Sunday, July 02, 2006

Kings Without A Crown

It’s not quite as if Montserrat had beaten them but it’ll do.

Thierry Henry’s 57th minute toe flick is all that separated France from Brazil in an otherwise squalid 1-0 game that saw the French advance to the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup while the defending champions Brazil- who had not lost a World Cup match since losing to the French in the 1998 Final- were sent home early for the first time since 1990. It is, without a doubt the World Cup’s biggest upset and the day’s only bright spot in what was otherwise a turgid display of soccer in the two quarterfinal matches today.

For the French, the role of “giant killers” couldn’t be more rewarding as the team tries to win its second World Cup and thus the second for its legendary midfielder, the Algerian-descended Zinedine Zidane. It’s true “Les Blues” have always been one of the world’s leading soccer powers, but in this tournament the French came in as somewhat of an underdog. They had a lot to prove since the debacle at the 2002 World Cup where they didn’t even score a goal and lost to the likes of Senegal, and, early on in this tournament the French looked like they’d continue their 2002 form, drawing 0-0 with the Swiss and conceding a late equalizer in a game against the Korea Republic. They qualified for the last 16 with two second-half goals against lowly Togo, and- despite rallying from 1-0 down against the favoured Spaniards- France’s 3-1 win could have been chalked up as yet another Spanish collapse. Given no chance against a Brazilian team that many were prepared to simply hand the World Cup to, their victory today is a remarkable accomplishment, being the closest we’ve come to a true David beating Goliath.

For the Brazilians, the loss cannot be described any other way except in being a shock. Nobody expected them to lose, especially not after breezing through their group matches and their Round-of-16 match against Ghana, and many had predicted that the far-from-form Brazilians were just rounding into shape as they progressed in the finals. Yet it just may be that easy first set of games that did them in here, since despite all the talent that the team possesses, they’ve never had to play from behind, so when they were faced with a real challenge against the French, it should come as no surprise that they didn’t know what they were doing.

It was not without effort. Roberto Carlos was a workhorse on the field, furiously running up the flanks and never backing down from a challenge for the ball, while Ronaldinho- misplaced as a forward (he’s more of a playmaker)- was again making crisp, accurate through-balls that were bungled by his teammates, the biggest of which was a botched header from Ronaldo, who looked today like the overweight player he was accused of being before the tournament. However, it became apparent that after Henry got his goal Brazil became antsy, with their passes coming forced and their tackles poorly timed, since the Brazilians were for the first time in eight years playing in unfamiliar territory- from behind. This isn’t to say that the French were not worthy of their win- their midfield was a wall anchored by a Zidane who looked like he was 32 going on 23, and when it mattered most the French capitalized. There were nervous moments when the theatrical Fabien Barthez saved a Brazilian shot in the dying minutes, but in the end it was the Brazilians who didn’t execute and that is why they’re going home.

A parallel here- a not-so outrageous one considering TSN’s Vic Rauter compared the French to the Edmonton Oilers- could be drawn with hockey’s Ottawa Senators, a team like Brazil handpicked by many to cart around hockey’s Stanley Cup championship before the season began. They were, like the Brazilians, true to form in the regular season in finishing second overall in the National Hockey League and in hammering the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. Meeting the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the playoffs, Ottawa appeared destined for its first Stanley Cup since re-entering the NHL in 1992, since there was no way the team could have been beaten after playing so well for so long.

However, in Game 1 of their best-of-seven second round series, the Sabres and Senators traded goals in what truly was a classic game. The two teams were tied 4-4 at the end of the second period, and with only a minute and a half left in the third period and thus the game, Ottawa clung to a 6-5 lead off a Bryan Smolinski goal. It was here that it all fell apart. The Sabres were determined to knot the score like they had so often in the game, and, with just 10.7 seconds left, Buffalo’s Tim Connolly did just that. The game went to overtime, and, eighteen seconds in, Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov fanned on a pass attempt, gave the puck over to Buffalo’s Mike Grier who then found Chris Drury who rifled it home. The stunned Senators lost the game 7-6 and were down 1-0 in the series and were never the same. The mighty Senators were tentative and nervous for the remainder of the series, and, despite a far-from-convincing 2-1 win in Game 4 that kept their season alive, Ottawa limped out of the playoffs losing their series 4-1 to a Buffalo team that just displayed more determination. Like the Brazilians, Ottawa are now faced with the tough questions concerning why they didn’t win when they were certain to do it so early on in their campaign.

The similarities here are nauseatingly close- both Brazil and Ottawa had stellar opening rounds and had impressive first-round victories; and both were knocked out in the second round by a team that simply displayed more determination than they did. Both teams were essentially done in by the fact their second round contests were not the breezes they thought they would be since neither had come under the same kind of adversity their second round opponents entered their match-ups with, as Buffalo had famously dropped two straight games in their opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers while France stunningly came back from 1-0 down against Spain. Hand Brazil or Ottawa the lead and they keep it, because their talent is enough to send them through. Put them behind the eight-ball and they fall faster than a house of cards. For Ottawa, the next opportunity will come in 2007, but for Brazil they’ll have to wait four long years for a second chance, and it could be with vastly different players. Several key players- Cafu, Ze Roberto, Carlos, goalkeeper Dida, Ronaldo, etc.- are getting long in the tooth and may not be back in 2010. What’s worse is that the prospect of an ageing Brazil could mean that they might not even qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa- which would be a first for the team- since they won’t have a lot of time to allow the new line-up to gel into a World Cup-winning form. In many ways, this 2006 defeat could very well be ominous in marking the end of the Brazilian dynasty and plunging the team into its own veritable “Dark Age”.

For the French, the collapse of Brazilian soccer couldn’t have come at a better time. For the Brazilians, they now have a lot of questions left begging to be answered, the most important of which is trying to prevent that Dark Age from coming. That is their top priority, for if they don’t correct their mistakes, today’s defeat could leave an unsavoury taste for a longer time than many may think.



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