Monday 19 March 2018

Dunga's world collapses in one moment of madness

Tommy Conlon

A t the interval Holland are a goal down, they've been completely outclassed and we're thinking, might as well tear up the betting slip now.

Not much point in waiting till it's over, this is a done deal. It doesn't matter that our 50 quid is not on the Netherlands; in fact it's on Spain. But Brazil have been so strong and so dominant that they've already got one foot in the final. Forty-five minutes left in this quarter-final, the winners of Uruguay-Ghana to come in the semi -- these boys are cruising.

What's more, they are serious. They are unrelenting. They are not here to entertain. Their coach laid down the law in this regard a long time ago. There isn't apparently a football hack in the world capable of talking about Brazil teams without invoking the old Samba soccer cliché. Dunga was clearly tired of it. Who knows, maybe he felt it was a stereotype that was past its sell-by date, an image of his countrymen that had become patronising.

The natural ball player found on a beach, the genius plucked from a favela, the daytime dazzler and nightclub romancer: ah yes, the boys from Brazil. They love to play with a smile on their faces, bless their childlike innocence. Dunga instead deliberately built a pragmatic, frills-free team, slanted towards caution not adventure. It was as if he was saying to the rest of the world, we're not the Harlem Globetrotters, why don't you play with a smile if you think it's so great? And it was all looking so good at half-time on Friday afternoon. They'd been rock-solid in defence: quick in the tackle, concentration immaculate, they didn't give the Dutch a sniff of a chance. Any time Kuyt, Robben or van Persie approached the penalty area, they were swiftly surrounded, outnumbered and hustled off the ball. At the other end, they had carved out several chances with their slick passing and sublime skills.

They had the ball in the net after eight minutes -- disallowed for a marginal offside. Never mind, they had it in the net again less than two minutes later and this one stood. They were brilliant on the counter-attack too, stretching the Dutch defence to the limit: Juan, Kaka and Maicon all had further chances.

Formidable at the back, dangerous in attack, and working to a team ethic drilled into them by Dunga, they made a good Dutch side seem ordinary. No other team looked so complete: Brazil were champions in waiting.

And then, seven minutes after half-time, out comes the goalkeeper Julio Cesar, flapping at a cross. Out of nothing, out of nowhere, the Netherlands have equalised. We don't know it then, but this World Cup has tilted irrevocably on its axis.

Instead we're thinking, that goal is down to individual error, the Dutch had sweet feck all to do with it. Brazil are too good, they have more goals in them. But the goal has given Holland a shot of adrenalin. Suddenly they find the conviction that had been missing. And next thing they have a second: a corner kick, a back-of-the-head glance from Kuyt and Sneijder nods it in. Brazil have been undone by a set piece straight out of the Stoke City playbook.

In the 15 minutes between the first and second goals, Brazil had started to fray. Now they started to unravel. It turned out that this omnipotent-looking team had a brittle streak. Who knew? The Dutch caught a lucky break and they discovered that their vaunted opponents could be got at -- suddenly they didn't look so formidable. It was a reiteration of one of the oldest values in sport: no matter how invincible a team looks, they should at least have their mettle tested. If you take the game to them, there's always a chance that they can be unnerved.

But if a team is supposed to reflect the personality of its manager, then this Brazil team was the exception. When Dunga captained his team to the 1994 World Cup crown, he was every inch the on-field general -- an authority figure, a unifying force.

On Friday, he watched from the sideline as his team cracked and disintegrated. It was an astonishing turnaround from that first half. Having been so superior, maybe they decided that the Dutch couldn't possibly muster a reply. And when it happened, they couldn't cope.

Dunga is facing an inferno back in Brazil. The country sent one of the biggest press packs to South Africa -- about 700 in total. "And about 300 of them," said the manager, "are waiting for the team to lose." The said 300, and maybe many more besides, weren't happy with his chosen style of play either. They wanted the Samba soccer. They wanted free expression, not just on the field but off it too.

For the first time in Brazil's tournament history, the manager had shut down access to the media. Training sessions were closed, exclusive interviews were banned, co-operation was minimised. Traditionally, Brazilian players were always easygoing, available for a chat. Dunga's regime had a touch of the Englands about it. Maybe it didn't suit them, maybe the fabled fear infected his players too.

But it wasn't evident in that first half on Friday. They were on course, looking good, set fair for the final -- until Julio Cesar chose that fateful moment to come out waving to his mother.

Sunday Independent

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