to his back Friday in the quarterfinals, resulting in a fractured vertebrae. All of Brazil is in a state of panic about the injury, and why shouldn’t it be? Playing a decidedly non-joga bonito style at the tournament, Neymar has been the offense, the joy for Brazil.
Everyone in Brazil might be panicked except for one man, the man who really matters: Felipe Luiz Scolari. Sure, Big Phil might wipe his brow in a theatrical face palm, as cameras caught him doing in Friday’s 2-1 Brazil win over Colombia in the quarterfinals, but the former World Cup-winning coach certainly won’t panic, even if the crowd Tuesday in Belo Horizonte spends most of the semifinal vs. Germany chanting Neymar’s name.
Bear in mind the idealistic notion of “Brazilian soccer” was never going to apply at this tournament, where all that matters for the hosts is winning by any means necessary. Eight years ago Brazil played a Round of 16 match with Kaka, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Ronaldo all on the field vs. Ghana in a 3-0 win. Friday vs. Colombia, Brazil completed 79 percent of its passes and committed 31 fouls, as the pragmatic approach manifested itself in Fortaleza. Even in that cynical foul fest, Neymar was Brazil’s most important creator, free-ranging “defender” David Luiz aside.
Neymar, of course, displayed the individual brilliance at times to offset the cynical play and made people remember Brazil is still the Brazil of yore.
Now? Based on a look back at its five games, Brazil might be among the least enthralling teams of the tournament:
- Match No. 1: An unconvincing 3-1 win over Croatia was overshadowed by a dubious flop in the box to win a penalty by Fred.
- Match No. 2: A 0-0 draw with Mexico is remembered for Guillermo Ochoa’s saves, not Brazil’s performance.
- Match No. 3: A 4-1 win over Cameroon, which now has match-fixing whispers swirling about it.
- Match No. 4: A drab win in penalty kicks over Chile, where the underdogs came within inches of knocking the hosts out.
- Match No. 5: A functional 2-1 win over Colombia that featured the most fouls of any game in the tournament (54), which left Colombia breakout star James Rodriguez in tears.
The thing of it is, Brazil is playing the World Cup in 2014 like most teams approach tournament/knockout soccer. All those matches I listed? They’re not going to matter — mere footnotes in history — should Brazil beat Germany and then get past Argentina or the Netherlands in Sunday’s final.
Critics will hurl insults at Brazil’s tactical fouling or bemoan referee Carlos Velasco Carballo’s utter lack of competency in the Colombia match. Eight days from now, if Brazil is hoisting the World Cup trophy at the Maracanã, Scolari and the nation of nearly 200 million aren’t going to worry about those fouls vs. Colombia or the post Chile hit in the 120th minute. Style points are nice and everyone tends to romanticize elegant losers like the Dutch in 1972, but in the end the World Cup is about winning — exaggerate that cliche about 1,000 times for Brazil playing on homesoil. Brazil, should it sew a sixth star onto its famed yellow jersey, won’t really care how it was achieved.
There’s a reason that the goals have dried up in Brazil as we forge deeper into July. The free-flowing knockout stage produced an eye-popping 2.8 goals per match. That figure is down to 1.9 per match in the 12 knockout round matches. Three of the four quarterfinals finished 1-0. This part of the reason I wrote earlier this year that often World Cup soccer — the game-action itself — can be off-putting for casual soccer viewers since so much is at stake for teams involved. The drama is high. The passion plays of a nation exist, but the wide-open soccer might be limited to Luiz’s often insane romps forward into the attack.
This game-in, game-out grinding approach is why it’s foolish to write off Brazil even without Neymar or captain Thiago Silva vs. Germany, regardless of how efficient Jogi Löw’s team looked on the Fourth of July vs. France in the quarterfinals. The return of Luiz Gustavo from suspension, alongside Fernandinho in the Brazil midfield shouldn’t allow the German precision possession game much freedom to operate as it has for most of the tournament.
Scolari will opt for a like-for-like Neymar replacement, starting the diminutive Bernard. The better option would be Chelsea winger/attacking midfielder Willian, who has the directness and pace to worry the German defense. Whomever Scolari used to replace Neymar, onus is going to fall on the misfiring Fred or Hulk to produce a goal, because counting on another Luiz knuckleball from distance is exceedingly unlikely. Oscar, mostly quiet so far at the World Cup, could step into a leading role vs. the Germans. It also helps Brazil that, odds are, it’ll continue to receive a favorable whistle from the officials.
Brazil’s game-plan will be altered but it won’t radically shift, as it continues to play for the win by any means necessary. Without Neymar, it’s almost assuredly playing for a one-goal win, probably off a set piece or some sort of a goal-mouth scramble. … Brazil 2, Germany 1