Tomorrow Brazil take on South Korea in the semifinals of the Olympics. It’s their best chance to proceed to the gold metal round since the ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta, where they boasted an extremely talented team consisting of Dida in goal, Roberto Carlos at right back, Aldair at centerback, Juninho Paulista and Rivaldo in the midfield, and Bebeto and Ronaldo (then known as Ronaldinho to distinguish himself from defender Ronaldo Guaro) up top.

(To give you a point of reference, I would rate Ronaldo the 2nd greatest player in Brazil’s history; I’d rank Rivaldo as the 6th greatest attacker and Bebeto as the 9th; Roberto Carlos was the greatest left-back and Aldair the 2nd greatest centerback; and Juninho Paulista was one of the most underrated Brazilians of the decade. That’s some serious firepower.)

Aside from an opening round hiccup against Japan, Brazil had been dominant leading up to their semifinal match against Nigeria, led by Ronaldo’s four super goals. (Take a moment and watch them – they’re all fantastic.) In fact, they had even beaten Nigeria in the group stage behind a wonderful Ronaldo effort. The rematch, however, would be rather more interesting. We’ll cover that rematch now, though in the interest of full disclosure, I couldn’t devote as much time to this as I usually do to Selecao Classics. So there won’t be any clips or graphical breakdowns.

Unlike in the group stage, when manager Mario Zagallo had fielded a very attacking lineup, with Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Juninho all playing together, this time he opted for a more cautious route, dropping Rivaldo in favor of Amaral. Thus, Brazil took the pitch in a kind of broad 4-4-2 diamond, although in practice it was more a 4-3-1-2.

Brazil vs Nigeria 1996

It’s been 16 years since I last watched this match, (Neymar was 4 years old!) and the video I watched yesterday wasn’t the highest quality. I don’t remember the likes of Flavio Conceicao, Ze Elias and Amaral very well (none of them featured in the ‘98 World Cup team, and only Conceicao took part in the ‘97 Copa America squad.) So I might get some of the names wrong on occasion, and it was hard for me to determine what minute most events took place. With that said, let’s begin.

Brazil pressed hard initially, though this wasn’t to last very long. In the first minute, Bebeto won a free kick not far outside the box. Flavio Conceicao stepped up and struck hard and low. The ball took a slight deflection off a Nigerian defender’s legs, past keeper Dosu for the goal.

Brazil kept up their pressure in the midfield and tackled well in the minutes after the goal. In the 8th minute, Amaral deflected a Nigerian pass just past the center line. Juninho collected, then slipped a pass forward to Bebeto on the right wing. Bebeto played a no-look pass with the outside of his foot to the overlapping Amaral, who one-timed a cross to Ronaldo. The ball fell just a foot out of reach. The soon-to-be Barcelona man would have had a 1v1 with the keeper in acres of space.

A minute later, a brilliant through-ball from Roberto Carlos well past the halfway line set Ronaldo free on the left flank. He strides forward into the box, with Bebeto on his right, but an extremely heavy touch just inside the box ruins the chance. Poor from the Phenomenon.

Early on, Brazil was tackling well, but Nigeria soon grew into the match and had the majority of the possession, with a slow, more patient build-up. Brazil, on the other hand, always looked to quickly play the ball out to the wings and get beyond the defense. It was a hallmark of the team throughout the 90’s. The tactics Brazil employed under Zagallo and Parreira before him are beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that if the Brazil team of the last ten years didn’t employ width nearly enough, the Brazil of the 90’s sometimes employed it too much, almost to the point of predictability.

Still, in the early going, their use of the flanks looked to pay dividends. In about the 10th minute, Juninho dribbled brilliantly to evade a tackle on the right flank before laying off to Ze Maria. Ze Maria passed to Amaral, who one-timed it again back to Ze Maria. The right back then took off running before crossing into the box to Ronaldo. Once more, the pass was just beyond his reach.

In the 12th minute, Ronaldo got his first meaningful moment of the game, tracking all the way back on the right wing to help Roberto Carlos dispossess Nigeria. Ronaldo then dribbled forward at pace, laying off to Flavio Conceicao who chipped back to him perfectly. Ronaldo gathered in stride, before slowing and centering to Bebeto. (A simpler lay off to Ze Elias would have probably served him better.) Either way, his pass was just slightly behind Bebeto and was cut out.

Again, Nigeria responded to the momentary threat by patiently working the ball around in the midfield. They also took advantage of the fact that Brazil’s back four was, while defensively more solid (even if it didn’t show late in this match) than Mano Menezes’ team, they were not nearly as technical on the ball. All four of them, even Roberto Carlos, routinely cleared the ball by booting it up the pitch instead of trying to keep it and work it to the midfielders, like Thiago Silva or Marcelo currently do. One such instance led to a botched clearance by Ronaldo Guiaro, giving Nigeria a chance to shoot. Luckily for Brazil, the ball took a deflection and skied wide of the goal.

Nigeria’s off-ball movement and use of angles was really impressive in this match. They were consistently creating diagonal angles for each other. In the 20th minute, it paid off. After a sustained spell of possession, mostly on Brazil’s right, the Nigerian dribbler (not sure who) abruptly swung the ball over to Brazil’s left to Tijari Babangida. Babangida’s first touch was heavenly. After a few step overs, he rifled the ball past Ze Maria and Dida both towards the far post. It probably would have drifted wide, but Roberto Carlos stuck a boot in at the last second, misjudging the speed and trajectory of the ball. It careened off his right foot and into the goal. Certainly it was fortunate for Nigeria and unfortunate for Brazil, but it was also unquestionably deserved. Nigeria had responded to their early deficit with an extremely positive attitude.

Brazil was stunned but quickly looked to recoup. About a minute after, Ronaldo dropped deep to collect the ball, then fired ahead to Bebeto who shielded his man with his back to goal. He then turn, nearly lost the ball, and then spread wide to Amaral who immediately crossed back to him. Bebeto had his shoulder to goal, with a man down his neck, but somehow managed to head the ball back towards goal with real power. Nigerian keeper Dosu doe to save the ball. In the end, it was probably a bit more comfortable than he actually made it, but still, it was a brilliant effort from Bebeto.

Not too long after, Bebeto again. But his reverse thru-ball to Ronaldo was, again, just out of reach. Brazil was continually trying to be able to play in that final ball quickly, perhaps even impatiently, but it was never quite coming off.

Nigeria could have made it two after a storming run up the middle. Brazil’s defense was compact but no one bothered to pick up the dribbler or the runner. The dribbler (couldn’t tell who) slid a ball to (I think) future Arsenal-legend Nwankwo Kanu, who shot narrowly wide.

Ten seconds later, Bebeto scores.

Unfortunately, the television was still showing a replay of the previous action, so I only could see the end. But from what I could tell, Ronaldo burst through the defense before firing at the far post. Dosu palmed it away, but the rebound fell to Bebeto who tapped into the empty net.

In the interest of time, I’m going to skip ahead for a bit…

Ten minutes later, the ball came to Roberto Carlos on the left. Juninho dropped back and R.C. rewarded with him the ball. Juninho took a few dribbles forward, then sent an aerial pass up to Bebeto on the edge of the box. Bebeto then chested a through-ball (you read that right) into the box past the defense for the onrushing Flavio Conceicao. The midfielder’s first touch was good, and he coolly lofted the ball over Dosu. It was a beautiful and incredibly fast move, the kind of thing Zagallo’s Brazil was known for in those days (think Bebeto and Rivaldo’s goals vs Belgium in ‘98) with quick, pin-point attacks launched from fairly deep positions rather than intricate play around the edge of the box.

Overall, an excellent pass from Juninho, brilliant skill from Bebeto, and a great finish from Flavio Conceicao. Despite Nigeria dominating possession and in general playing more attractive football, Brazil’s ruthlessness in the final third had seen them go up 3-1 in the first half. Passage to the gold medal round seemed certain.

The third goal really seemed to buoy Brazil, and by the end of the 1st half they were controlling more swathes of possession than before.

Early in the 2nd half, Roberto Carlos passed ahead to Juninho, who slipped a through-ball to Bebeto. Bebeto crossed to Ronaldo, who one-timed it back to Juninho, (who had intelligently continued his run forward and in). Juninho tapped home, but he was correctly called offside a moment later. Ronaldo may have been able to shoot instead of pass, as the keeper was well off his line, having come off it to flail at Bebeto’s cross, but the angle was tight and you can’t fault him for being unselfish. It would have been a 1982-esque effort if the linesman’s flag hadn’t gone up.

A few minutes later, Ronaldo botched an absolutely golden chance to seal the game. It started with Amaral skillfully dribbling around his man on the right touchline, then seeing Ronaldo ahead of him calling for the ball. Amaral obliged, sliding a through-ball forward to Ronaldo, who rounded the keeper with ease. There was still one more defender between himself and the goal, but he was not yet on the goal line. For all intents and purposes, Ronaldo had a tight-angle-but-an-open-goal to aim for. But he could only hit the side netting. It was by no means the worst finish ever, but years later, I’m still stunned that he didn’t score.

The goal had a bad psychological effect on the young superstar. For pretty much the rest of the match, he looked far less active than before, jogging irritably around the pitch, throwing the ball at the wall whenever a throw-in or corner was in the offing, and just in general looking far less engaged. One has to remember that he had not yet turned 20.

A few minutes later, Aldair flied in to head away a cross. The ball fell to Roberto Carlos, who passed to…someone. Couldn’t tell who. In any case, mystery man centered to Flavio Conceicao, who effectively passed ahead to himself by using the referee’s back. He then passed more conventionally to Bebeto, who back-heeled the return. Flavio laid off to Amaral, who centered to Ronaldo. Ronaldo jinked and juked to the edge of the box before shooting narrowly wide.

Brazil was looking increasingly dominant, but Nigeria saw a chance to pull one back when Flavio Conceicao bundled over Jay Okocha in the box. Okocha took the penalty, but it was a soft one and Dida saved easily. It seemed like Nigeria’s last best chance, but on the contrary, the event drove them to a whole new level of energy.

From the moment after that penalty, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the rest of the match was all Nigeria. Babangida had a chance a minute later with a shot near the far post, causing havoc in the box that ended only when another shot flashed wide and out of play.

Nigeria was suddenly full of life, and the Brazilian midfield was looking increasingly sloppy and stretched. Sensing a need for a change, Zagallo sent Rivaldo on for Juninho minutes later. The move made some sense, as the Middlesborough man had probably done more running than anyone else in a yellow shirt, but it didn’t help much. Brazil’s efforts to build usually devolved into Brazilians attempting to dribble their way past three Nigerians, always in isolated positions.

In the 78th minute, Nigeria got the goal they were looking for off an excellent counter. Victor Ikpeba skimmed the ball past Dida from just outside the box. Like the 1st goal, it was a deserved climax to a sustained spell of positive football.

In the interest of time, I’m going to skip ahead again. Suffice it to say that in the ensuing minutes, Brazil looked continuously disorganized, rarely keeping the ball, constantly chasing it rather than funneling Nigeria where they wanted or cutting off passing angles. In addition, Nigeria was winning all the 50-50 balls, particularly when Amaral was involved. Still, by the 90th minute, it looked as if Brazil would be able to hold them off…until they conceded the most ridiculous goal possible. A routine throw-in fell into the box to a Nigerian I couldn’t identify. The Nigerian’s shot ended up being nothing more than a feeble toe-poke, yet somehow neither Aldair or Ronaldo Guiaro could clear the ball. Instead, it fell to Kanu, right next to Dida. In a case of truly bizarre goalkeeping, Dida fell to ground early, diving for what we can only assume to be a grenade, because he was nowhere close to the ball…it was on Kanu’s other side. He missed it completely. Kanu managed to graze the ball just enough to nudge it over the line, past Ze Maria’s outstretched foot.

So the match went to extra-time…in an era when the infamous golden goal was still in effect.

In the break between periods, Brazil seemed exhausted and despondent, but when extra time started they looked bright enough, with a Ze Maria thunderbolt flying narrowly wide. Yet merely four minutes into extra time, Nigeria took a deserved win, after a long ball to Fatusi rebounded off his back right to Kanu on the edge of the box. Kanu wrong-footed Aldair, then fired past a brainless Dida, who had rushed off his line for no reason. There was just way too much ground to cover. If Dida had stayed home, maybe Kanu would have scored, but he would have at least given himself a solid chance to make the save.

Nigeria celebrated in delirious joy, while Bebeto could only stand and cry in disbelief.

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Brazil hadn’t played a bad game, but they hadn’t played a great one, either. Moments of brilliance ultimately couldn’t overcome for their consistent stolidity in the midfield. In retrospect, it was a mistake for Zagallo to insert Ze Elias in favor of Rivaldo. Beyond the fact that Rivaldo would have given Brazil an extra goal-scorer, a Rivaldo/Juninho partnership in the midfield would have been better able to maintain possession than Ze Elias, Flavio Conceicao, and Amaral. Zagallo was clearly going conservative, but when you stack three players in the midfield who all do generally the same thing (basically, run a lot and work really hard) you’re just asking for trouble. While technically they might have made for a better defense, it doesn’t matter. If you can’t keep possession of the ball (and in the 2nd half, they couldn’t) then you will be CONSTANTLY forced to defend, and even the best defense in the world will begin to break apart after being forced to withstand prolonged pressure.

Still, credit must go to Nigeria who played a positive and attractive match…and the underdog-lover in me feels better for Nigeria than bad for Brazil (at least, all these years later. At the time, I was devastated and furious.) Brazil would recover enough to absolutely slaughter Portugal in the Bronze medal match, putting 5 past the hapless Portuguese, with Ronaldo scoring one and Bebeto netting a hat trick.

What can Brazil today learn from Brazil then? They’re two dramatically different sides as far as how they’re structured, but I think the main thing is patience. Brazil in ‘96 looked impatient against Nigeria, wanting to quickly finish them off to the detriment of maintaining possession. So far in these Olympics, Brazil have looked patient, maintaining their style and their composure even after going down to Belarus and Honduras. Mano’s side will be well-served, however, to not mistake playing at a glacier pace for patience, like they did in the Copa America and for stretches in the first half against Belarus.