Skip to main content

More open approach fails to pay off for Internacional against Mazembe


There's an old saying in Brazilian soccer that organizing a team is like having a short blanket on a cold night -- pull it over your neck and your feet get cold, cover your feet and your neck freezes.

While Internacional of Porto Alegre is using the blanket to dry its tears, it might also reflect on the wisdom of the phrase.

This was supposed to be Internacional's year in the World Club Cup. Instead of which, it has become the first South American side to fail to reach the final, bundled out 2-0 by TP Mazembe, the African champion from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So no second title for Inter. Four years ago it overcame Barcelona in the final to be crowned world champions.

It was a tactical triumph. Inter took the field with a game plan that recognized Barcelona's superiority. Its aim was to sit deep, deny Barcelona space and keep interrupting Barca's intricate passing moves. Inter sought to launch the occasional counterattack, take the lead and then hang on grimly waiting for the final whistle, and it all went perfectly to plan.

It was, perhaps, the only viable strategy available -- the one that all the South American sides have used since the competition was launched in its current annual format in 2005. The only exception was Argentina's Boca Juniors, who took the brave but foolhardy option of going toe to toe with Milan in 2007, and were beaten more emphatically than the 4-2 score line would suggest.

The South American teams have been forced onto the defensive by the realities of the globalization of the game. As recently as 1999, Palmeiras of Brazil could outplay Manchester United in the old Inter-Continental Cup, and Boca Juniors could both outperform and beat Real Madrid the following year. But as the decade moved on so the players congregated in Europe -- from the four corners of the earth the world's finest flocked to join the leading clubs in the Champions League. And so when the South Americans fought their annual battle against the Europeans, it was effectively a game of journeyman and promises on one side, and global all-stars on the other. The best South Americans were representing the European teams.

There are early signs that the terms of trade might be changing. Europe has financial problems. In South America, meanwhile, the economic outlook is rosier -- especially in Brazil, where the huge internal marker and the strength of the currency have combined to improve the position of the clubs. It is easier for them to bring back players from Europe, or to hold on to their own products for a little while longer.

All of this was supposed to be apparent on the field in the World Club Cup. Inter Milan are not the most awe-inspiring of European champions, while Internacional took a team generally considered more attractive than the one which beat Barcelona in 2006. The hope was that perhaps this year the Brazilians could not only win -- but do so in style.

In comparison with its predecessors from four years ago, the 2010 model Internacional is certainly easier on the eye, with more attacking options. But -- and here we are back to the tale of the short blanket -- perhaps as a consequence of this they are also more vulnerable. More committed to an attacking game, with midfield interplay and penetration down the flanks, they have less defensive solidity.

I fully expected them to get past TP Mazembe and move on to the final. But I never expected them to win the title. In fact, as the months passed I became increasingly worried about their prospects.

First, because Inter remain a club whose strategy is based on producing potential stars and selling them to Europe, thus enabling them to finance a competitive squad. The model has worked exceptionally well for them, as it did for Argentina's Boca Juniors earlier in the decade. Inter hope and envisage that soon they will be able to hang on to their young stars until the age of 23-24. For now, though, they still aim to sell at around the 20-21 mark. The obvious problem with selling is that you reach a point when you lose someone who cannot immediately be replaced.

After winning the Copa Libertadores in August, Inter sold central midfielder Sandro to Tottenham in England -- a fine player, but one they could replace. Much harder to replace has been the jet-heeled Taison, who joined Ukraine club Metalist. His pace was vital to the 4-2-3-1 formation of coach Celso Roth. Without it, Inter found it hard to lengthen the game, and the side often had possession without much penetration. After the defeat to Mazembe, Roth revealed that this lack of goal power was one of his worries going into the tournament.

There were also grounds to worry about Inter's capacity to deal with the opposing counterattack. In a tournament preview for World Soccer magazine I commented that "at 35, center back Indio is beginning to creak. And at 32, the physical capacity of midfielder Pablo Guinazu will also be tested."

Both had poor games. The Argentine Guinazu is a fine player, but was unable to knit the side together as he once did, and Indio looked a player shorn of all confidence. He was unable to get close enough to Kabangu to prevent the first Mazembe goal, and Guinazu could not close down Kaluyituka to stop the second.

And so Internacional were beaten by a side who sought to play on the break -- swallowing the same medicine they administered to Barcelona in 2006.

Mazembe's victory is clearly good news for the World Club Cup, a tournament struggling to establish itself in the overcrowded global calendar. Having an African team in the final is a positive development.

But despite Internacional's defeat, even more positive in the long run might be the confidence of the South Americans to pull the blanket high and play a more attacking game. If Inter can keep its youngsters for longer, or if the current Santos side stay together for a couple of years, then they have the potential to take the game to the European champions and produce a spectacle which will grip the attention of soccer fans everywhere. That, more than anything else, can ensure the success of the World Club Cup.