Where have all the goals gone? There are really only three proper games left in this World Cup—the third-place playoff doesn’t count —and the clear evidence of the knockout stages of the competition is that the crippling fear of defeat has taken hold in Brazil.
This tournament in the spiritual home of football is still being described by experts far and wide, most of whom have experienced World Cups going back 40-50 years, as the greatest in living memory. Obviously it’s not just about the ball hitting the back of the net, but the style of play, the intensity of the contest, the joyful, celebratory atmosphere at the stadia and the feeling transmitted throughout the world that this is something we should all enjoy.
Yet for all that, it appears that pragmatism is winning the day over idealism...again. Compared to Brazil 2014, the last World Cup in South Africa four years ago is viewed as a drab, almost sterile event with a finale between Spain and Holland that is very easily forgotten. Goals aren’t the only benchmark obviously, but it’s worth noting that since the group phase ended, 23 goals have been scored in 12 games (18 in the round of 16 and five in the quarter-finals). For the same period in 2010, 32 goals were scored (22 in the round of 16 and ten in the quarter-finals).
Does this automatically mean that caution has taken over, that even while teams are still looking to be positive, the over-riding concern is not to lose? It’s the easiest thing to look on from a safe distance and comment about style and flair and that it’s not only about winning or losing but how you play the game. But when you’re in the middle of it, when all that matters is getting to the next round and getting closer and closer to holding that precious trophy aloft, there’s very little emotional space for enjoyment. There’s too much anxiety, too much tension. You just want to win.
When Trinidad and Tobago made it to the final in Germany eight years ago, the nation celebrated the goalless draw with Sweden and the battling performance against England as phenomenal achievements way beyond our expectations. As football spectacles, however, they were dead boring. Ever the pragmatist, Dutch head coach Leo Beenhakker, mindful of our players’ technical deficiencies and lack of exposure at the highest level of the sport, basically determined that we would have almost everyone behind the ball and proceed to frustrate the life out of the opponents.
Of course, we couldn’t see how dreary it was because we were too busy being caught up in the moment of our little nation, with no pedigree worth talking about at the international level, performing on the greatest stage in football. So just imagine what it must be like for Brazilians and Brazilian fans all over the world looking ahead to tomorrow’s semi-final against Germany in Belo Horizonte.
You think they saying something like: “Boy, I hope we could turn on the samba style like Zico and Socrates and the rest of the fellas from 1982.”? You think the Brazilian squad, from the players to the technical staff, are eating themselves up right now over what may or may not be said as to how they compare with the great teams of previous eras?
No chance. Right now, they just want to win to get to Sunday’s final at the Maracana. It’s the same for the Germans and it will be the same for Argentina and The Netherlands as they prepare for the second semi-final on Wednesday in Sao Paulo. When it’s all over, when we can sit back, relax and place it all in context, there will be time for broader analyses and comparisons and arguments over whether playing football the true Brazilian way—and being successful —is possible anymore.
But not now. Not with the World Cup so tantalisingly close. Socrates is no longer with us to answer the question, but would Zico or Falcao or Junior have preferred if their team had sacrificed just a bit of that attacking flair for the sake of a tighter defence? For all the praise heaped upon coach Tele Santana’s Brazilians of 1982 and 1986, teams that couldn’t even make it to the semi-finals, do the defeats to Italy and then France four years later leave a deep, deep longing for what could have been?
In football, as in life, we can’t have everything. Maybe one day the two will come together beautifully as in Mexico in 1970. For now though, the question is: do you want to be remembered for playing the game the way it should be played, or do you want to win the World Cup?