Thursday, June 22, 2006

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June..."

Ola, Brasil. Welcome to the World Cup.
After almost a fortnight of a finals just so wunderbar, there was just one notable element missing.
Better late than never, tonight it arrived – the beautiful game, samba-style.
Perhaps there’s a danger in going overboard with the same old Brazilian clich├ęs, after a comfortable win played out in an end-of-term-style atmosphere.
Yet after a brace of underwhelming wins, it was a joy to see Brazil turn on the style in their 4-1 win over Japan tonight.
For the first time this tournament, Ronaldinho was sublime not just in the briefest of cameos, but for his 70-minute starring role before a well-earned rest.
Stand-in full-backs Cicinho and Gilberto showed the kind of intelligence, flair and commitment to suggest perfect long-term replacements for the winding-down Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
And a man named Ronaldo demonstrated, with ideal and historic timing, that maybe he’s not quite ready to be wound down himself just yet.
The rapturous Japanese fans swarming down the steep slopes of the stands, so close as to be almost spilling onto the pitch, kept chorusing Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer.
And their players certainly contributed to the entertainment, passing as neatly as throughout the tournament yet this time suggesting they might finally have located that elusive cutting-edge.
Tamada and Maki seemed quicker-thinking than the front pair they replaced, keen to catch the flat back four off-guard and slip in behind.
This Tamada did to give Japan a surprise lead, latching onto an inch-perfect pass from Brazilian-born wing-back Alex Santos.
The breakthrough sent the Japanese players and fans into understandable raptures – though no doubt there was a certain shock to the celebrations too.
The goal came against the run of play, though for the previous ten minutes Brazil had appeared to lose a little of the first half-hours rhythm.
From the kick-off, Ronaldo, Robinho, Ronaldinho and especially Juninho Pernambucano were thundering so much shots Kawaguchi’s way, it was only a matter of time before his net began bulging.
Perhaps the Japan goal stunned Brazil back into more clinical frame of mind, after drifting into sloppy complacency.
Maybe, in fact very probably, it caused Japan to relax a little too much, content to have achieved their excitement, their moment of glory – and that would do.
The ever-eager Robinho had impressed again with his willingness to hare about here, there and everywhere in search of the ball – but with the nimbleness of feet to dance his way through any return tackles.
But it was Ronaldinho’s more languid approach which helped carve upon Japan and turn the game back around.
His loft across the box, cleverly headed by Cicinho, into Ronaldo’s sights for the equaliser?
His effortlessly stylish through-ball for Gilberto to suddenly arrive upon and drive emphatically past Kawaguchi for the third - just minutes after the ‘keeper was fooled by the swirl of Juninho’s fierce thunderbolt through his arms.
The skipping backheel volley. The bunny-hop with the ball in an intricate one-two-three-four which should have created another goal-of-the-finals contender, only for Ronaldo to inexplicably screw wide.
Maybe they felt a little riled by the accolades bestowed upon Argentina in recent days, especially after Cambiasso’s breathtaking 28-pass goal.
Brazil seemed to string together at least 50 passes in the closing moments today, each player adding almost-experimental variations of spin, loop and pace on each contribution, as if daring each other to keep up, keep control, then do better.
Ronaldo’s second goal, Brazil’s fourth, was also his 14th in World Cup Finals – equalling German Gerd Mueller’s record.
And the way he maaged it was assuredly the Ronaldo of old, giving little thought but power and precision from the edge of the box, having been fed by surging Gilberto.
The Ronaldo of old? Well, with a few more pounds – several, several more, indeed – and even less willingness to break into the laziest of jogs than ever before.
The wanderings of Ronaldinho and Kaka behind him, drifting wherever and whenever they want with no mind given to tactical restrictions, allow him to prowl a confined but deadly space in between the centre-backs.
With the record now equalled, indeed there soon to be beaten, those ridicule-laden reports of Ronaldo’s demise were certainly slightly premature.
He’s not finished yet – and it seems Brazil are, finally, just getting started.

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