Brazil still had the reputation for playing a distinctly flamboyant, attack-minded style coming into the 2014 World Cup. They didn’t just win, the myth went, they won with flair and a boatload of goals.
That myth has come undone at this World Cup.
All three goals Brazil has scored in the knockout stage have come on corners or free kicks. They have committed and suffered more fouls than any team in the tournament. Their quarterfinal match against Colombia was a foul fest culminating in a tournament-ending back injury to Neymar — the only player who embodied that traditional Brazilian style.
In reality we should have seen this coming. Back in December, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari did an interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times where he essentially disowned the idea of “playing beautifully” for the sake of playing beautifully.
His justification for the team’s current style makes total sense:
“I am criticised in Brazil for saying what I think, but I believe if you can’t play beautifully and win, you need to play in another way. You need to play ugly. For me, playing beautifully and winning is great but playing beautifully and losing is horrible. Whoever says the opposite is an idiot.”
“If we can, we will play the beautiful game and win. If not, we will just win.”
Brazil have been just winning this tournament.
To some extent, this has been the dominant philosophy in this tournament. Germany is not the same freewheeling team we saw in 2006 and 2010. Coach Jogi Loew is playing four centerbacks and the Germans have been winning without their usual degree of aesthetic quality. Argentina has won three of its five games 1-0. Even the U.S. — with a revolutionary coach who’d preached an attacking mindset for years — opted for pragmatism and took a conservative approach when push came to shove.
It’s not really the end of joga bonito. It’s the end of a specific kind of idealism in which style is just as important as results.
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