The sight of Julio Baptista, the toothless "Beast", on the Brazilian team-sheet in place of the suspended Kaka was a bad sign. It proved prescient. The blame could not all be laid at the lumbering Arsenal flop, but Brazil were nevertheless held to a rare goalless draw, their first in a group stage match since 1982. Both sides thus progress to last 16 ties on Tuesday.
"It was a feast of football," said Carlos Quieroz, the Portugal coach who presumably learned the art of post-match double-talk at the side of Sir Alex Ferguson. "We are not happy, we always play to win," said Dunga, the Brazil coach. He added: "Portugal wanted to draw. We tried to attack in the last five minutes and Portugal did not, they just tried to defend."
This was a fair description of the last five minutes, but not of the preceding 85. Though Dunga insisted "my team is always ready to attack" it would not be an exaggeration to say Portugal were held to a goalless draw by Brazil as Julio Cesar was the busier goalkeeper. Only once in the regulation 90 minutes was Eduardo stretched, when making a brilliant save from Nilmar on the half-hour.
Otherwise the most entertaining Brazilian on the turf (and this includes Pepe playing for Portugal) was Dunga, whose histrionics on the touchline made it very clear he was less than impressed. Spurred on by his anger Brazil did push forward in the later stages but while the Portuguese goalkeeper was drawn into a superb fingertip save that was only because Ramires' shot had been deflected.
The first period at least had bite, if not much beauty. The Mexican referee booked seven and the likelihood of the match finishing with 22 players seemed slim. A series of vendettas appeared to be being played out individually and collectively between Portugal and its former colony. Felipe Melo even had to be withdrawn before the break by Dunga for fear of his being dismissed as he conducted a running battle with Pepe.
There must have been stern words from the coaches at half-time, and perhaps a reminder that a suspended player may not regain his place, because after the break tempers were calmed. The problem was the game became becalmed. With Ivory Coast increasingly unlikely to score the 10 or so goals they required in the other group match Portugal, who had made most of the first-half running, drew back the wagons.
After that, as Dunga said, even the suspended Kaka and injured Elano would have struggled to make a difference, though he conceded that Robinho, who was rested, might have with his dribbling. Portugal, for their part, made four personnel changes and a significant positional one, Cristiano Ronaldo being deployed at centre-forward.
It soon became clear they intended to deal with the joint threat of Maicon and Dani Alves on Brazil's right flank by attacking it with Duda, Raul Meireles and Fabio Coentrao all making inroads down the wing. With Lucio drawn out of the centre to cover possibilities abounded but Julio Cesar was able to deal with most crosses, and Tiago volleyed wide when the delivery was out of his reach.
Ronaldo's unshakable confidence encouraged him to shoot continually from wildly optimistic ranges, despite no evidence whatsoever that he has managed to master the troublesome Jabulani ball. He was a greater threat when he carried the ball, gliding past Juan after 58 minutes and putting Lucio under so much pressure the usually composed defender could only poke the ball towards Raul Meireles. Under courageous pressure from Julio Cesar the midfielder shot wide.
That was largely that until injury-time when Eduardo saved Ramires' deflected shot and Danny, handed possession by the error-prone Juan, was again bravely denied by Julio Cesar.
There were boos as well as cheers at the end but Brazil did not leave Natal without making some friends. On Thursday, when they trained in the tough, crime-riven KwaMashu township, they opened the gates to allow spectators in.
"Football is the people's joy," said Dunga last night, "especially at a World Cup, and this was a unique opportunity to provide this joy, in a black township where these disadvantaged kids had never had such an opportunity."
Portugal (4-5-1): Eduardo; Ricardo Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrao; Pepe (Pedro Mendes, 64); Danny, Tiago, Raul Meireles (Miguel Veloso, 84), Duda (Simao, 54); Ronaldo.
Brazil (4-2-2-2): Julio Cesar; Maicon, Lucio, Juan, Michel Bastos; Gilberto, Felipe Melo (Josue, 44); Dani Alves, Julio Baptista (Ramires, 82); Nilmar, Luis Fabiano (Grafite, 85).
Referee B Archundia (Mexico).