BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- The first knockout game of this most beguiling of World Cups could hardly have been a more enticing prospect - Jorge Sampaoli’s buccaneering Chilean team, memorable slayers of world champion Spain in the group stage, up against a Brazil side on a mission to seize the golden fleece of the hexa (a sixth World Cup title) on its own turf, lifted or perhaps burdened by 200 million success hungry souls.
In the end it took a penalty shootout to see the hosts through on an afternoon of almost intolerable drama. Just minutes before Gonzalo Jara’s decisive penalty miss, in the dying seconds of extra-time, Chile substitute Mauricio Pinilla had crashed a shot against the bar that would have sent Brazil spinning to unthinkable defeat. Instead it is Chile who is going home.
“Everyone was against us in the stadium, but we gave everything. It was very harsh. We were convinced we would reach the next round. But I’m proud for my players and proud for Chile, because I think the national team has represented the country very well,” said Sampaoli after.
The play of light and color at the Mineirão stadium before kickoff was hypnotic – the infinite blue of the Minas Gerais sky, the deep green of the pitch, the bright red of the shirts of the Chile fans amid the lurid yellow of their overwhelming Brazilian counterparts. But when the game began it was a tense, at times scrappy affair.
The bad blood had flowed early as the Brazilian fans booed the extended a capella version of the Chilean anthem – one wonders if the boos screwed the courage of these proud La Roja players even closer to the sticking place than it had been prior to the game.
At times the tackles bordered on the thuggish. One gripping vignette featured Chile’s midfield powerhouse Arturo Vidal and the mercurial Neymar. First Vidal, who has been hampered all tournament by the effects of a recent knee operation, was robbed of possession. After a quick mouthful of spinach, he wrestled two Brazilian players to the ground to win the ball back. A little later, the same player’s late, high tackle sent Neymar spinning through the air like a pinwheel.
The play may have lacked cohesion but there were chances aplenty – mostly for Brazil, whose plan of putting a Chilean back line that lacks height under aerial pressure was working well. At times Chile’s defending bordered on the chaotic – bodies were hurled madly in front of the ball as goalkeeper Claudio Bravo leapt back and forth to repel the pressure.
Good chances fell to Neymar, with a rare header, and Fred, who ballooned the ball over an open goal after a typical wriggling Neymar run. Then Dani Alves had a 30 yard missile tipped over by Bravo. Brazil’s goal came after 18 minutes, when Thiago Silva flicked on a Neymar corner and that most patriotic of Brazilians, David Luiz, finished from close range. The yellow-shirted hordes celebrated deliriously, confident that Chile was going to play the patsy once again – the visitors had not beaten their hosts on Brazilian soil in 26 attempts.
But Sampaoli´s side was in no mood to surrender limply. Brazilian fullbacks Alves and Marcelo have looked creaky throughout this World Cup, and danger loomed when Marcelo and Hulk somehow contrived to deliver the ball to Chile forward Eduardo Vargas near their own corner flag. Vargas played a short pass to the dangerous Alexis Sanchez, who slotted the ball past Julio Cesar. Chile’s confidence bloomed anew.
The aching tension, which had been ratcheting up throughout the game, reached unbearable levels in the second half. First Hulk had a goal dubiously disallowed for handball by English referee Howard Webb. Perhaps it was karma – on Friday former Brazil president Lula had mocked the England team while celebrating the success of the World Cup, saying “the English media said there wouldn’t be a World Cup. For them there wasn’t.” Or perhaps Webb was subconsciously seeking a little revenge on the city where England’s most humiliating World Cup moment – defeat to the USA in 1950 – took place.
At the other end crafty Chile midfielder Charles Aranguiz hit a stinging shot that was palmed away by Julio Cesar as the Brazilians in the stands shrieked and gasped. Next, Brazil substitute Jô missed a Hulk cross by inches, and it was the Chilean fans’ turn to cover their eyes. Brazil continued to pile forward, although it seemed to be emotional energy, rather than guile, that drove the hosts on. Hulk, who had a fine game, burst into the area and smashed a shot towards goal. Bravo saved again and Chile held firm, even creating a few chances of its own as the 90 minutes dwindled away.
There was room for more drama in extra time as Pinilla crashed that dramatic shot against the bar in the dying embers of the added 30 minutes.
“These games are so even sometimes that if you don’t take your chances, like us today, you can pay a heavy price,” Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari said.
Then at the death Brazil’s d'Artagnan, Neymar, set off on yet another thrust from the halfway line before playing in Hulk. The chunky forward was brushed off the ball, and it was time for the torment of penalties.
Torment everywhere except in Belo Horizonte, perhaps, for fans here are used to such drama. In last year’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Uruguay at the Mineirão, Julio Cesar saved a penalty that set Brazil on the way to a dramatic victory. Local club Atlético Mineiro won the Copa Libertadores at the same stadium after a penalty shootout against Olimpia of Paraguay, and in an earlier round Brazil’s reserve goalkeeper Victor made a heroic last minute penalty save against Tijuana to keep his club in the tournament.
Fittingly enough, the penalty shootout here featured more drama than anyone could stand. David Luiz fired in the first penalty, then Cesar saved a weak, straight-down-the-middle effort from Pinilla. Willian rolled a feeble effort wide of Bravo’s right hand post, before Cesar saved Alexis Sanchez’s effort, diving smartly down to his right. Marcelo put Brazil 2-0 ahead despite Bravo getting his hand to the ball, then Aranguiz hit the best penalty of the day into Cesar’s top corner. After Bravo had saved Hulk’s effort with his legs, Diaz tied it at 2-2.
After 120 minutes and eight penalties there was nothing to separate these two courageous, attacking teams. Who else would take Brazil’s last kick but Neymar? With 200 million people hanging on his every move, and the formidable ghosts of Brazil’s glorious soccer past watching over his shoulder, the talisman of this Brazilian side is arguably under more pressure than any other player in World Cup history. Lucky then, that he seems to have ice in his veins. Here he jiggled and skipped and then slipped the ball past Bravo as though he was kicking a ball around the yard with his young son. Seconds later, Jara slammed his kick against the post and Chile was out.
“Neymar is 22, but he plays like he has the experience of a 35-year-old. He’s a simple person and he likes playing football…so when he takes a penalty it’s just like he’s playing with his pals,” said Scolari.
On the field the Brazil players slumped to the ground, exhausted. Kneeling, David Luiz and Neymar embraced while Luiz pointed to the sky in thanks, while on the other side of the pitch and in the stands there were tears from the Chilean fans and players.
“I just hope our next games don’t go to penalties, or our friends and families might have heart attacks. But in difficult moments we were strong enough to stand and fight together,” said Julio Cesar, who was in tears before the shootout. “I’m an emotional person. Several of my teammates came to me and said beautiful things to encourage me. I couldn’t keep it in.”
“A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Brazil, which struggled in its group games against Croatia and Mexico, and even for a spell against a hopeless Cameroon side, came within the breadth of a crossbar from despair here on Saturday. But there is the sense that the team is getting stronger with each dramatic, draining victory.
“We will become more experienced as we go through the competition, but we need to make fewer mistakes. In knockout games our errors lead to chances and maybe we won’t be as lucky as we were today,” a relieved Scolari said.