This past weekend saw quite a few footballing fireworks in Brazil. There were brilliant tactical decisions, gravely important injuries, near upsets, penalty shootouts, and Mothra landed on James Rodríguez’s arm. As a way of looking back on the quarterfinals matches, six Grantland writers — Chris Ryan, Brian Phillips, netw3rk, Mike L. Goodman, Graham Parker, and Ryan O’Hanlon — wrote about six characters from the weekend action.
Chris Ryan: And on the 23rd day, Neymar died for our sins. He’ll be fine, mind you. Despite the fears of paralysis in the moments following his injury, and the tearful interview he gave on Brazilian television the day after his country’s victory over Colombia in the quarterfinals, he’ll probably be back on the field this fall, playing for Barcelona. But you can’t help but invoke religious imagery when talking about Neymar or the fractured vertebra that will keep him out for the remainder of the tournament. He’s a deeply religious man who plays for a deeply religious manager on a deeply religious team that represents a deeply religious nation. And next Sunday was supposed to be his ascenscion: the conclusion of a glorious, freewheeling World Cup, with Neymar playing in Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, in the tournament final, in the shadow of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.
About that freewheeling World Cup: Shit got real, and some cosmic force slammed on the brakes. You had to know it was coming; winning the World Cup is too important to too many people for it to be this much fun. Someone had to pay for our excess.
The beautiful game picked up quite a few converts, especially in the U.S., over the past few weeks. But given what we saw Friday and Saturday, some could be forgiven for squirming in their pews. In the four quarterfinal matches, underdogs played for penalties, the tackles got heavier, the reactions to said tackles got more pronounced, and the games slowed down. I’m not saying it was in any way bad — Colombia-Brazil was thrilling, as were swaths of Netherlands–Costa Rica. The group stages and opening knockout rounds may have been characterized by upsets and attacking football, but, as the saying goes, defense wins championships. And most of the remaining teams were out to prove that cliché right.
Perhaps no one player represented the swashbuckling, expressive football we had seen in the opening weeks like Neymar. One of the greatest sounds of the tournament was the collective gasp for air taken by the stadium whenever he would get the ball in the opponent’s half. He was inventive, direct, and always on the verge of something wonderful — leading his team in goals, shots, chances created, and attacking-half touches. Neymar’s injury, and his exit from the World Cup, was rather symbolic of the turn the tournament has made toward the pragmatic. Brazil can demand a ban for Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zúñiga (the guy with the most infamous knee in South America right now), but Phil Scolari’s men were equally cynical and reckless in their tactical fouling in the quarterfinals, racking up 31 to Colombia’s 23.
Given the talent that will be on display in the semifinals — creative whiz kids like Mesut Özil, Oscar, Lionel Messi, and Arjen Robben — you can can count on some moments of wonder. I hope there are, at least. It would be a shame if the spirit that ran through the first few weeks of the World Cup was carried off the field Friday with the player who embodied it.
Luiz Felipe Scolari
Brian Phillips: More than anyone, Scolari is the figure in Brazilian soccer who stands for the antithesis of all the things Brazilian soccer is supposed to represent — the antithesis of joy for its own sake, the antithesis of spontaneity, the antithesis of natural style. One look at him and you see that this is true. The authoritarian mustache. The narrowed eyes. The lined, bronzed brow. The smile that leads with the chin, like he’s daring you to take a swing. This is the face of a boss man who knows he’s a boss man, of a killer who doesn’t lose sleep. Some men move through the world trailing a pheromonal vapor that makes 22-year-old boys want to follow them to hell. It’s got fuck all to do with Pelé.
He’s a pragmatist. That’s the word you’re supposed to think of when you watch him strut and threaten on the touchline, waxy and bristling, like a shoeshine brush that dulls whatever it polishes. He does what it takes to win. Maybe you’d rather lose? It’s pretty to think that pretty is all that matters. Come the 89th minute, though — this is the premise of his entire career, his entire reason for being — you want a general who’ll defend the scoreboard. Brazil hasn’t lost a competitive game in Brazil since the 1970s. Didn’t they play pretty soccer back then? You’ve got a smart mouth. Why don’t you run the math.
He was always a strange fit with Neymar, though. Wasn’t he? Here on the one side you’ve got a coach who doesn’t care if he bores you to death as long as he wins 1-0, a coach who loves hard fouls, orderly lines, set pieces, time management, prudence: a kind of Powell Doctrine of international soccer. And here on the other you’ve got his best player, a frail-shouldered dancer of a forward, all mazy runs and pirouettes and highlights of improvised skill. It was like watching Puck take the field for Patton. It worked, but it never made sense.
And then the Colombia game happened. It’s an exaggeration to say that Scolari is to blame for the spinal injury that ended Neymar’s World Cup. He didn’t tackle anybody. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Brazil’s commitment to tactical fouling, combined with the referee’s refusal to show any cards until the game was already out of hand, made the injury more likely. Scolari shifted the norm of the match toward hard fouls. Then he watched his best player suffer the effects of one. As a micro-history of Brazilian soccer, it writes itself. Pragmatism sends beauty out on a stretcher. Olé, olé, olé, olé.
Neymar mattered to this Brazil team not just because he scored the most goals or had his face in the most soap commercials. He was a little flashback to an older ideal, the nimble heir to Pelé and Garrincha. He gave the Seleção something unpredictable, something that could feel magical. In a World Cup that has itself often been dogged by a kind of corrupt pragmatism — the cleared-out favelas, the pointless stadiums, the towers of wasted money — he was the pin in the mind that reminded you that soccer, and especially Brazilian soccer, was still a hopeful thing.
And now he’s gone, and Scolari will have to clench his big jaw and figure out how to win without him. And will have to be judged entirely on whether he succeeds or fails. That’s unfair, of course. At the same time — well, isn’t it exactly what he asked for?
netw3rk: The worst time to buy a player is right after that player shows out in a major tournament. Recency bias and small sample sizes inflate a few good turns of play into works of budding genius. In the case of this World Cup, a month of running a physical and emotional gantlet in the primordial Amazonian heat means the player is likely exhausted. Soccer history is rife with examples of clubs buying players coming off buzzworthy tournament performances, only to have that player fail to live up to expectations.
• Arsenal bought Andrey Arshavin after Euro 2008, and despite a mythmaking four-goal game against Liverpool, he promptly became a total defensive liability.
• Sir Alex Ferguson reached into his pocket for Czech winger Karel Poborsky after the latter’s audacious scoop-lob in Euro 96, only to move him after less than two seasons.
• Senegal’s Cinderella run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup resulted in many of the team’s players moving on up to bigger clubs in top-flight leagues, including striker El Hadji Diouf, who went to Liverpool from Ligue 1 side Lens for $17 million. Diouf scored in his August 2002 debut, then went seven months before scoring again, got banned for two matches for spitting on a Celtic supporter during a UEFA Cup match, and failed to score at all the next season, during which he racked up 13 yellow cards and a red.
Now, all of that being said, Colombia’s James Rodríguez is a freaking S-T-U-D. I mean, my god. LeBron James, who has been largely silent on matters of his own free-agency bid, tweeted that Rodríguez was his favorite player of the World Cup. The Colombian’s 25-yard volley, after taking the ball off his chest, is one of the goals of the tournament. He was the best player on the pitch during Colombia’s 2-1 quarterfinal defeat/bloodbath against Brazil on Friday, displaying an uncanny ability to find spaces and create angles despite Paulinho constantly kicking his shins.
Rodríguez scored six goals in five World Cup matches, including Colombia’s only goal Friday, off a penalty kick moments before a Jurassic Park–size grasshopper clung to his arm. Watching him in this tournament was like watching a star go supernova.
As Rodríguez walked off the pitch in Fortaleza, tears streaming down his face, Brazil’s David Luiz consoled him. Real recognize real, recognize Real Madrid, because here, of course, come the transfer rumors: Manchester United (they could’ve brought in Rodríguez as a teenager on the cheap, but declined), Chelsea, and Real Madrid are reportedly looking to scoop up Rodríguez from Ligue 1’s AS Monaco. For their part, Monaco say Rodríguez is staying put, at least for one more season. We’ll see.
Louis van Gaal
Mike L. Goodman: The Netherlands was not supposed to be at the final four of this World Cup. Despite being a perennial international powerhouse, this was supposed to be a down year. They were in Group B, with the defending Masters of the Universe, Spain, as well as the South American darlings, Chile. And yet here they are, thanks largely to manager Louis van Gaal.
The Dutch manager is brilliant, and he really, really wants you to know it. He’ll tell you how he changed their Round of 16 match against Mexico by moving Dirk Kuyt from left wing back to right back to striker. He’ll resist using his last substitute for 120 minutes just to bring in reserve goalkeeper/wrestling heel Tim Krul to face penalties against Costa Rica. The move obviously ended up with Krul saving two penalties and the Dutch going through to the semifinals.
The thing about the self-professed brilliance of Van Gaal, though, is that the brilliance is not nearly as important as the self-profession. That’s because by far the most radical thing Van Gaal has done — the move that laid the foundation for all of the Netherlands’ success over the last month — was something that could only be done by a manager with insane levels of self-confidence. Louis van Gaal, you see, changed the Netherlands’ formation.
Before Van Gaal, the Netherlands played a 4-3-3. That wasn’t a choice, it was an immutable fact of nature. Death, taxes, and the Oranje play a beautiful, interchanging, possession-based 4-3-3. This was how the Netherlands’ most celebrated team, the one that lost to West Germany in the 1974 finals, played. This was the formation that gave us Johan Cruyff and Dennis Bergkamp. This was Total Football. And, if Total Football didn’t win a World Cup title, well, that was an imperfection with the world, not the Dutch system.
Van Gaal looked at all that history, took it out back, and put it out of its misery. He sold his team on an idea of playing defensively and directly, no matter what critics back home might think. Speed and man-marking suited this particular group, not possession and positional interplay. Imbuing a side with an “us against the world” mentality is nothing new. Doing it when the world is, in this case, your own fans and history — well, that’s something else entirely.
The Oranje are two games from bringing home the Netherlands’ first World Cup. Even if they win, some of the nation’s greatest soccer icons and many of their fans may never consider the victory more worthy than their own beautiful defeats. Louis van Gaal hasn’t just ignored those critiques, he’s turned them into a rallying cry for his players. That’s true genius. There’s only one type of manager who could do that: not just a brilliant one, but one who absolutely knows he is.
Graham Parker: After all the invoking of Harald Schumacher’s assault on Patrick Battiston in 1982, when Germany and France met in the World Cup semifinals, it turned out that another decisive physical intervention shaped this quarterfinal. It might not have had the brutality of Schumacher’s leap into Battiston, but it was another aerial battle in which brute strength had a starring role, and one that brought back the memory of watching the pre-Klinsmann/Löw Germany at work.
In the 12th minute, Mats Hummels, the big German center back, got up at a set piece and threw his hapless French marker, Raphaël Varane, around like a rag doll, then glanced a perfect header past Hugo Lloris and into the net.
It proved to be the decisive goal in a dour game. And in its Never Mind the Bollocks directness and its pragmatic exploitation of physical prowess (rather than the Jogi Löw counterattacking doctrine of speed and movement off the ball), it placed Germany squarely back in the realm of the quartet of Realpolitikers who now make up the semifinalists (it’s saying something that Argentina, by default, is the nearest to a romantic left in the final four).
Löw came into the game under pressure — the overhauled vision of German aesthetes of 2006 and 2010 hadn’t won anything — and he was expected to finally deliver with this Golden Generation. His team had even practiced set pieces — no big deal in itself were it not for Löw’s open dismissal of doing so in more idealistic times, since it took away from the time he could spend working on more creative team movements.
But when push came to shove, and Germany needed a result, well … push came to shove. And Hummels, who went on to have a brilliant and equally muscular performance in the German defense, can push and shove with the best of them.
Ángel di María
Ryan O’Hanlon: Ángel di María, you will be missed.
We will miss you because when you injured your thigh against Belgium, your coach, Alejandro Sabella, replaced you with Enzo Pérez, who is a fine player and for all we know possibly even a good person, but also an unspectacular defensive midfielder. We don’t like seeing people get hurt — especially when they’re about to play in their country’s first semifinal in 24 years.
We will miss you because there was something self-sacrificial and honorable about the way you played in Brazil. Might you be the only mutual friend of Argentina’s defenders and its attackers? Because, at times, it sure looked like it. We know how hard it can be to try to please so many people at once, and we commend your efforts.
We will miss you because we remember how you played in the Champions League final, when you were the best player on the field. We remember that first half against Barcelona, when it seemed like you might have actually consumed one of those invincible-making Super Mario stars and you ran straight through the opposition defense again and again and again. In general, we remember how great you were this past season — suddenly becoming one of the finest and most unorthodox creative players in the world, an unceasing dribbler who somehow never lost the ball, a converted winger who, despite playing farther back than you previously ever had, led Europe in assists.
We will miss you because, yes, you look like Franz Kafka. And yes, we were tempted to compare your World Cup — endless running for a not-quite-clear payoff; unfulfilled potential thanks to a meddling and maybe clueless hierarchy; an inexplicable ending that does little more than affirm the pointlessness of existence — to the writings of your doppelgänger.
We will miss you because we know how nervy and cagey and whatever-else-y single-elimination soccer tournaments get as they creep toward their end. We know that your coach once said he was happy to win a game “by half a goal to nil.” And with you gone — the one player who seemed to push back against an overreliance on an unimaginative defensive base and one saving moment of brilliance from the best player in the world — we are worried about what comes next.