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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flashback: Ronaldinho Sinks England in World Cup 2002

World Cup Quarterfinals. Brazil v. England.

June 31, 2002
Shizuoka, Shizuoka Stadium, Japan

At the quarterfinals stage of the 2002 World Cup, Brazil, England and Germany were the only remaining teams with that had hoisted the World Cup title before. Given how the World Cup trophy had then been claimed by an elite group of seven nations (Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and Uruguay), every soccer pundit worth his grain of salt knew that the Brazil-England match-up promised to tell volumes about the likely winner of the 2002 World Cup trophy. France and Argentina had rolled into the tournament as strong favorites, crushing their opponents in the months preceding the tournament, whereas Brazil had struggled in qualifying, ultimately scraping their way to qualification after firing coaches Wanderlei Luxemburgo and Emerson Leao and replacing them with "Big Phil" Luiz Felipe Scolari.

But as the opening matches of World Cup 2002 unfolded, Brazil rediscovered their form and conjured up shades of 1970 as the Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho combination gradually proved virtually unstoppable. The group stages begun with a 2-1 victory over Turkey, 4-0 against China, and 5-2 against Costa Rica. But as in proverbial mythology, where the hero encounters a monster or demon he has to slay in order to access the treasure or love he seeks, Brazil had two such demons to slay in 2002: Belgium and England. Brazil struggled furiously against a highly disciplined Belgian side in the second round, winning thanks only to a magical goal from Allessandro Rivaldo in the 67th minute. Goalkeeper Marcos kept Brazil in the game against a relentless Belgian onslaught lead by Marc Wilmots, Mpenza and Wesley Sonck. Ronaldinho's assist to Rivaldo and a follow-up goal from Ronaldo ultimately enabled Brazil to secure victory in a game when they looked far from their best. Now Brazil found themselves facing David Beckham and coach Sven Goran Ericksson in the form of a team, that like themselves, had come to Japan and Korea to win.

One of the key match-ups in the Brazil v. England game was Lucio versus Michael Owen. Owen had faced Lucio on a number of occasions in the Champions League the season prior, and had succeeded in navigating his way around the skilled Brazilian defender. Within 21 minutes, the World Cup match-up proved no exception as Lucio mishandled a long through ball and allowed the opportunistic Owen to calmly dispatch the ball in the back of the net after having remained invisible for much of the match thus far. For the very first time in the tournament, Brazil were behind in what appeared like an ominous sign for the South Americans who, unlike their German and Italian counterparts, historically do not play well when down a goal or two.

Owen's goal had the converse effect of making Brazil, all of a sudden, begin to play like champions, as if their title were at stake now that France had been unexpectedly eliminated in the group stages. Clad in white and blue, the Selecao inched forward systematically through the left, right and center as Sven Goran Ericksson withdrew virtually all of his players into England's half of the pitch in an effort to barricade David Seaman's goal against any hope of a Brazilian equalizer. Brazil tried everything to get past the English defense. Roberto Carlos barrelled in balls from the left and Cafu rifled in shots from the right, all the while hoping that the ball would carom to Ronaldo and Rivaldo near the mouth of goal. But Brazil had no such luck given the way Ericksson had packed the eighteen yard box and so they opted to attack with central defenders such as Lucio and Edmilson. Once again, the English defense stood firm. But with just seconds left on the clock before the end of the first half, David Beckham hurdled to avoid injury from a possible collision on the left touchline in the Brazilian half. Ronaldinho picked up the ball near center circle and ran at the English defense, dummying Ashley Cole into going to ground before dishing off the ball to Rivaldo on the right side, who dispatched the ball into the far left corner of the net with his golden left foot. For the second game in succession, the Ronaldinho-Rivaldo combination produced a scintillating goal that, in this case, brought Brazil back into the dressing on level terms at half time.

Rivaldo's goal ever so slightly shifted the momentum in Brazil's favor. As in the Belgium game, Ronaldinho began cropping up on the right hand flank and then the left as the English defense struggled to mark the 3 Rs composed of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Brazil's offense was undergirded by an important tactical shift wherein the defensive midfielder Kleberson started the match instead of the offensive midfielder Juninho Paulista. Kleberson added more steel to Brazil's defense by supporting Gilberto Silva and allowing the skilled players to express themselves. Seemingly frustrated by Scolari's substitution, English midfielder Nicky Butt hacked down Kleberson in the 48th minute. The ever smiling Ronaldinho protested to the referee Felipe Ramos Rizo that Butt deserved a yellow card, but to no avail. Dinho then lined up to take a free kick from 35 meters. Almost everyone expected Dinho to aim for the head of Lucio, Edmilson or Rivaldo, but instead, the ball magically curled over David Seaman and into the back of the net. Anticipating a cross, Seaman had come off his line but Ronaldinho had the skill to beat him. The ensuing goal celebration saw Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Cafu celebrate in the far right corner of the touchline, with Ronaldinho clutching his jersey as he gestured to the crowd that he was more than worthy of wearing the number 11 shirt for Brazil. In the days prior to the Brazil-England match, many an English soccer commentator had claimed that Ronaldinho was not of the caliber of Rivaldo or Ronaldo, but Dinho effectively silenced his critics by setting up the critical equalizer and then scoring the game winning goal from a spectacular free kick.

But the Ronaldinho drama had yet to fully unfold. Dinho's free kick accelerated the intensity and fierceness of play on England's part, as the game suddenly witnessed rougher England tackles and sliding challenges galore. Brazil responded with tough play of their own. In the 56th minute, Ronaldinho stood on Danny Mill's boot and appeared to hit Mills's face with his right arm. The referee responded by displaying a red card without the slightest hesitation. Cafu, Ronaldo and Rivaldo talked to the referee at length in an apparent attempt to make him reverse his decision, and Dinho himself expressed disbelief and surprise at the red card. Forced to leave the pitch, the buck toothed man of the match was consoled by Cafu, who cradled Ronaldinho's head in his hand and whispered with classic Brazilian hubris, "Don't worry. We are going to win the game for you."

In the ensuing 34 minutes, Scolari brought Brazil back to his Gremio days from 1993-1996, during which time he advocated ball possession at the expense of attacking football, especially once Gremio had secured a lead. And Brazil went on to produce a magnificent display of one touch passing and possession football by taking seconds off the clock as they invited their tired English counterparts to chase the ball in all corners of the field. Big Phil substituted Edilson for Ronaldo in the 70th minute, withdrew Roberto Carlos to play more defense and gave Cafu the freedom to taunt English defenders into ball chasing, only to encounter a savvy pass to Gilberto or Rivaldo. And when the whistle blew at half time, everyone knew that, under Scolari, Brazil had gelled into a championship team that would be difficult to beat. Kleberson had proven to be the wild card, the ace, the joker in the pack that Scolari had used to unleash his 3 Rs and cement the Brazilian defensive midfield. With this victory against England, Brazil now needed only two more wins to become pentacampeão, five time World Cup champions. Brazil now faced Turkey in the semi-finals in a re-match of one of their group stage encounters.


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  3. Vinisha,

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