The Spot

Brazil’s Only Hope to Take This World Cup: Win Ugly

How Brazil plays now.

Eitan Abramovich / AFP/Getty Images

There are three contradictory narratives getting batted around about Brazil’s foul-plagued, back-breaking 2–1 quarterfinal victory over Colombia. The first, one that’s being pushed by the Brazilian press, is that Neymar was assaulted by brutish Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zúñiga, whose late-game challenge was reckless and cowardly. (Sample headlines: “Stabbed in the back” and “Damn Colombian.”) An alternate view, one articulated by the New York Times’ Sam Borden among others, is that Brazil got what it had coming. Borden believes that Neymar’s fractured vertebra was the logical conclusion of Brazil’s decision to play a dirty game, and of referee Carlos Velasco Carballo’s refusal to keep the foul-happy Seleção in check. The third perspective, laid out by Forbes’ Bobby McMahon, is that Colombia was the team that came out fouling, that the referee didn’t do much of anything wrong, and that Neymar’s World Cup-ending injury was an unfortunate accident rather than a violent inevitability.

So, what really happened in Fortaleza on Friday? Having now rewatched the Brazil-Colombia match minus the logic-impairing nourishment of multiple beers and frozen caipirinhas, the truth is that this was an ugly game from both sides. Colombia and Brazil committed 54 fouls in their quarterfinal, more than in any other game at this World Cup. Though Brazil did commit 31 of those infractions, I’d argue that the ugliness on the Brazilian side stood out mostly because of unrealistic international expectations—the belief that this team will forever play a happy-go-lucky “samba” style of jogo bonito soccer.

This is 2014, and Pelé, Garrincha, Socrates, Zico, and Ronaldinho are not walking through that door. Soccer fans, please take note: This version of the Brazilian national team is not beautiful, and it will never be beautiful.

Brazil, basically, is guilty of trying to scratch, claw, and dive its way to the World Cup with the kind of Brazil team that has not historically won the World Cup. Given that the Seleção has played at a level well below that of the other three semifinalists, tactical fouling has proven to be a necessity, and not just in the Colombia match. The game with the second-most fouls at this World Cup was Brazil’s penalty shootout victory over Chile, which featured 51—28 for Brazil.* The hosts lead all teams with 96 fouls, 39 more than their semifinal opponents Germany. The Wall Street Journal also found that, through the tournament’s first 32 games, the Brazilians faked more injuries than any other side. These are not the actions of a team that believes it can get by on talent alone.

As the BBC’s stupendous South American soccer correspondent Tim Vickery noted in his column for Australia’s public broadcaster SBS, Brazil has a recent history of tactical fouling in big games. (The title of the article was “Brazil Reaped What It Had Sown,” so you probably can guess Vickery’s thoughts on the Colombia game.) Against Argentina in the 2007 Copa America final, it committed around 45 fouls. Brazil won the match 3–0. Against Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup final in Rio, the team committed 26 fouls and again won 3–0.

Against Colombia, the tournament’s leading scorer and breakout star, James Rodriguez, certainly seemed to be a marked man. He was fouled six times, which as ESPN’s Rory Smith noted is a relatively large number these days: “Fouling one player six times—or, more accurately, being caught fouling one player six times—is about as nasty as it is possible to get given the extent to which all forms of tackling, legal and illegal, have been removed from the game.”

James actually suffered two first-half challenges that were reminiscent of the one that ended Neymar’s tournament. In the first 10 minutes, Oscar elbowed Colombia’s No. 10 in the spine. At the end of the half, Fernandinho came with another high elbow to James’ back, this after he put a hip check on James earlier in the game that was worthy of the 1976 Flyers.

The Colombians were no angels. As Forbes’ McMahon points out, the team had more fouls than Brazil for the majority of the first half. Many of these came on hard and ugly challenges, and were aimed at Neymar and other attacking players.

Perhaps because the game was officiated so loosely, the three high challenges I’ve cited didn’t seem so terrible in real time. When Neymar went down with his injury, I thought that he might be playing hurt in an attempt to waste time, as did others.

But 54 fouls in a single game and three high challenges cannot be shrugged off. When a single player like Brazil’s Fernandinho commits an obvious pattern of “petty” or “tactical” fouls, the referee is supposed to recognize what’s happening and issue a card—this is exactly what yellow cards are for. If the ref doesn’t keep the game in check, you might not get a bloodbath, but you will create a strong incentive for both teams to foul, foul, and foul some more. Whether or not you think Brazil got what it deserved, a lenient ref encourages aggressive play, and that aggressive play makes injuries more likely.

When you can’t match your opponent’s class, you do whatever you can to bring them down to your level. In soccer, that often means fouling and flopping. In its opening group game, Brazil relied on a dive and a dodgy penalty call to squeak past Croatia. After struggling for the better part of 88 minutes against Mexico, the Seleção again attempted to steal the win with a dive, but the ref was having none of it. In its last 16 match against Chile, the team used tactical fouls and the help of the woodwork (read luck) to stay in the game before barely advancing on penalties.

While Neymar has had his moments of magic, the Brazil team as a unit has had just one real samba moment this tournament, on this beautiful piece of play in the team’s 4-1 victory over Cameroon.

The Cameroon game was also the team’s only convincing victory. It came against one of the worst sides at this World Cup—a team that scored one goal, lost all three games it played, and is being investigated for match-fixing.

When faced with legitimate opposition, Brazil’s jogo bonito legend has proven to be more myth than reality. As Smith noted in his ESPN column, this is kind of old news. While it has had great players and won World Cups in the interim, Brazil hasn’t played pure Brazilian futbol since its legendary 1982 team became the most talented side ever to lose a World Cup.

This year especially, Brazil doesn’t have the kind of attacking players that it’s known for. Instead, the Seleção have relied on a different set of tactics. Brazil has been abetted in this approach by lenient refereeing in both of its knockout games. Some, like Vickery, are suggesting that the relative dearth of yellow cards in those games was a conspiracy theory, not so much to help Brazil, but to keep star players from being suspended from the tournament. Even Zico, one of the legends of that 1982 team, has said he knows that this is actually FIFA’s explicit policy, and that players “have seized the opportunity and they are getting away with it.”

If leniency is the policy, no one will benefit more than the host nation. Home field advantage is already enormous in soccer—the Brazilians haven’t lost a competitive match at home since 1975. Referees, too, are human beings, and human beings are liable not to want to infuriate a stadium full of yellow-clad fanatics. It’s fair to say that if the tournament were anywhere else in the world, Brazil would be toast by now. And if they win the 2014 World Cup, they’ll have home-field advantage to thank.

With a place in the World Cup final on the line, there’s little reason to expect Brazil will play any more beautifully and any less cynically against Germany than they have up until now. Playing against Germany without their main creative force Neymar and their suspended defensive star and captain Thiago Silva, the Seleção will likely muck up the game even more than they did against Colombia.

Tuesday’s game, then, will likely go one of two ways.

If Marco Rodriguez is as permissive as Carballo was, that will encourage both teams to foul, and we’ll get a game that’s branded with a nickname like “The Bloodbath in Belo Horizonte.”

Alternately, Rodriguez, who has already come under scrutiny for failing to act when Luis Suárez bit a guy, will clamp down with some early cards.

With yellow card suspensions for future matches no longer an issue—the slate was wiped clean after the quarterfinals—it’d be a surprise if the cards weren’t flying. That could force the referee into an even more difficult predicament: If the game descends into anarchy, would he dare show a red card to a player in yellow?

Correction, July 8, 2014: This post originally misstated that there were 51 “cautions” in Brazil’s victory over Chile. There were 51 fouls.