Long before Hulk had missed his penalty to take Brazil to the brink of extinction, he believed himself to be a hero. That’s how this incredible story of a round of 16 match between the shaky hosts and the courageous Chileans begins at the Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte.
For exactly 15 seconds of this long World Cup campaign, Hulk thought he had finally lived up to his name. Quite like the green and angry monster from the comic books, Brazil’s yellow-jerseyed number seven had floated a few feet from the ground and into Chile’s six-yard box. Then, while still levitating, Hulk captured a long ball with the right of his flexed chest, training it down to his left shin, which tapped the sphere past a fallen Claudio Bravo’s reach.
It was the 55th minute of the game and all of Estadio Mineirão streamed down field-ward as one to greet their saviour, who raised his hands by the tramlines and shed a tear or two. He had been heavily criticised for his lacklustre performances in the group stages. and In fact, Hulk had kicked fresh air from a far easier position in the first half, causing Belo Horizonte to go up in angry whistles. Now, he had ensured that he was the difference between the hosts and a strong-willed Chile.
Or had he?
Fifteen seconds into his teary celebration, referee Howard Webb whistled down the goal and flashed the moist-eyed man a yellow card. The long ball, he was told, had been trapped with the help of his hand. Handball, no goal. Now, like Hulk, all of Brazil cried; not so much at his stupidity, but at the helplessness they felt against an unconquerable Chilean side.
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Reputation to uphold
The contest wasn’t for the weak-hearted but it was always expected to be that kind of a game, considering Jorge Sampaoli’s effervescent boys had a giant-slaying reputation to live up to. They had hunted down holders Spain in the group stages. Having enjoyed the taste of a champion’s flesh, they bayed for the whole meal in the five-time winners. On the prowl, never had they let their meaty prey out of sight. Not during regulation time and surely not once the thirty extra minutes began.
In the first half, Chile’s centre-backs of Francisco Silva and Mauricio Isla kept Neymar Jr in the tightest of checks. That alone ensured little good happened for Brazil upfront, what with Fred and Hulk stringing together nothing but space between them. When Bravo’s side attacked, they did so in droves, with Alexis Sanchez zigging and Arturo Vidal zagging through a helpless Brazil defence.
Helpless, David Luiz and captain Thiago Silva were at the back. But at the other end of the field, surrounded by the tiny Chileans during an 18th minute Neymar corner, the centre-backs were more than potent. The corner was grabbed just outside the box by Silva, who hoofed it from the centre towards Luiz at the edge of the goal. The wispy-haired Chelsea man they fondly called Sideshow Bob put it in off his thigh.
With a plethora of errors being committed by Brazil in the centre of the field, Chile never did stop threatening. One such error during an inconspicuous throw-in, in fact, caused the equaliser. Marcelo flung the ball to Hulk — it just had to be him — whose pass back was intercepted by Chilean forward Eduardo Vargas. He darted down the flank, cut the ball past a napping Luiz and a snoring Silva, finding Sanchez in the box — unmarked. The Barcelona forward had little else to do but place the ball to goalie Julio Cesar’s right. 1-1.
From here on, it was mayhem. Shortly after Hulk was disallowed his aforementioned goal, Charles Aranguiz nearly sealed Brazil’s fate just as he had Spain’s. Deep in yellow territory, Isla ploughed the ball back from the touchline and slipped the ball to Aranguiz, who caused Cesar to make the save of the match by diving right past his near-post and punching the ball to safety. But anything Cesar could do, Bravo matched.
In the 74th minute, Bravo snatched the ball from the toes of Jo, who had come on for the inept Fred, in a one-on-one situation. Then, a goal-bound strike by Neymar, who finally made a piercing run just before the end of regulation time, wasn’t allowed to proceed as well. The goalposts at either end had become no-fly zones, right until the very end.
Just seconds before the end of the second period of extra time, Chile’s super-substitute Mauricio Pinilla nearly ensured that this match would not go to penalties with a long range strike in the 121st minute. It crashed against Cesar’s crossbar, forcing the Brazil goalkeeper to first throw up due to nerves before the shoot-out and then burst into a fit of tears. Cradling his sore eyes in captain Silva’s arms, he proceeded for the penalty shootouts.
Cesar saved Pinilla’s kick, then did the same to a gut-wrenched Sanchez. There, though, was one problem. Brazil had missed about as many, with Willian missing the goal altogether and Hulk’s — him, again — run telling Bravo just which way to dive and block successfully.
Now it had come down to the final kick to be taken by Chile’s Marcelo Diaz. On the line lay a lot more than a spot in the quarters; there lay the promise of ultimate glory. Diaz moved Cesar left and shifted the ball right. It crunched against the post and all Chilean hearts.
In the end, a thin, white, flimsy pole had held the weight of a football-mad nation’s hopes and dreams — something usually expected of green-bodied superheroes from comic books.