I am writing this preview in Port Elizabeth to the glorious sounds of Brazil fans playing samba outside, and Dutch singing and dancing. The atmosphere in this city is great, and I can’t wait for this game. This will be a quick preview that will be best consumed with a look at my previous articles on Brazil and Holland.
This is a very different Holland side from the ones we’ve seen through history, which I’d written about in my preview piece on Holland. This side actually plays to win and not to entertain. In all four matches so far, they have stuck to a disciplined gameplan with plenty of positional awareness. They scored enough to win, but didn’t go crazy trying to do the impossible as they usually do. Whereas the previous Dutch sides were epitomized by magicians like Cruyff, Van Basten, and Bergkamp this side can best be viewed as the embodiment of Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt. ‘The world’s only defensive striker’, as Liverpool fans affectionately call him, was my man of the match against the Slovaks. His tireless running, excellent defensive and attacking play held the Dutch together. He created the second goal for Sneijder and was impressive throughout with his intelligence. Kuyt is not the fastest, most skilled or most prolific of strikers, but he is among the world’s most hard-working and most intelligent. I like to think of him as The Practical and Poor Man’s Dennis Bergkamp.
If you talk to Holland fans, however, they are certainly not disappointed with this turn to pragmatism, but are rather hopeful about it—as am I. In the past 40 years Holland have arguably produced more memorable performances and individuals than any other national team, but it has not helped them win. Cutting down on the flair might actually help them win, in the same way Brazil’s 1994 side ushered an era of pragmatism and triumph for Brazilian football.
When a team wins the World Cup, it never does so by being excellent in all its games, there will inevitably be bad matches. What makes a world champion, however, is the ability to grind out wins when you’re not playing too well, as well as winning when you are. Holland have barely gotten out of second gear in their four matches so far, and perhaps they have a lot left in the tank for the coming match(es). If they can turn on the style against the Brazilians, as they showed they could in Euro 2008, it should make for a wonderful match.
Brazil, on the other hand, will be up for this. As I wrote in my preview of Brazil:
In Julio Cesar, Brazil have one of the world’s best goalkeepers. In Lucio, they have one of the best central defenders, and in Maicon, they have the world’s undeniably best right-back. These three are fresh from leading Internazionale to winning the Italian league and Cup and the Champions League. Along with the excellent Juan in central midfield and the decent Michael Bastos in left-back, Brazil have without a doubt the best defensive line in the World Cup. This is of course very unusual historically. Brazil have never been famed for producing excellent defenders of goalkeepers, but rather strikers and midfielders. This year the pattern is reversed.
In midfield, Brazil are relying on a cast of players that on paper is not as impressive as some of their opponents. Gilberto Silva, a holding midfielder, is well past his best, and at his best he was a mediocre players at Arsenal. Ramires is good but not great, Elano can be impressive at times but is hardly one of the world’s best. The mercurial Robinho remains a bit of mystery. There is no doubting his precocious talents, which led Real Madrid and Manchester City to spend big money on him. But he has continuously failed to live up to his potential—the joke in Brazil is that Robinho has for the past 5 years been calling himself next year’s best player in the world.
But Brazil’s most important player is Kaka—the Real Madrid genius was world player of the year in 2007 and is one of the best players of his generation. He has an incredible vision of the pitch and is the sort of number 10 that teams can only dream about having. I will never forget the pass he played to Hernan Crespo in the Champions League final in 2005—possibly one of the best through passes ever. But Kaka has had a mediocre season with Real Madrid this year after a move from AC Milan. There are questions about his fitness and the weight of expectations hangs heavily on his shoulders.
Upfront Brazil have the prolific Luis Fabiano. Everyone keeps emphasizing that Fabiano is no Romario or Ronaldo, but then again, nobody is. He is still a good striker who can notch in a decent haul of goals.
On paper, the midfield and attack are not the world’s best and could struggle. In the absence of Ronaldinho and other creative midfielders, the team could be too reliant on Kaka to perform well. With his current lack of fitness and loss of form, this could spell trouble, and Dunga may yet come to regret some of his omissions.
But this, let us not forget, is Brazil. They live for the World Cup. It is their country’s bread and butter and the most important thing for all their footballers. If you want to understand the importance of the World Cup for Brazilians, just look at the face of Maicon as it turned into that of a child crying with excitement after scoring in the first round against North Korea. This is one of the world’s best players who has just won a historic treble playing for Internazionale—yet he was still crying for scoring in a first round game against an abject North Korea.
Brazilian footballers live for the World Cup, they only have club careers to pay the bills and stay fit. This is why seemingly mediocre and underperforming players like Robinho, Elano and Gilberto Silva turn into world beaters in the World Cup. The level of focus and dedication for these four weeks every four years is unmatched everywhere. Compare and contrast that to the pathetic superstar prima donnas of England. People like Lampard, Terry and Rooney live for their club careers and really care about winning the Champions League and the domestic league. Sure, they’d like to win the World Cup, but they want it nowhere near as much as the Brazilians. If you asked someone like Lampard if he’d rather win the Champions League or the World Cup, he’d reply with some vacuous PR-agent tailored stream of inanities about “pride in wearing the England shirt”, “remaining focused”, and “giving it 110%”. Ask Maicon, Robinho or Elano if they would give up their entire club football career for a World Cup winners’ medal, and they will not hesitate to say yes.
And this is what makes the difference for the Brazilians. No matter the tactics, the formation, the personnel and the opponents, when the Seleccao takes the pitch in a World Cup game, they are a different animal from the other teams.
This year, with their exceptional defense, they should be hard to score against, and with the likes of Kaka, Robinho, Luis Fabiano hungry to succeed, they will certainly cause a lot of trouble for their opponents.
This may not be a beautiful Brazilian team in the mold of the 1982 side and may resemble more the 1994 and 2002 sides. But remember that the 1994 and 2002 sides won the World Cup, while the 1982 side won the consolation of producing one of the best highlight reels of history. Brazil may not produce a highlights reel to match that of Zico and Socrates, but they are more likely to win it this year.
And so we arrive at a match between two of the greatest entertainers in world football history, who have both moderated their flair recently, but are still formidable teams. Brazil will have the edge of wanting it more and have the better defense. Holland have the better midfield and attack, and will be very eager to avenge decades of World Cup disappointment. Tens of thousands of fans from each country will be cheering on the teams in a wonderful stadium. I cannot wait. I will be tweeting the happenings of the game on my twitter feed at twitter.com/saifedean