It's worthy of a final
It's worthy of a final.
How many times have you heard someone offer that high praise (or is it hype raising?) only to tune it out as white noise before a big tournament? North Carolina is facing Kansas in the Sweet 16? That's worthy of a final. An all-Williams sisters quarterfinal at the U.S. Open? Worthy of a final.
And just last week the British media, in its steadfast delusion, labeled England's round of 16 showdown with Germany as WOAF -- and God help us if a 4-1 (or 4-2 if you count goals more traditionally) demolition job is what we have to look forward to on July 11.
This time around, it's the mercurial, restless Brazilian Robinho offering the sound bite ahead of Friday's quarterfinal with the Dutch. I'm not about to vouchsafe that Brazil-Netherlands is going to be the defining match of this World Cup, but I will say that for a generation of soccer fans who came of age in the '70s, it doesn't get much better than the progenitors of Joga Bonito against the avatars of Total Football.
If Brazilians are the spiritual gods of the game, the Dutch are their European proselytizers.
I realize that neither of these revolutionary styles exists today in their once incandescent forms, but I continue to believe that they are so deeply embedded in the DNA of how Brazil and the Netherlands play soccer that today's Selecao and Oranje can still conjure up vestiges of their old swashbuckling selves.
The game has, of course, evolved since the iconic days of Pele and Johan Cruyff, but Brazil-Holland 2.0 is still plenty compelling. In Kaka and Robinho, Brazil has two players who are incapable of suppressing their tricks and flicks for a full 90 minutes, and their soccer sorcery was on glorious display against Chile in the knockout round. Yes, Brazil was once again disciplined at the back with Lucio, a commanding presence, and Maicon rampaging down the right flank to ignite the attack. And granted, the team scored its first goal in the most un-Joga Bonito way -- on a set piece! And its third goal came in an even less JB fashion, with a sweeping counterattack.
Neither was the kind of flamboyantly individual goal that would have caused fans to gasp, "My God, did you see what he just did?" But sandwiched between the two in the 38th minute, there was Kaka, World Footballer of the Year in 2007, taking a cross from Robinho in his elegant stride and dinking a first-touch pass in the sliver of space between Chile's central defenders that perfectly anticipated Fabiano's arrival. The powerful center forward nimbly sidestepped the flailing Chilean keeper and side-footed the ball into the net. Golazzo!
Dunga, Brazil's no-nonsense coach, considers the new Dutch style "South American" for its "technical quality" -- meaning the Dutch possess some of the flair and panache that Dunga has systematically tried to exorcise in his players. In Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch boast two of the most devastating game-changers in world soccer. But as sporadically brilliant as they've been, neither has really established himself as The Man in this tournament. Perhaps this is because rather than playing a pure "South American" game relying on improvisation and skill, the Netherlands, like Brazil, plays like a more typical European side that values solidity ahead of fluidity.
The Dutch line up in the same manner as Brazil, balancing turf-chewing, ankle-snapping defensive midfielders like Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel and inventive think-outside-the-box players such as Sneijder and Robben. Sure, they still show flashes of Total Football now and then -- just look at the work rate and versatility of Dirk Kuyt, or the lightning-quick attacking speed of right back Gregory van der Wiel -- much like Brazil's squad has more than enough worthy successors to its 1970 dream team.
That team is generally considered the most electrifying collection of individual talent ever assembled. In addition to Pele, there was Rivelino, known as "King of the Park" for his regal dribbling and shooting; Tostao, a pint-sized striker nicknamed "The Little Coin" because he was money in the box; Jairzinho, the quicksilver winger who was the only man to score in every game he played in a World Cup; and Gerson, whose left foot was so cultured that an England player once said "he could stir his tea with it."
Together, these players showed the world that the way to win was to attack. And attack. And attack some more. Just for fun. The Brazilians scored a preposterous 19 goals in six games, each one more jaw-dropping than the next. This was soccer at its most audacious. It wasn't enough to just take on your man and beat him on the dribble, you had to do it with mind-bending swagger.
But a curious thing happened to Brazil after its 1970 coronation. For all its fanciful soccer, Brazil went another 24 years without winning a World Cup. When it finally captured the title again in 1994, by dint of a narcolepsy-inducing 0-0 tie with Italy that went to a penalty shootout, it was a very different Brazil.
Gone was the balletic wizardry in attack, replaced by more of a pragmatic, balanced approach that starts with strength in the back, epitomized by a pitbull of a holding midfielder who was long on brawn and short on verve. Dunga was the heartbeat and captain of that '94 team and he was at his combative best against the Dutch in the quarterfinal matchup that, for the final 30 pulsating minutes, gave that tournament a much-needed Taser shot. With the ever-dangerous tandem of squeaky-clean Bebeto (he of the immortal rock-the-baby goal celebration) and the aloof, party animal Romario spearheading the Brazilian attack, the Dutch resorted to a physical game plan that played into Dunga's hands -- or rather his feet.
After Brazil took a 2-0 lead through Romario and Bebeto, the Oranje, led by their brilliant maestro Dennis Bergkamp, stormed back to tie it with 15 minutes remaining, only to see their heroic comeback crushed by a 30-yard screaming free kick from the aging defender Branco in the 82nd minute.
Is it any wonder then that when Dunga became coach of Brazil, he would evince little regard for his country's fabled tradition of dazzling samba moves and instead fashion the team in his pugnacious spirit, which lives on today in players like Lucio, Ramires, Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo?
Then, as now, Dunga believed in Al Davis' famous mantra: Just win, baby. And if winning means a cagey, flair-free style that had the nation pining for Joga Bonito, so be it. Winning ugly, Dunga argues, is better than losing pretty.
Meanwhile, current Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk won't completely betray the joyful Oranje sensibilities. Both he and Dunga have managed to fuse their teams' storied pedigrees with the rigors of the modern game, creating world-beating squads that have cruised through the tournament.
Asking the Dutch to return to Total Football or Brazil to summon its Joga Bonito again is an unfair expectation. Even if their coaches wanted to resurrect those legendary styles, the players who embodied them are now eligible for half-price tickets at the movies. But I suspect Brazil and Holland will entertain as well as battle on Friday morning. Given the teams' similar look and equally dangerous weapons in their arsenals, the winner will need to transcend tactics and produce a moment of individual brilliance that will change the game entirely.
It may even be worthy of a final.
David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."