CAPE TOWN - In a World Cup of surprise results, underlined by some eye-catching performances from lower-ranked teams, Brazil have stood firm.
While favourites, like Germany, Spain and others are already back home and preparing a seat on the couch in front of the television sets for the rest of Russia 2018, Brazil have confidently and efficiently gone about their business. And they’ve done it by means of the steel-like carapace which drives their defensive work.
It’s another case of a football team heeding the lessons of the past: after the humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany at the 2014 World Cup, the Seleção set about re-thinking and restructuring their attitude to defence. Four years later, in Russia, we are seeing the results: a Brazil side supremely organised in terms of shape and cohesion, with each player, from the striker up front, aware of his defensive duties.
In the past, as witnessed in 2014, the South Americans were too obsessed with attack and forgot to lock the back door. Now, it’s the most important thing on the menu. Because, in football, any team can attack and every player loves to have the ball - but, in this sport, what is more important is how a team, or a player, performs without the ball.
It was the great Johan Cruyff who once said: “When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball only three minutes on average; so the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball? That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.” Enough said. Spain and Germany crashed out because they forgot this basic tenet. Brazil are still around, because Cruyff’s belief is the foundation of what they have done at this tournament.
Today, though, the big test arrives in a tough quarter-final against Belgium (8pm). The Belgians boast an exciting, attacking line-up, backed by a creative midfield and an experienced defence. There has always been much talk about this crop of players as Belgium’s “golden generation”. They have not, as yet, done anything of note. Here’s the opportunity. Let’s see how they go against this formidable Brazil side.
When the World Cup reaches the quarter-final stage, invariably it’s head-scratching time. Because, really, for France v Uruguay today (4pm), I just don’t know which way it’s going to go. Usually, you’d think that one team has the edge, in one or two aspects, but, for this one, I’m at a bit of a loss.
But, at least, the players on show should have you salivating like Pavlov’s dog: France’s rising star Kylian Mbappé, who only has to add the lightning bolt symbol to his jersey to turn into superhero The Flash, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and, of course, N’Golo Kanté, who, if he were a superhero, would probably resemble Mr Fantastic, with his elastic feet snatching, tackling and barring everything the opposition brings to the party.
But Uruguay won’t be too far behind, with the excellent, immovable central defensive partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, the industrious midfield axis of Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira - and, of course, that most frightening strike-force of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, football’s equivalent of Batman and Robin.