Seemingly in control at the interval, Brazil had cause to rue a catastrophic 20-minute period in the second half of their quarter-final with the Netherlands at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Friday. Conceding two goals and having a man sent off in that time, Dunga's men saw their dreams of a sixth FIFA World Cup™ evaporate, their seemingly unstoppable campaign derailed by the opportunistic and indefatigable Dutch.
The Brazilian juggernaut looked to be running smoothly in the opening 45 minutes, the South Americans largely dominating proceedings and taking an early lead through Robinho. With the men in orange making little headway, the South Americans looked well in control of their own destiny. The pattern of the game would change irrevocably eight minutes after the break, however, when Felipe Melo inadvertently glanced a curling Wesley Sneijder cross past the advancing Julio Cesar.
"The goal was a big break for us and it changed everything," Netherlands captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst told FIFA. "It couldn't have come at a better time, and it gave us fresh impetus. Our confidence just grew and grew from then on and we knew we could do it. When we equalised you only had to look at the guys celebrating on the bench to see that the whole squad could sense this was going to be our day. We never lost our faith because we knew they were beatable, but to get that goal back so quickly after the break was the turning point for us."
In the build-up to the game, Brazil coach Dunga had spoken of his fear of the Port Elizabeth wind. Powerless against the elements, his charges could also find no answer to the storm whipped up by the flying Dutch winger, Arjen Robben. Kept under close guard by Michel Bastos and the Brazil midfield during a frustrating first half, Robben broke the shackles after the restart, driving his side forward at every opportunity and the opposition rearguard to distraction.
We never lost our faith because we knew they were beatable, but to get that goal back so quickly after the break was the turning point for us.
Hanging in there
"We dictated the game in the first half but just couldn't get going in the second," said a regretful Dunga afterwards. "We couldn't keep our standards up or maintain the necessary level of concentration." Brazil central defender Juan agreed with that frank assessment. "We lost our focus in defence a couple of times and made mistakes that killed our gameplan," he said. "You make a couple of errors in a match like that and it's game over."
The five-time world champions will no doubt be regretting their failure to make more of their initial dominance, with Juan shooting over from close range in the first half and the impressive Maarten Stekelenburg doing well to divert an arcing Kaka drive away from the top corner. Van Bronckhorst, the only survivor from the semi-final meeting between the sides at France 1998, signalled his side's ability to stay in the game at the height of Brazilian domination as a determining factor. "We were nervous at the start of the game and they were playing really well," he said. "After half an hour, though, I had the feeling we were getting back into it."
Fittingly, the final word goes to Robben, the epitome of the driving ambition of a team that has now gone 24 matches unbeaten. "We said after the first round that we had four finals left to play. Now we're down to two. Right from the start of the tournament our aim has been to go all the way, and the only thing we are thinking about is lifting the cup," he said. Having laid the mighty Brazilians low, the Netherlands, runners-up at Germany 1974 and Argentina 1978, have every reason to believe that their luck is finally about to change.