Brazil left licking their wounds
The history of the FIFA World Cup is littered with disappointments, as any number of great teams have been left wondering what might have been.
This time around the dubious accolade goes to Carlos Alberto Parreira's Brazil . The reigning champions struggled to find their feet on German soil, eventually falling to a dominant French side in the quarter-finals. Of course, there is no disgrace in losing to Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and the like but it was the manner of the South Americans' departure that has provoked so much comment over the last few days.
In truth, that poor performance against France had been coming for a while. Even in the group games, the five-time champions were sluggish, lethargic and a long way away from the vibrant, joyful football that has become their country's hallmark. In the same Frankfurt stadium that witnessed their majestic display in last year's emphatic FIFA Confederations Cup Final win over Argentina, Parreira's men rolled over meekly against Les Bleus, going down to a solitary Henry strike.
Go to the Brazil-France match page
On paper at least, the Verdeamarelos promised a great deal. A superstar strikeforce, christened the Fab Four', was forged from the red-hot talents of Kaka, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Ronaldo. With such a potent attack, how could the boys from Brazil fail? The world sat back, in anticipation of a barrage of goals, and a footballing show of a kind that only the Brazilians can put on.
But even from the outset, it was clear that all was not right. The champions won their first two group games, but they played without energy and without joy, only just scraping past supposedly weaker opposition. It could in fact have been much worse, if Croatia and Australia had managed to snaffle some of the chances that an uncertain Brazilian defence put in front of them.
In the third group game, against Japan, the pressure was off. Parreira made the decision to rest several of his regulars, and the young guns came into the team with a bang. As they tried manfully to force the pace of the game, the Japanese, managed by Brazil legend Zico, were picked off as the Seleção strolled to a comfortable 4-1 victory.
Popular opinion delighted in the Brazilians' apparent return to form, but the reality could not have been further from the truth. In the Round of 16, the Brazilians met a strong and committed Ghanaian outfit playing in their first finals. The Africans chased every ball as if their lives depended on it, pushing the defending champions to the very limit.
Go to the Brazil-Ghana match page
In the end, goals from Ronaldo, Adriano and Ze Roberto put their team through, but the final scoreboard wore a hollow look. There was some joy, however, for Parreira's charges, as Ronaldo's fifth-minute strike took him past Gerd Muller's record as all-time leading scorer in FIFA World Cup history with 15 goals at the very highest level. Parreira, however, was spot on with his after-match analysis. "If you didn't see the game, the scoreline doesn't tell the whole story. It was a very difficult match."
The below-par displays of his team were already attracting criticism, but the coach was unrepentant, backing his players to the hilt. "In a World Cup, putting on a show means winning," he said, underlining his fundamental belief that results count much more than performances. This was a remarkable about-turn from the man who had declared in 1994 that "goals are just details". In other words, play positive, stylish, attacking football, and the goals will come. Different times, however, bring pragmatic responses. Back in 94, Brazil were heading for glory; 12 years later, a more talented squad were desperately struggling to do themselves justice.
What went wrong?
As the coach and his players reflect on the tournament, they will find it difficult to put their finger on what went so wrong for the Seleção. While the media will endeavour to find scapegoats, the only obvious problem seemed to be a general malaise and lack of form on the part of Brazil's most talented players. Ronaldinho, for example, came to Germany as a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, having just completed a magnificent season for his club side, Barcelona, but the talented playmaker's lacklustre displays summed up the frustration of the whole squad.
Given Parreira's adventurous system, effectively playing with four forwards and full-backs who spend more time in the opposing final third than their own, the South Americans' defence was always going to be under the microscope. However, the back-line came through with flying colours.
Centre-back pairing Juan and Lucio were excellent throughout, and the Bayern Munich defender in particular was a rock. Goalkeeper Dida, the target of criticism in the run-up to the tournament, was a calming influence, and Ze Roberto's unfussy style of play in the middle of the park won him a host of new admirers. So effective was the stocky midfielder that he was twice named Budweiser Man of the Match by FIFA's Technical Study Group.
A fresh start
This tournament, it seems, will mark the end of the road for a generation of players who have served Brazil with distinction. Full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos will step aside to allow the emergence of an exciting new group of South American starlets. Real Madrid pair Cicinho and Robinho provided the FIFA World Cup holders with verve and energy on their rare appearances, and are likely to develop into key men in the years to come. Of course, we should not disregard Kaka and Ronaldinho, who will be around for a while yet, and will be desperate to get back to their sparkling best in that famous yellow shirt.
For coach Parreira, however, the future is more uncertain. Speculation surrounds his position, and the experienced supremo has already said that he will enter into discussions with the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) once President Ricardo Teixeira returns from Germany.
For all the talk of veterans the Brazilian squad on duty in Germany had a fresh-faced look to it. It is a fair bet that the majority of the players in Parreira's 23 will be looking to make a more significant impact in four years' time. Cicinho, Robinho, Fred, Adriano, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Dida and others will form a strong base as the Auriverde look to regroup.
And such is the strength in depth of Brazilian football, some of the potential stars of 2010 finals in South Africa may well be currently trying to make their way in the reserve teams of big clubs across the country. As they hastily search for positives from the wreckage of their dreams of a sixth FIFA World Cup title, this will provide a crumb of comfort to the football-mad nation.
As one group of players has come and gone, Brazil have always been able to find phenomenally talented replacements. The country as a whole will learn from their failed adventure on German soil. In 2010, they will be back, older, wiser and ready to take on the world.