Brazil's record of having appeared in every World Cup finals is still in the balance after their 2-1 defeat at the hands of Argentina, who have now qualified for 2002, here on Wednesday night.
The result leaves the 1998 World Cup finalists in fourth place in the South American qualifying group, level on points with Uruguay with three matches remaining; only the first four qualify automatically, with the fifth-placed having to play-off against Australia.
Afterwards, the Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari made it emphatically clear that the so-called Beautiful Game – the term often used to describe Brazil's artistic style – is dead.
"Who plays attractive football today? The Netherlands? Germany?" he asked, referring to the Dutch failure to qualify for 2002 and the Germans' likely trip to the play-offs.
He also complained that his players had not done enough time-wasting. "We're not committing fouls at the right time," said Scolari, explaining why his side had caved in to Argentina's second-half pressure. "Sometimes you should fall on the floor, or pick up a yellow card." The defeat, however, leaves many of his compatriots arguing that there are plenty of more urgent requirements in Scolari's Brazil. One Rio newspaper described the team as "an emblem of football cowardice" after a performance of little ambition and even less to enthuse about.
All this came after Brazil took a bizarre lead from the game's first attack. Roberto Carlos's long throw was flicked on at the near post by Argentina's Roberto Ayala, and the goalkeeper German Burgos, perhaps unsettled by the swirling wind, allowed it to drift over the line. Presented with such a gift, Brazil could have treated it as a platform on which to express themselves. Instead they sat back and allowed the hosts to find their form.
It took a while. Argentina badly missed the suspended Juan Sebastian Veron, whose mobility and strength on the ball knit together the team's attacking play. His role fell to Pablo Aimar, who looked lightweight by comparison. Veron's absence, and respect for his opponent, caused the Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa to meddle with his system. In for the injured Juan Pablo Sorin came Diego Placente, with a brief to halt Brazil's progress down the right flank. But he disappeared in the space between defence and midfield, and Argentina's pressing game suffered as a result.
Bielsa was quick to correct the faults. Placente was taken off at half-time, Aimar soon followed. On came Ariel Ortega and Marcelo Gallardo. They reverted to their usual 3-3-1-3, and suddenly the ball was never out of the Brazilian half.
Argentina's complex and eccentric coach is a firm believer in the value of attackers in wide positions, and his faith was born out in the last half hour.
Ortega's floated cross from the right was headed home by Gallardo for the equaliser. And with six minutes remaining a long ball down the left put Claudio Lopes in behind Cafu. Ortega and Brazil's Cris stretched to connect to his cross, and it seemed that the defender applied the crucial blow that sent the ball into the net and won the game for the hosts.
Argentina took a lap of honour to celebrate both their qualification and avenging the only defeat suffered in this superb campaign. Brazil trudged off the field knowing there is work to be done if they are to maintain their record of having appeared in every World Cup.
Wins at home to Chile and Venezuela should be good enough to take Brazil to Asia. And if they are unable to make home advantage count against the bottom two teams in the group, they hardly deserve to go to the World Cup.Reuse content