A hush fell over the home fans as A Seleção made an uncharacteristically faltering start to their FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013 semi-final against old rivals Uruguay, the first time they had been largely silent since the competition began.
That opening set the tone for what would be an evening of suffering for Brazil and their supporters, whose first real chance to cheer came not from a home goal but when the Uruguayans missed a gilt-edged opportunity to take the lead themselves.
Fifteen minutes had elapsed when Julio Cesar dived full length to his left to push away a penalty kick taken by his former Inter Milan team-mate Diego Forlan. As he celebrated, the keeper pointed to his head, reminding his colleagues exactly where the game would be won and lost.
“Obviously the pressure was on, and if you’re going to handle the pressure, you need to keep your nerves under control,” the keeper told FIFA.com. “In the years I’ve been playing for the national team there have been times when we’ve won like that, with a bit of drama thrown in and when we’ve not necessarily played nice football. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that it can be a good thing sometimes. It does you good and it definitely helps you mature.”
In their group-phase wins over Japan, Mexico and Italy, the Brazilians began each game by hemming their opponents back in their own half, with the front three of Neymar, Hulk and Fred setting the tone by closing down rival defenders fast. Against the Uruguayans, however, there was little pressing high up the pitch by the men in yellow.
“The Brazilians play an attacking game and they always try to overpower opposing sides. You could see that against Italy especially,” said Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez in his post-match press conference. “They didn’t let the Italians get out of their own half and they pushed a lot of people up, including the two full-backs, who were even further forward than the midfielders. I don’t think today was a case of Brazil not wanting to do that. It was more that they weren’t able to because we were determined to close them down up front.
“You can see that Brazil are taking shape,” he continued. “They came through a very stiff test today, but they’ll have more tough games in the future because other teams will get to know them better.”
Bearing the pain
With their committed performance, the Uruguayans forced the hosts to get to know themselves better as well, pushing them every inch of the way, causing them several scares and only succumbing to Paulinho’s 86th-minute header.
“We’re still new at this,” Luiz Felipe Scolari told the assembled press after the game. “I think the important thing was to see that we’ve still got things to learn.”
The question is, what exactly is the lesson? Speaking separately to FIFA.com, Neymar and Marcelo both described the manner of Brazil’s hard-fought victory in the same terms.
“It was tough, a typical semi-final and the first one for this team,” said the No10, who failed to find the back of the net for the first time at Brazil 2013. “We suffered, but you also find out a lot of things when you suffer. We’ll be going into the final feeling even more confident now.”
There were times on Wednesday evening when Brazil’s confidence seemed to waver, one example of that being provided by left-back Marcelo, who was given little opportunity to showcase his usual skills. On one occasion, after beating an opponent to a loose ball by the touchline, he was reduced to clearing it with great force straight into the crowd, a last-ditch piece of defending that prompted him to apologise to the fans in the lower ring at the Mineirao.
“As we say in Brazil: bola para o mato que o jogo é de campeonato (which translates as, ‘the bigger the game, the bigger the clearance’),” joked the Real Madrid man in conversation with FIFA.com.
“It was a different kind of day,” he continued. “We’re used to playing closer to each other, to playing quick passes and dominating opposing sides with our skill.
"Even before we went out today, though, we knew it was going to be different. It was a derby after all. And while we’ve been playing well in this competition, you have to remember that this side is only just coming together in many different areas. The team is learning with every game and today we learned to suffer, which is something you come to expect in football.”