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Brazil has a new World Cup goat
In 2-1 loss to Belgium, Fernandinho fails to hold his ground - and has an own goal to boot

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Saturday, July 7, 2018 – Page S8

After having himself a miserable evening during Brazil's catastrophic loss at the last World Cup, David Luiz felt the need to deliver a public self-excoriation.

"Apologies to everybody. Apologies to all the Brazilian people," Luiz sobbed during a live TV interview. "I just wanted to see my people smile."

It didn't do him much good.

Although one of the most expensive defenders in the world, Luiz was gradually pushed out of the Brazil set-up. He wasn't selected for this year's 23-man World Cup roster.

As it turns out, that was a small mercy. It is once again time for neutrals, nostalgics and once-every-four-years bandwagon jumpers to don their mourning shawls.

It's all gone wrong for everyone's second-favourite team.

Ruefully, there is also someone to blame this time as well. If there is a special ring of hell reserved for a Brazilian soccer player who collapses in the colours of his country, its newest resident is Fernandinho.

The 33-year-old holding midfielder has a reputation for toughmindedness. Brazil is mainly staffed by emotional basket cases and flibbertigibets, but the team always features two or three genuinely hard men. Fernandinho was among the hardest of them.

He didn't start at this World Cup, but was called up for duty in Friday's quarter-final against Belgium because of a teammate's suspension. He was - and there is no nice way to put this - abysmal.

Charged with controlling the space in the middle, he instead conceded it repeatedly to his Manchester City colleague, Kevin De Bruyne. In one early move, De Bruyne spun him around like a top. Fernandinho fell over, dazed.

De Bruyne continued on up the field. That set the tone.

In the 13th minute, Fernandinho went up to flick away the ball from a Belgian corner kick. He was alone and under no pressure.

He somehow managed to deflect it into his own net.

By that point, quite a few Belgians had distinguished themselves. But you'd have said their top performer was a guy in yellow and blue.

In the final stages of the match, Fernandinho was staggering around with no particular duties except trying to stay out of everyone else's way.

Once the game ended 2-1 for the Belgians, the only person brave enough to come over and console him was De Bruyne.

It was a lovely gesture, but Fernandinho didn't look ready to receive a pep talk. He rather looked like someone wondering about cloistered monasteries and how one signs up.

Unlike Luiz, he didn't cry. Also unlike Luiz, he doesn't get the luxury of spreading the blame around in a game lost by six goals.

This one's fully on him.

Some athletes have bad years and overcome them. This won't work like that. Nobody back home is going to want to see Fernandinho overcome adversity.

There is no second act. This - jamming a career's worth of disaster into two hours at precisely the wrong time - is how he'll be remembered.

He will continue to play. He just won't do it for Brazil. It's time for soccer's spiritual home to begin exorcising him from history.

A word on Brazil and soccer catastrophes - every loss at the knockout stage of a World Cup counts as such. But there is a spectrum of disaster between "burn down the team" and "burn down whatever's around you."

Friday's loss was on the less flammable end of the scale.

Though it spent much of the game defending, Belgium showed real quality where it counted - on the counterattack.

If there is an overarching tactical theme to this World Cup, it is the emergence of the counter as something more than a deterrent. For most of the best nations here - France (Friday's other winner, over Uruguay), Belgium, England, Croatia - it has become the first option.

Rather than try to wear opponents down with half-court offence - the now discredited Spanish way - you get them on the break.

You need a specific sort of personnel to do so - smart, technically proficient and, most important, one that can operate in tandem at speed.

Who does that sound like?

The first name that should leap to mind is Brazil. But that ability never presented itself.

Brazil ground its way to wins, slowly picking its way through lesser personnel. You had the sense that the team's key virtue was wearing the right jerseys.

Teams were overcome by Brazil's aura.

The Brazilians deployed all the familiar tricks against Belgium - trying to barge through them in slow motion, back heels for no reason, the sneaky rough stuff, the usual diving and whining.

Belgium wasn't interested and, to his credit, neither was the Serbian referee.

Brazil was down 2-0 at the half, thanks to Fernandinho and a remarkable, running De Bruyne goal from distance. That was bad.

But it was the second half that will truly enrage Brazil's supporters. Far too late to make a difference, the team they'd hoped to see finally showed up in Russia.

Now desperate, Brazil began to play without hesitation, without selfishness and without the eyerolling theatrics after every hard tackle. The Brazilians did so at greater pace than any team in this tournament has yet shown. Even Neymar finally looked serious.

Other than a Renato Augusto goal that made the end interesting, it didn't get Brazil where it wanted. But it was occasionally breathtaking.

Where was that Brazil for the past three weeks?

Nobody can play at that level for 90 minutes during every game, but surely athletes who know their lifelong reputations hang in the balance can manage it when it counts. Without taking anything from Belgium, this didn't feel like a failure of Brazil's ability, but one of ambition.

Now Brazil will perform the sacred post-loss rites - fire the coach, funeral pyres for a few old soldiers, a nice lashing in the public square for the players who can't be got rid of.

In four years time, there will be a new generation of stars. We don't know their names yet. But since this is Brazil, we know they're coming.

Then they have to make the same decision all Brazilian players face - are you going to be remembered for winning it all, or for something terrible? There is no in-between.

Associated Graphic

Brazil's Fernandinho, left, vies for the ball with Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne during Friday's quarter-final match.


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