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Squeezed into a corner

June 29, 2010


The concourses of Ellis Park are perhaps the darkest and dingiest I’ve experienced in a sports stadium, but what took place in the inner circle simply reinforced the impression that this World Cup is going to be Brazil’s. I’ve been a critic of their style and setup but last night they played Chile perfectly – looking slick, lean and mean in every area of the pitch. Every inch a unit that knows exactly how to win World Cup ties, just as the Italians used to be.

Can anybody really see beyond a Brazil v Argentina final? While they have important differences (the former use two sitting midfielders and their full-backs have permission to attack, the latter have more of a central emphasis in their forward incursions and a much flatter defence) several things are the same. I risk repeating myself from yesterday a little but it’s an important commonality between this tournament’s best sides. They press, they wait, they play simply over two-thirds of the pitch. Then, like a coiled spring and only when the time is right, they pounce with three attackers, usually backed up by a fourth, altering the tempo dramatically. It’s pretty pragmatic but it’s very intelligent. I doubt there are two sides in this competition with better chances-to-goals ratios and it’s usually this that counts.

Along, of course, with a solid defence – and this is where Brazil really are a cut above anybody. Incredible, isn’t it? I can’t be the only person who remembers their 5-2 win over Costa Rica in 2002, in which each side could have netted something close to double figures. It was one of the most madcap games I’ve watched, certainly in a World Cup, but those days are far gone. Last night, Brazil could frequently be found sitting with Gilberto (who was masterful) and Ramires tightly, to an almost unusual extent, in front of their centre-backs – as solid a block of four as you’ll ever see, with Chile unable to pick the lock centrally and finding it impossible to create any space for their wide players to pick out. Brazil allowed them to pass, pass, pass so far and then shut the door expertly. There were virtually no chances for Chile in central positions, save for a couple of occasions when Alexis Sanchez (usually doubled up on) sought relief inside and beat a man or two. Humberto Suazo was off the pace and isolated in the middle, supply lines cut off and support tightly attended to. You could tell after 20 minutes that there wouldn’t be a lot of joy for Bielsa’s team. The manager himself sat impassively in the dugout for some time after the final whistle, as far as I could tell from my vantage. He probably saw this as a big opportunity missed – but the real missed opportunity was in failing to take enough chances to top their group in the previous two weeks. Juan’s sloppy goal was a frustrating deadlock-breaker but not much would have differed if that corner had been booted away.

The World Cup will be poorer for not having one or both of Chile and Mexico in its quarter-finals, but the manner of their demises was entirely predictable – particularly given their opponents.

More South Americans on the cards today – in an hour or so we’re heading just up the road to Pretoria for a little lunch and a walk around before Paraguay and Japan kick off. Tough one to call, extra-time a decent bet. Japan against Spain would be a fascinating quarter-final.

It is an important week here for our hosts in Kyalami. On Sunday, a huge party – 400 guests expected – will be held in honour of a ‘house blessing’ ceremony, for our wonderful surroundings are only a year or two old. A priest will be coming to scatter water in every room. Dozens of family and friends will be shacking up over the coming days. Sheep will be slaughtered, a ritual to which we are invited. A tribal chief from the Eastern Cape, Vuli’s cousin, will be arriving here tomorrow. Two worlds, perhaps more, will meet in this privileged suburb north of Johannesburg – where wealth is handled respectfully, tactfully in conjunction with the intricate and important mores of Vuli’s heritage. Some of the stories I have heard already are remarkable, and I’ll repeat some once the football’s out of the way.

After today’s match we’ve a couple of days off – one of which will be spent in Soweto with Lwando Ngwena, a budding music producer and DJ who joined us at last night’s game. Between now and the party’s end on Sunday (we make our side-trip to Zambia the following morning) there’ll be plenty for the senses to consume.

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