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Brazil's beautiful game turns ugly

BEIJING -- It was a zany night at Workers' Stadium, a Brazil-Argentina soccer showdown that included a Kobe Bryant-driven human stampede, a good-old-fashioned journalist scuffle, the sight of Diego Maradona talking on a 1980s-style cellphone and a beleaguered Brazilian manager who dressed like a Club Kid, coached like a fraidy-cat and, in the end, mistook me for an Englishman.

That would be Dunga, curator of O Jogo Feio (the Ugly Game), who gave me the old hard-man's stare when I caused a small international incident in the press conference after Brazil's 3-0 loss to Argentina.

"Two red cards, defensive play, zero goals," I asked the Brazilian coach after his team had squandered yet another chance to win his nation's first Olympic soccer gold medal. "What happened to the Beautiful Game of Brazil?"

***

A night this strange deserves its own running commentary. So let's dive in:

7:15 p.m.: Brazil-Argentina! Ronaldinho-Lionel Messi! An Olympic semifinal for the ages! To feel the excitement first-hand, SI's Alexander Wolff and I drop in at Alameda, a renowned Brazilian joint a few blocks from the stadium that Zagat calls "Beijing's Most Popular Restaurant." Surely the Brazilian fans will be in full force. Caipirinhas! Samba! Scantily-clad soccer-loving beauties!

But when we arrive the place is half-full, eerily quiet and (truth be told) not very Brazilian at all. With no caipirinhas on the menu I order a glass of Argentine malbec in protest. (That said, the food really is amazing -- after two weeks of Chinese fare a good medium-rare steak is a lifesaver.)

8:55 p.m.: I've been timing my kickoff arrivals to perfection, but there's a surprise waiting for us when we reach the stadium's media entrance five minutes before kickoff. The doors are chained shut with giant padlocks. A stern-looking Chinese security henchman steps into me like a Duke Blue Devil taking a charge and shakes his head violently. Frantic arm-waving ensues. But we're out of luck and have to watch the game on TV in the photographers' work room.

As I'll learn later, so many journalists have come that the entire media section is bursting with a mass of humanity. "Anarchy," my pal Michael Lewis will say, describing a scene of journos jamming into aisles, screaming expletives in eight languages and even exchanging elbows and shoves in the halftime restroom line. There's nothing like the third week of the Olympics when it comes to scribe-on-scribe aggro. I can't believe I'm missing it.

Minute 20: What the hell happened to Ronaldinho? The world's greatest soccer player (circa 2006) has turned into a piece of do-ragged, multi-million-dollar statuary. Overweight and undermotivated, Ronaldinho refuses to make any of the explosive runs that used to unhinge opposing defenses. Instead he just sort of hangs out on the left side, tries a few moves in tight space and sprays some harmless passes to his teammates. This new Ronaldinho is not menacing at all, and the ever-spry Messi only highlights the contrast. How do you say I want my money back in Italian, Silvio Berlusconi?

Minute 40: It's still 0-0. On the sideline, Dunga shows off yet another example of the Dunga Face -- the blank look of a man who doesn't realize his overly defensive tactics are torpedoing the most storied soccer team on the planet. Why is forward Alexandre Pato on the bench? Why are so many guys in yellow shirts playing defense behind the ball? Why is this former defensive-midfielder coaching Brazil anyway? The guy can't even dress the part. With that diagonal-striped shirt, Dunga looks like he'd rather be clubbing in the nearby Sanlitun bar district than coaching these guys. They'd probably be better off if he was.

Halftime: Still 0-0. I'd told Alex on the way over that I was worried this would devolve into a chippy rivalry game, and that's exactly what we're seeing. At least the Argentines have had a few good scoring chances -- including a screamer by Messi that I have no idea how he even got off. But Brazil? Zero shots on goal, zero free kicks, zero corner kicks. No wonder Diego Maradona, slimmed down after his Al Roker surgery, is talking excitedly to someone on his cellphone in the VIP tribune. But what's up with El Diego's mobile? That oversized phone looks like the one Michael Douglas was using in Wall Street.

Minute 52: Argentina 1, Brazil 0. Maybe Maradona was calling his daughter Giannina, who's dating Argentine forward Sergio (Kun) Agüero, who puts the Albiceleste up by blocking a cross from Angel di Maria into the goal. You have to like how some of these young studs are identifying themselves on their jerseys at the Olympics: Spanish hoops prodigy Ricky Rubio wears RICKY on his back, while Agüero's jersey reads KUN AGUERO -- "Kun" being some sort of allusion to a Japanese anime character. The spirit of HE HATE ME lives on overseas.

Minute 58: Argentina 2, Brazil 0. Kun Agüero strikes again, this time after Messi dribbles around nearly half the perimeter of Brazil's penalty box before setting the killer finish in motion. Messi's unreal. There's no Ray Hudson in the house tonight, so I serenade Alex with cries of "Lio the Lion!!!" A Chinese photographer nearby casts a quizzical look my way.

Minute 65: Ronaldinho hits the post on a free kick! It's the only pizzazz we'll see from him tonight. Good thing the IOC made all the teams remove their uniform shields -- this Brazil team doesn't deserve to wear the five stars above its badge (signifying the country's five World Cup titles).

Minute 75: "You know what, Alex?" I say. "If Brazil doesn't get any closer this game could get real ugly. Red-card ugly."

Minute 76: Argentina 3, Brazil 0. Penalty! Defender Rafinha doesn't want Agüero to snag a hat-trick, so he dumps him in the box. Obvious penalty. Juan Román Riquelme drills his spot-kick right down the middle. This is getting ugly. Argentine fans (and a few blue-and-white fright-wigged Chinese hinchas) are going crazy in the stands.

Minute 81: As if on cue, Brazil's Lucas gets sent off for a horrific challenge from behind on Javier Mascherano. Cut to another glimpse of the Dunga Face.

Minute 82: A whoosh of human noise rises up outside the room we're in. People are running in numbers, and a media volunteer hurries to pull the doors closed. What's going on? A riot? A Maradona sighting? A journalists' rumble? Sensing a story, I rush outside into a clot of several hundred people who are clearly in a lather over something. A white van screeches off. "Who was that?" I ask a Chinese guy. "Kobe Bryant!" he screams. And just like that, the most famous athlete in Beijing is off.

Forget Bryant's performance on the court for a second. His Olympic public relations performance has been remarkable. At a time when LeBron James thought he would be the king of Beijing, Bryant draws more adoration than anyone else. Plus he's become something of a superfan here, attending swimming events, men's soccer games (Messi gave Bryant his jersey at one game) and perhaps even the women's soccer gold-medal game. (Kobe announced he wants to watch World Player of the Year Marta of Brazil. The man clearly knows his soccer.)

Minute 84: Oh boy. Thiago Neves picks up Brazil's second red card by cutting down Mascherano, who's turning into something of a piñata. You stay classy, Brazil.

Minute 91: The final whistle blows. Argentines dance. Brazilians mope. Maradona's boys are in the gold-medal game.

11:15 p.m.: The scene outside the press-conference room is a madhouse. For the first time in the Olympics you need a ticket to go inside. A sign announces that ticket preference will be given to Argentine and Brazilian journalists. I scam one from a FIFA official and get in anyway.

11:20 p.m.: The moderator for the press conference is a sort of middle-aged Chinese version of the game-show host Wink Martindale. He's apparently trying to get points as a party apparatchik, too. Not once does he call on an Argentine journalist to ask a question during the press conference for Argentine coach Sergio Batista. "The lady from CCTV!" Chinese Wink announces, sending the microphone to a questioner from China state televison. Three questions later he calls on another female journo from CCTV. "Last question!" Chinese Wink says. The Argentine journos grumble. The mullet-haired Argentine coach shrugs. "Well, so much for the day!" Chinese Wink yells.

11:40 p.m. Dunga arrives for his press conference. A surprising number of softballs get tossed up from the Brazilian media. If there's one thing I learned a long time ago, it's that the journalists from the world's best soccer countries don't always ask the best questions, and if you want answers you'd better ask them yourself. So I ask for the microphone.

"Two red cards, defensive play, zero goals. What happened to the Beautiful Game of Brazil?"

The question is translated into Portuguese. Heads swivel. Dunga gives me the full-on Dunga Face. He answers. The translator speaks. "The style of this match is the same as our previous matches. Of course it would be better that we scored, but you cannot always achieve everything. It's like [comparing now to] the 1960s. It would be better for England to have the title of the World Cup. But things go the other way around. That's my comment on your question."

Zing! (Or not.) "He thinks you're English," my pal Peter Berlin from the International Herald Tribune whispers.

"Where are you from?" two Brazilian writers ask as we head out of the press conference.

"The United States."

They laugh. "We didn't think you were English," one says.

It's fun to stir the pot, even when it's a pot of Brazilian feijoada.

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