Brazil do to Spain what Bayern did to Barcelona

Where does what happened at the Maracanã leave the world order of soccer?

Written by ROB HUGHES | London | Published: July 2, 2013 2:22 am

Where does what happened at the Maracanã leave the world order of soccer? Brazil’s physicality,its youth and its fervor wiped out Spain almost as brutally as Bayern Munich did when it destroyed Barcelona in the Champions League earlier this year.

The two are inextricable. Spain has been Barcelona in a different colored shirt these past four momentous years,with the same core players passing and moving in their beloved tiki-taka style.

Bayern showed in the spring that if a team is quick to the ball and quicker into the tackles,it can cut off the possession that is the style’s oxygen. Brazil showed the same thing on Sunday in its 3-0 victory,and Italy came darn near to showing that last week in its semifinal with the Spanish.

It isn’t necessarily anti-soccer,although the 26 fouls that Brazil committed in shutting down Spain were certainly Luiz Felipe Scolari’s stamp of making the Beautiful Game into something more practical. “Big Phil” acknowledged during this Confederations Cup that he has deficiencies in this crop of Brazilians,but he also has a year to convert them into winners.

The conversion looks to be ahead of schedule. See how Fred and Hulk,nominally strikers,work for the team. Witness Neymar augmenting his genius with attempted tackles that go near the bone. Watch Oscar,with the choir-boy looks,scuffle to get underneath the feet of Xavi Hernández or Andrés Iniesta.

Those are,or were,the architects of tiki-taka. Losing one game,albeit by a 3-0 score,which hasn’t happened to Spain since 1985,is not exactly the end of their world. Losing to a Brazil team that was fired up by unrest in the streets and by astonishing partisanship in the stadium does not diminish all that Xavi and Iniesta have achieved.

Their game is based on love of the ball,and it is hard to exhibit love when almost nobody in the audience loves you. Brazil’s togetherness — home team and home crowd — took the breath away when 70,000 voices,including those of the players,sang the national anthem at full volume while the music was turned down.

It rarely gets more intimidating than this. Two things have to happen to make a contest in such an atmosphere: The home side must be inspired by it,and the visiting team must not be cowed.

Maybe Spain got off on the wrong foot from the moment that Fred,though sprawled on the turf,hooked in the opening goal after barely 90 seconds.

Maybe Spain was pre-empted by the thousand extra miles that it had to travel — and by the one fewer day it had to recover — after its extra-time and penalty shootout marathon against Italy up in Fortaleza last Thursday. (Brazil played its semifinal on Wednesday closer to Rio de Janeiro,in Belo Horizonte.) Or maybe history favored Brazil anyway. Brazil won its third straight Confederations Cup,and has not lost at home since 1975.

For all that is said and written about the Brazilians being scattered around the world,mostly in European soccer,their home is a castle that is difficult to storm.

Scolari organised his countrymen to win the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan,went away to manage around the world,and is only eight months into his comeback as the national coach. He is building blocks now for next June and July,building belief,and at 64 it is evident from his antics on the sidelines that he demands no less today than he did a dozen years ago.

“One thing that is important,” he said after Sunday’s triumph,“is that we are strong contenders. We have beaten four former world champions — France,Uruguay,Italy and Spain — in the last 30 days.” Indeed so. It is clearly a wilted Spain,just as it was a broken Barcelona that fell to Munich. It is no coincidence that Scolari picked Luis Gustavo,a defensive midfielder in Bayern Munich’s side in April,to share the industry with Paulinho in his own lineup.

It is no coincidence either that Xavi,the grand master of 126 international caps,didn’t have the energy,the desire,or the time to orchestrate either Barcelona or Spain in those two heavy defeats.

Xavi is 33,but he has packed in so many games and trophies,with nonstop running,sometimes while masking injuries,that it would be a surprise if fatigue were not getting to him.

He has the class,and he says the desire,to go on. But,notably without Real Madrid’s midfield enforcer,the 31-year-old Xabi Alonso at his side during this tournament,Xavi simply could not get on the ball in the final on Sunday.

Nor could he against Bayern over two games this spring. Barcelona (and then Spain) has to make a tough decision. Xavi has been key to everything that we have marveled at,but he turns 34 next January.

Barcelona is considering an offer from Manchester United to buy Thiago Alcântara,who has effectively been Xavi’s understudy for four years. Alcântara,22,is the son of a Brazilian World Cup winner,Mazinho. He has just stroked Spain to the European U-21 tournament title in Israel,not just simply dominating the final,but also scoring a hat trick.

He chose Barcelona as his schooling ground,came up through the academy,adored the way Xavi plays tiki-taka,and added his own “Brazilian” flair to that.

Decision day is close: United would give Thiago the reins to dictate its rhythm the way that Paul Scholes did for a decade. But does Barcelona — and Spain — need his youth more? NYT

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