While some lesser lights were forced to fret over the group stages of the World Cup and others left embarrassingly early, Brazil did what they always do by easing themselves into the business end of the tournament.
All that’s gone before in Group G is forgotten because the old adage remains true that while you can’t win the World Cup in the group stages, you can certainly lose it. In truth, save for an hour against Ivory Coast, the boys from Brazil have rarely ventured out of second gear, but in then again they’ve never had to. Instead players like Luis Fabiano have played themselves into form with a couple of goals, and Robinho, once hailed as Pele’s heir, has firmly rehabilitated himself from the forlorn figure that was evident at the tail end of his life on British shores.
The only thing missing from the darling of the Santos’ supporters game in South Africa has been goals but his direct running, eye for a pass and infamous pedelas – stepovers or lollipops as former Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson used to insist on calling them – have shown a man, who at the age of 26, finally realises his prime years have arrived. Going into the last 16 clash with South American rivals Chile, the little attacker could not have asked for more welcoming opponents given his six goals in seven outings against La Roja prior to yesterday’s match. And speaking ahead of the game, Robinho stated his belief that there is more to come from himself and team-mates alike. He said: “We know the Brazilian people and media are very demanding, but we are used to that. Our goal is to win the World Cup and do it playing well. Our team has to play quickly to make things more difficult for our markers.”
Of equal importance, though in a more understated way, is midfield anchorman Gilberto Silva. The veteran of the 2002 World Cup winning side of Luis Felipe Scolari, has been an ever present for current boss Carlos Dunga and a standout performer in the tournament so far for the Selecao. The midfield axis consisting of the Panathanikos man and Felipe Melo adds another level of security to an already rock-solid backline, offering even more protection to the brilliant Julio Cesar in goal. But the former Arsenal man’s role is even more vital yet almost invisible to most observers.
With width for this Brazil side provided almost exclusively by the full-backs – Douglas Maicon and Michel Bastos – the onus is on Silva and Melo to fill in the gaps vacated by the wide men when they venture forward to support the attack. If there is any doubt as to Gilberto Silva’s importance to his country’s line-up, then consider that his appearance against Chile will be his 15th in World Cup finals, one ahead of El Rei, Pele.
The use of two defensive midfielders has been a philosophy at the forefront of the thinking of the Brazilian national team since 1994, when they finally ended the 24-year wait for a world title. Dunga himself perfected the role in 1994 alongside Mauro Silva, while Silva and Kleberson did the job to great success in 2002. Anyone who watched England’s capitulation to the Germans on Sunday will have seared on their minds the importance of not being outnumbered in midfield. As the Dutch await in Port Elizabeth for the quarter-finals, how Silva deals with the fantastic-schemer Wesley Sneijder, assuming Chile are put the sword, might just decide who lines up in the final four.
Away from the squad’s camp in Johannesburg, striker Luis Fabiano has hinted that his club future may lie away from current employers Sevilla and in the Premier League with Manchester United. Courted for much of last summer by AC Milan and their posse of Brazilian, the 29-year-old seems more stimulated by a move to Old Trafford. “The Premier League attracts me and also the way Manchester United plays football attracts me,” he said. “I now need to join a side where I can challenge for honours from the first season,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Selecao has been backed to claim the hexa, or sixth title, by NBA legend Kobe Bryant. The LA Lakers star, who recently picked up a fifth NBA title of his own, is in South Africa for charity work and is a big fan of football, having spent part of his childhood in Italy. Bryant has stated that he can’t see beyond Brazil for the crown they regard as their own.