Just one game away from a World Cup final in the Maracana and an opportunity to finally heal 64 years of pain, Brazil is still struggling to overcome the loss of their talisman.
For more than a year, Brazil’s desperation to put right a defeat to Uruguay in the decisive match in 1950 has centered on one man: Neymar. Now heading into the two decisive, toughest matches of that quest, the one player in this current team who still embodies the instinctive skills displayed by Brazilians across the country on beaches and in the favelas will be absent.
With less than five minutes remaining of a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Colombia, the exuberant forward received a knee to his back from opposition defender Juan Zuniga that left him howling in pain. For the 22-year-old, a competition for which he has long been the poster boy, carrying the weight of a most-demanding nation, was now over.
It is a competition for which he already gave plenty, scoring four goals and providing the corner from which Brazil went in front in their quarterfinal. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari did not attempt to hide the scale of the loss, calling it a “catastrophe.” Brazil now have to win without him. On Tuesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil has to beat Germany without him.
The loss of Brazil’s one player capable of consistently getting fans off their seats with his brilliance is a cruel irony for the hosts. Scolari’s team are a dramatic departure from the Brazil that wowed the world with its brilliance en route to lifting the World Cup in 1970, or even the thrilling 1982 side widely regarded as the best ever not to claim the trophy. The 2014 version is one unlikely to inspire imitations among children across Brazil and across the globe.
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No, the quarterfinal win over Colombia was a new benchmark for a Brazil team based on counter-attacking, tactical fouling and cynicism. There were plenty of signs of those tactics in last year’s Confederations Cup, but it has taken on a harsher tone as the stakes have gotten higher in this World Cup. In both the Round of 16 match against Chile and then the quarterfinal against Colombia, Fernandinho set an early tone by leaving his mark on an opponent after the ball had gone. Throughout both games, the opposition team’s star man, Alexis Sanchez of Chile and James Rodríguez of Colombia, was the target for repeated fouling. Each match saw new benchmarks for the number of total fouls during this World Cup, with Brazil leading the way on both occasions. In all South American battles, Brazil’s opponents followed their neighbors lead and the referees failed to take command. It wasn’t quite the infamous battle of Santiago from the 1962 World Cup, but beautiful it was not.
People will have different opinions about the morality of such tactics, but there is no doubt that it smacks of hypocrisy when Brazil now complain about their star player being the target of roughhousing. Brazil have paid a huge price for a battle they began.
The match against Colombia perhaps shocked some who cling to the idea of Brazil still embodying o jogo bonito. Yet, the fact is that the Brazilians have been moving away from that idealized image for some time now, and it is just unfortunate that is has reached its nadir with the World Cup back on its own soil. Perhaps Scolari’s tactics are, albeit cynically, simply maximizing a limited team’s chances of lifting the trophy.
There is, of course, thankfully more to Brazil’s game than just fouling and there were some encouraging signs against Colombia. When Brazil play at a ferocious tempo as they did early on in their quarterfinal and as they did to start many of their matches in the Confederations Cup, they are a difficult prospect. A talented Colombia could not handle them. The problem comes when that pace drops and it becomes a more technical, tactical matchup. Brazil then look incredibly ordinary. A team heavy on athletic, powerful players lacks the quality on the ball to control the pace of the game. Against both Chile and Colombia, Brazil took the lead after a fast start but were pegged back when their intensity dropped.
The strength of their defense has gone a long way to seeing them through so far. Against Germany, though, the rock at the heart of their back four, Thiago Silva, will be missing. Bayern Munich’s Dante will step in, but it is another huge blow.
Germany then must surely come into their semifinal with confidence. Yet, like Brazil, they will also be playing under intense pressure. Germany are in a record fourth-straight World Cup semifinal but that consistency will count for little if they bow out and continue their recent reputation as the nearly men of the international game. With a hugely talented selection of players, head coach Joachim Löw is now expected to deliver a trophy to a country that once won them with incredible efficiency and regularity, but is in the midst of an 18-year drought when they took home the European title.
Encouragingly for Löw, his side head into the semifinal on the back of their best performance since an opening 4-0 drubbing of Portugal. Against France in the quarterfinals, Löw went back on his word and put captain Philipp Lahm in his traditional right-back slot, while playing Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger together in midfield. The change worked out. Lahm contributed much, both defensively and offensively, down the right flank while Germany crucially got the better of a talented and physical French midfield. The margin of victory was just 1-0, but it was a win that rarely looked in doubt.
It would be a major surprise were Löw not to go with the same formula again against Brazil, with the only change perhaps being whether Miroslav Klose continues to lead the line.
There is no doubt that Germany have better players than Brazil. Everything being equal, it would be hard to bet against Löw’s side coming out on top. Their midfield should be able to handle the physicality of Brazil, while having more ability on the ball, and Germany also have far more talent going forward.
And yet, Brazil just might, somehow, pull off another victory. Clearly the loss of Neymar greatly hurts Brazil’s creativity and ability to capitalize on their counter attacks. But what it also might do is improve them when they don’t have the ball. The one change from the successful Confederations Cup side has been Scolari’s decision to move Neymar into a central role and shift Oscar out wide. While it has perhaps enabled Neymar to become more of an influence, it has also made the midfield more lightweight. Throughout the tournament, Brazil’s midfield has often been ludicrously open, always providing their opponents opportunities.
Without Neymar, the more defensively sound Oscar is likely to be brought back into the middle. Willian may well be the man to replace Neymar, and, as he has shown with Chelsea this season, he is dedicated in tracking back and well equipped to play in a counter-attacking side. Willian and Hulk also have the pace to catch out a Germany backline that, while much better against France, is still vulnerable to players running in behind.
Brazil will hope it is a match decided between the ears rather than with the feet. Far from the ruthless machines of decades past, this Germany team has often appeared to be lacking mental resolve when it matters most. In contrast, Scolari has infused his side with real belief, which just might enable another narrow win that again will be far from pretty.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Germany
When and where: The 2014 World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Germany will kick off from the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte at 4 p.m. ET.