It’s happening again. Brazil vs Paraguay: at this stage, it’s essentially one long penalty shootout with occasional interruptions for football. And for the Seleção, the memories are about as happy as your average funeral.
2011 was the nadir: four spot-kicks, zero goals, infinite doom. Elano’s shot recently completed its third lap of the solar system, say NASA; the rest were not a great deal better. Brazil at least managed to score a couple in 2015, but not as many as Paraguay. And now Roberto Firmino has just shanked his penalty miles wide, all of those old demons are banging on the door, giggling with lunatic glee.
It’s happening again. Right?
“Maturity,” Tite said on the eve of the game. Maturity would be key if Brazil didn’t score early. “We have 90 minutes to win the game, maybe 95.” But we’re now in the 97th minute and there’s no way through. Gatito Fernández, the Little Cat, is saving everything.
Still, at least there’s extra ti... no, wait, there is no extra time in this round. God knows why. And only God knows why the grass at the Arena do Grêmio is so bad. It’s like a ploughed field in places, which suits Paraguay’s agricultural style rather more than it does Brazil.
Actually, ‘agricultural’ is probably a bit off. It contains the word ‘cultural’, for a start, and this is nothing of the sort. Paraguay are more industrial, all clanking parts and blank disregard for the basic currencies of humanity. They kick anything that moves, this lot. They are, to use a technical term, absolute bastards. They are also following their gameplan perfectly.
The teams are out for the anthems, but you wouldn’t know that from the hubbub in the lower stand. The photographers are all aiming away from the pitch, up to a screened-off VIP section. Who are they looking at, exactly? Casemiro? Gabriel Medina, the surfer?
Ah, no, that’ll be it: it’s Neymar. The elephant in the room is actually in the room, wearing a naff NBA jacket and presumably, as the game wears on, a concerned frown. Brazil are huffing and puffing. He can’t do anything but huff and puff along with them.
There were a few furtive whispers, before the start of this tournament, to the effect that Brazil could be better off without Neymar. His absence from the team, ran the argument, was a reasonable price to pay for losing the whole roadshow that revolves round him – the needy father, the obsequious parças, the nagging headlines.
All of that is a distraction, make no mistake. But what a colossal miss he is on the field of play. In a game like this one, his quick thinking and sheer technical superiority could have made all the difference. Brazil were fine, in the main, but just a little too polite. Love him or loathe him, that is not something you could ever say about Neymar.
Is that... a swimming cap that he’s wearing? It might be, you know. Which is appropriate, because he looks awfully out of his depth in these opening minutes. Oh, for Fernandinho to be fit. Oh, for Casemiro to be... whatever the opposite of suspended is.
And, let’s be completely honest, oh for Fabinho. Seriously, where on earth is the defensive midfielder – SLASH RIGHT-BACK, ANOTHER POSITION IN WHICH BRAZIL ARE SHORT – whose cool, controlled performances helped his side to the Champions League last season? Answer: probably on a beach somewhere. But he should be playing here.
Filipe Luís and Daniel Alves
Filipe Luís was one of Brazil’s best players in the first half, but he picked up a knock and had to come off. There was no sulking in the stands, though: the squad’s premier Evan Dando look-alike spent chunks of the second half out in the technical area, handing out drinks and geeing up team-mates. He has developed into a real leader in this squad.
That the same applies to Daniel Alves is obvious. He is the heartbeat of the side, the compass. And while he too came off before the final whistle, no one watched the penalty shootout with quite the same level of involvement; when Paraguay missed their first kick, he worked his way down the long line of substitutes and backroom staff watching on from the sideline, giving every single one of them a high five. He looked like he was in a trance.
I’ve seen some bizarre blurbs on player ratings in my time, but “literally quarantined with mumps” is a new one.
He waits. That’s what he does. Tick follows tock follows tick follows tock. He has had nothing – almost literally nothing – to do in the entire game. The entire tournament, really. And yet when the moment comes, he is ready. Derlis González fully expects the roof of the net to bulge when he connects with sledgehammer force from 10 yards, but he springs to his left, tipping the ball around the post.
Later, he will repeat the trick in the penalty shootout, denying the usually reliable Gustavo Gómez. “A-li-sson!” the crowd will chant, and when the cards fall, he will smile the smile of a guardian angel, gently warmed by the inner peace that only comes from being really, really, really good at your job.
You’ve had one of those nights – not the good kind. Lots of running, lots of effort, but no real end product. You have now played 657 minutes of tournament football for your country, scoring precisely zero goals. You do not need telling that that is a lot of minutes.
You had a chance to change the record in the final moments of the previous game, from the penalty spot. You missed. By your own admission, your anxiety got the better of you.
So when your manager asks for volunteers in the shootout, what do you do? Correct: you stick your hand up, take a deep breath and trust your quality. Your nerve, too.
And you score.
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