Tag Archive for Brazil

The New York Times: A Dutch surprise

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 7 July 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/07/function-over-style-a-surprise-from-the-dutch/

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The Dutch are not behaving themselves. Just look at their victory over Uruguay. If someone had told you before the World Cup that the Netherlands would enjoy a 3-2 triumph at the semifinal stage, you’d imagine a game replete with skill and thrill.

But that’s not what we got. If this game resembled any kind of art, it was graffiti on a gray wall; the odd, vivid, angry outburst illuminating what would otherwise be gloom. This was typified by Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s opening goal: the ball rolled to him around 40 yards out, not as a result of a typically wondrous sequence of Dutch passing but as a hasty escape from a Uruguayan challenge. Well wide on the left, striding forward as if feeling the need to bring some beauty to what was banal, Bronckhorst crashed an astonishing drive — high, flat, and straight — in off the right-hand post.  Rarely this tournament has the Jabulani flown with such integrity.

Van Bronckhorst’s goal was, so the cliché goes, a goal fit to win any game, and for some time, the Dutch behaved as if it had. This is the only thing that can explain the complacent feet of their goalkeeper, Maarten Stekelenburg, who was too slow to shuffle across his area when Diego Forlán struck from distance in the 40th minute. The Netherlands, therefore, went into halftime haunted by familiar moments of capitulation, but to its credit it held unusually firm.  Just how unusual was typified by the two goals that the Dutch scored in the second half.  The first, a shot from Wesley Sneijder that ricocheted its way inside the far post, was not so much Total Football as Total Pinball; the second, from Arjen Robben, was, of all things, a header.

And that’s the odd thing about this most un-Dutch of World Cup campaigns.  No offense to Robben, whose range of attacking gifts is almost without parallel, but the only thing stranger than watching Robben score a header is, well, watching Sneijder score a header.  (Which, of course, he had done in the previous round against Brazil.)

So the Dutch are not behaving as expected.  Where is the highlight film from Robin van Persie, the elegance of Rafael van der Vaart?  While hardworking, they’ve barely scored or raised pulses between them. Their star player – apart from the irrepressible Sneijder, who has helped himself to five goals – has been Dirk Kuyt, which just about says it all.  Some footballers are Rolls Royces; Kuyt, purposeful and pragmatic, is a Range Rover.

It’s not as if the Dutch have been alone in being noncomformist. Take Brazil. Though it arrived in South Africa with the fanfare of the favorite, Brazil’s World Cup dreams abruptly turned out to be much vuvu about nothing. Take Germany. It was supposed to mount a cute but doomed assault upon the second round, but though its efficiency has surprised no one, its beauty has won it admiration.

It’s almost as if the Dutch have come this far by capturing that most German of concepts, the zeitgeist. Sensing that this would be a tournament in which the form guide would often be useless, they decided to play in a functional manner that no one would expect of them. They have been so successful doing so that they now find themselves on the brink of a World Cup wonderland. As Alice would say, “curiouser and curiouser.”

The New York Times: Júlio César Profile

This piece originally appeared in The New York Times Goal blog, on 2 June 2010.  The link is here: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/brazils-best-player-a-goalkeeper/

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“Brazil’s Best Player: A Goalkeeper?”

How did this happen?

No, not Brazil’s ranking among the favorites to win the World Cup. That’s absolutely fine. No, I mean the other thing. How is it that arguably Brazil’s best player, the player possibly most crucial to their championship hopes, is its goalkeeper?

A revered Brazilian goalkeeper was once as rare as a tapdancing fish. Aside from Gilmar, who won the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1958 and 1962, the position has often been seen — somewhat unfairly — as Brazil’s weakest link. In a nation where so many players shine with their feet, those who distinguish themselves with their hands have been forever second-class.

Yet Júlio César — his name appropriate for someone who may soon conquer the globe — has changed all that. A 30-year old who plays for Internazionale of Milan, he was in 2009 voted the best goalkeeper in Italy’s first division, traditionally the world’s most defensive league. But that, though impressive, is not his greatest accolade. The greatest proof of César’s ability is that Jose Mourinho, the high priest of defensive parsimony, trusted him.

Mourinho built his team upon the shot-stopping of César. In 2009-10, Internazionale won a treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and UEFA Champions League; in the latter tournament, Inter restricted Chelsea and Barcelona, who between them scored 201 goals in that year’s domestic leagues, to just three goals in four matches. This, by no coincidence, was a run that saw César at his most magnificent.

Perhaps, somewhere above South Africa, a ghost is giggling nervously to himself. Many years before the reign of César, in the 1940s and 1950s, Moacir Barbosa was once regarded as the world’s finest goalkeeper. However, his terrible error in the final match of the 1950 World Cup, in front of a record home crowd of 200,000, gave a 2-1 victory to Uruguay. The defeat gave rise to nationwide scenes akin to mourning, and Barbosa spent the rest of life as an outcast within his own country. Just weeks before his death, he remarked that “under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years, but my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”

In Roman times, a triumphant general would parade round his ecstatic city for a day, supposedly accompanied by a slave whose job it was to whisper in his ear that he was only mortal. Maybe, following César’s momentous club season, Barbosa’s ghost would like to whisper something similar, knowing how swiftly football’s fates can turn.

For the moment, though, these are remarkable times. Four years ago, few would have wagered that, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, Robinho would have fallen so woefully short of his erstwhile billing as “the new Pelé.” Fewer still would have wagered that Kaka would be emerging from perhaps the most ineffectual season of his stellar career. And fewest of all would have argued passionately that, in the Brazil team, the position of goalkeeper would be no longer one of irony, but one of iron.