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It’s strange to think back to Brazil’s first game of the World Cup, only 17 days ago. Seventy-two thousand pilgrims from all over the world packed into Hitler’s Olympic Stadium on the promise of seeing the Brazilians demolish Croatia with the best football ever. Fairly typical was a Finnish friend of mine who flew in from Beijing and paid a tout €300 for his match ticket. We should all have known better.

Brazil remain the most likely world champions, but to expect them to play “jogo bonito” – the “beautiful game” – is to misunderstand this team.

Blaming their cautious football on their coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, is simplistic. The coach of Brazil is not an omnipotent being, but merely a guy who sits in the dugout and watches his players along with the rest of us. The Brazilians who meet France in tomorrow’s quarter-final are probably the most experienced
football team ever. Five starters have played in at least one World Cup final. Their greenest regular, Adriano, still has 35 caps.

The Brazilians of 1966 had about as much experience of World Cups, but the current side trump them with decades of employment at Europe’s biggest clubs. This lot know how trophies are won, and it isn’t with dribbles or five-man forward lines. Roberto Carlos complains: “The ‘joga bonito’ slogan was invented by a sports brand. It’s not our fault.”

It’s true that Nike came up with “joga bonito” – “play beautifully” – but the original phrase “jogo bonito” is Pelé’s. Sadly, all this is irrelevant. The Brazilians know that you win World Cups by conserving energy for the last few matches, or at least for the party afterwards. That is why they haven’t been putting their full weight into tackles. For any Brazilian starter, the biggest risk to his winner’s medal is not defeat but injury. Brazil’s bench is so strong that anyone getting hurt may never regain his place. The Brazilians therefore seldom tussle for loose balls with clumsy opponents. Together with Japan, they have averaged the fewest fouls per game in the tournament.

Brazil’s defensive midfielders rarely press the opposition. Any shots they permit are eaten up by their goalkeeper, Dida, probably their
best player so far. In the energy-saving mode of this team, Dida positions himself so well that he rarely has to dive.

This is not the football Parreira wants to see. But he doesn’t aspire to “joga bonito” either. Instead he wants Brazil to pass the ball around for long stretches. “When we put the ball on the ground, we have a technical advantage that is superior to any opponent,” he says. But to pass, you need players willing to run into space to receive the ball. Ronaldinho ran in 2002, when he was the team’s junior member. This year only Robinho – currently injured – has budged much.

Ronaldinho has grown so frustrated that against Ghana on Tuesday he actually stopped smiling. Several times after passing into nothingness, he turned to the intended recipient (usually Adriano) and demonstrated with his hands how the player should have run: hook sideways, then sprint deep. Once, after crossing a ball that Adriano could have headed in had he but moved, Ronaldinho made an even simpler gesture: he nodded an imitation header. Presumably Adriano understood. Ronaldinho excels at Barcelona where Samuel Eto’o and Ludovic Giuly chase his passes, but with Brazil he is helpless.

This is not a team. When asked about Brazil’s strengths, Juninho Pernambucano didn’t give the ritual answer of “the collective”, but said: “Our individuals.” Brilliant players will score. Their first half against Ghana said it all: a minority share of possession, four shots, two goals. After scoring, Brazil can play their favourite game: not “jogo bonito”, but the counter-attack. They abandoned it only against Japan. The Japanese made the mistake of scoring first, thus waking the beast and earning themselves a 4-1 caning.

Brazil now have eleven consecutive victories at World Cups, three more than the previous record. Their toughest opponents in that sequence were Belgium and Turkey. The World Cup rarely tests football’s lone superpower.

A German observer of their 3-0 victory over Ghana described the Brazilians as “Harlem Globetrotters who have forgotten to go to Weight Watchers”. But the Brazilians knew they didn’t need to cut down on the cakes to beat Ghana. They are resigned to having to work in their last three matches. They may even need to ditch their passengers. Adriano has been outpaced by every defender. Cafu is 36, seldom reaches the byline any longer, was repeatedly bamboozled by Croatia’s Dado Prso, and after a sprint in the last minute against Ghana lay down on the grass as if to nap. The 33-year-old Roberto Carlos springs to life only when Brazil get a free-kick – the old man’s refuge – which he ritually blasts into space. But he is a luxury Brazil can afford. They could win a second straight World Cup playing at half-cock.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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