CONCEPCION, Chile — Before tonight’s game here many Brazil fans, and even neutrals, were already excitedly looking forward to an epic semifinal clash between Argentina and the Seleção in this year’s Copa America. But, just as it did in the 2011 tournament, Paraguay stunned its loftier rival, fighting back to equalize through a Derlis Gonzalez penalty after Robinho’s neat goal had given Brazil the lead and then going on to win, stunningly, in the penalty shootout (4–3).
Ramon Diaz’s side pressed and harried the Seleção all night, as was expected, but also produced some neat, composed passing in midfield, and the hard, intelligent running of Edgar Benitez down the flanks was a constant threat. Even before Gonzalez’s goal, Paraguay had gone close through a crisply hit free kick from the same player and a smart Haedo Valdez header that flew just over, and could even have won in regulation after substitute Raul Bobadilla forced Jefferson into another good save.
Brazil, meanwhile, was content to keep the ball in midfield and wait to hit Paraguay on the break after its early goal. But the paucity of the team’s attacking play, which has been painfully evident throughout the tournament, was revealed once again as Paraguay’s pressure grew. Brazil offered almost nothing going forward, save for Robinho’s neat passing and movement, and, after last year’s harrowing World Cup defeat against Germany, the country is now left to consider the state of its footballing present and future for the second time in just under 12 months.
Here are three thoughts on Saturday's game:
History repeats itself
Paraguay’s tremendous performance here should surprise no one, for the country, one of South America’s smallest and poorest footballing nations, has a long reputation for stout resistance and battling performances. Never was that spirit more evident than when players such as goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert and defensive giants Celso Ayala, Carlos Gamarra and Francisco Arce led Paraguay to four consecutive World Cups between 1998 and 2010.
Arguably that generation’s finest hour, however, came in 2011, when, under current Argentina coach Gerardo Martino, Paraguay reached the Copa America final. Its quarterfinal opponent that year was Brazil and, then as now, Paraguay eliminated its more vaunted neighbor, beating Brazil on penalties after Mano Menezes’s hapless side missed all four of its kicks. A number of players from that game were on the pitch in Concepcion this evening: Robinho and Thiago Silva for Brazil, and Victor Caceres, Paulo da Silva, Nelson Haedo Valdez and goalkeeper Justo Villar for Paraguay.
Paraguay lost to Uruguay 3–0 in the final that year and went home, bizarrely, having not won a game in 90 minutes. Victory over Jamaica here in Chile means Diaz’s admirable side has already surpassed the Class of 2011 in that respect, and Paraguay will now face Argentina in a semifinal repeat of the group stage matchup between the two teams, which ended in a fiercely contested 2–2 tie. On paper, Argentina should win comfortably, but Paraguay has been surprising people for a long time now.
Under Dunga, another nail in Brazil’s coffin
It took a little while to notice what was happening. After all, Brazil came into this game as the heavy favorite, even without its only world-class player. And great things were not expected of Paraguay, who finished at the bottom of South American qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and whose manager, Diaz, has been in charge for just six months.
Most importantly—perhaps romantically, perhaps optimistically—there is the lingering mystique of the canary yellow shirt, and all the ghosts and images of the past that it conjures up, from Garrincha to Romario and Ronaldinho and all the rest. No one really expects the jogo bonito anymore, but there is still the hope that something interesting might happen when Brazil plays.
For the first ten minutes, such thoughts clouded the vision in the same way as the fog that drifted down over the Estadio Ester Roa on this chilly night. But it did not take long for the penny to drop. Despite Robinho’s 14th-minute opener, plucky underdog Paraguay wasn’t scared of Brazil. Not in the slightest. The mighty, it seems, has fallen far.
Diaz’s side took the initiative throughout while, bolstered by that early goal, Brazil sat back and waited patiently for openings on the break. Which is all well and good, as long as the opposition does not score. But as the Paraguayan pressure grew, it became clear that Brazil was desperately short of attacking ideas. Dunga, who had bizarrely and offensively said on Friday that he thought he must be of Afro-Brazilian descent, so much did he “enjoy taking a beating” from fans and the media, flapped and waved angrily on the sidelines.
To no avail. Brazil has been functional at best throughout this tournament, eking out a narrow win over Peru, losing to Colombia and then just beating Venezuela in its final group game. But when the pressure was on and the side had to respond to a spirited, courageous opponent, neither Dunga nor his players had anything to offer in response. (Dunga did say that 15 players had a virus during the week, but several players said they didn't know anything about any malady.)
By the second half, the largely neutral crowd had replaced its disinterested thunder stick banging with jeers for Brazil and cries of “ole, ole” when Paraguay put together a passing move. It was a clear sign of how few friends Brazil has made here in Chile, and Dunga and his team now must slink home to lick their wounds. The manager was not a popular choice among the country’s media or soccer fans when he was appointed, although eleven consecutive wins (10 of which came in friendly games) had created a mild sense of optimism. That false hope has now evaporated, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception awaits Dunga and his players and where Brazil goes from here.
Robinho revival a minor, final consolation
On an evening when Willian, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho sputtered weakly rather than caught ablaze, Robinho was once again Brazil’s brightest flame. In a match that ironically featured two former expensive (and ultimately unsuccessful) Manchester City signings up front (Paraguay’s Roque Santa Cruz was the other), the veteran knitted Brazil’s few attacks together, rarely wasted possession and scored his team’s only goal after a neat team move. In a Brazil performance of almost relentless creative gloom, he was a rare oasis of attacking illumination.
There has been much talk about how Brazil is a more balanced side without Neymar. While that may be true in some ways, the team is clearly, on this basis, not a better one. Instead, it resembles nothing more than a once popular movie franchise staggering on after its star turn has gone on to bigger and better things. Any illusion of cohesion that Brazil has offered without Neymar has almost entirely been due to Robinho’s nous and experience in bringing Dunga’s fleet of willing, if unremarkable, runners into play.
In 2002, Robinho was Neymar before Neymar: a dazzling young princeling at Santos, the rei das pedaladas, or the King of the Step Overs, the world’s next big thing, courted frantically by European royalty. But despite some exciting moments, the hype never truly turned into reality at either Real Madrid or Milan, and certainly not at Manchester City. Now Robinho is 31 and back at Santos, there the senior statesman among a team of burgeoning young talents—older, wiser, and perhaps with a lingering sense of regret that he will not now earn a place among Brazil’s pantheon of greats. Such regret will not be softened by his team’s performance here, and we may not see him in a canary yellow shirt again, but at least the round of applause he received from the Chilean fans after being substituted Saturday gave Brazil one of its few happy moments in an otherwise miserable tournament.