Time for another edition of Selecão Classics. The year was 1994, the World Cup taking place in the United States. Brazil had easily gone through their group, beating Russia and Cameroon by 2-0 and 3-0, respectively. In the Round of 16, they struggled to get by a surprisingly tough US squad playing at home. This set up a quarterfinal against Holland, who, in contrast, had labored a little harder through the group stage. It was probably the most anticipated match up to that point. Let’s get right into the action.
This was how Brazil lined up to take the field. Rai had lost his starting place in favor of Mazinho, while Leonardo had been banned from the tournament after injuring American Tab Ramos in the previous match. Genoa-based Branco, already a veteran of two World Cups, took his place at left-back.
The most immediate thing I noticed, when the match started, was the spacing. The players on the pitch consistently take diagonal positions from each other, yards apart, bodies positioned vertical with the goal so they can turn with the ball easily when they receive it. Later on Holland would be quicker and more active when defending off the ball, and Brazil’s midfield would struggle to respond.
In the 3rd minute, after a series of rough tackles, Branco tries an ambitious free kick that flies over the bar. Shades of what was to come.
The commentator remarked how the pitch is only 72 yards wide, but Brazil make it seem so much bigger. A really illustrative comment, because in recent years, Brazil has struggled when playing on a narrow pitch. That was a big reason, I think, why we struggled in the Copa America last year. The playing field was often very small; the 1st round match against Paraguay was particularly notable in this regard. Again, it’s spacing and movement off the ball that enables you to make a pitch look wider than it really is.
To combat Brazil’s early fluidity, the Dutch resorted to a lot of fouling, interrupting the flow of the game. Bebeto, Branco and Dunga all tried to take advantage by cynically attempting to goad the official into pulling out a yellow card on each occasion.
One thing apparent from this Brazil versus earlier incarnations is a much greater willingness to attempt the long ball. Part of this is no doubt due to Parreira’s midfield, definitely more muscular than technical (though that’s overblown), but part of the reason too is that in Romario and Bebeto, Parreira had two fantastic, pacey forwards who could race onto the long ball, forcing the defense to shift over, then take advantage in 1v1 situations.
An example of this was in the 15th minute, when Dunga sent a fantastic diagonal long ball to Bebeto on the right wing. Bebeto had a great first touch, then played it to the overlapping Jorginho, who crossed perfectly to Romario in the box. Romario attempted the volley, but it was blocked. A quick, clinical move, trying to swing the ball wide and make the defense shift over, allowing the team’s best players to do something with the ball in space.
Bebeto was probably the key to Brazil’s entire attack in the first half from a tactical standpoint. Constantly moving out to the right flank, thereby dragging his defender with him, opening up space in the center. Holland, however, would do an admirable job on Romario for most of the match, with Ronald Koeman being the main one to shackle him.
Before the match started, the commentators considered this to be the most anticipated match of the tournament, with plenty of attacking talent on display. So far, though, both conceded, Brazil was the only team to show consistent attacking impetus. The Dutch were clearly adopting a more defensive attitude, wary of pushing ahead too much and getting burned on the counter. To help prevent this, the Dutch midfield, especially Rijkaard and Von Vossen on the left and Overmars on the right (with the latter two spending far more time in deeper positions than you usually saw from them) guarded the touchlines incessantly, looking to bar fullbacks Jorginho and Branco from joining the attack. On the other hand, this meant that the Dutch wingers, especially Overmars, rarely even looked to attack themselves, severely hampering Holland’s ability to create anything near the final third. An interesting tactical stalemate.
In the 20th minute, Brazil pulled off a string of passes that even their illustrious predecessors would be proud of. A dinked ball from the Dutch to their left flank was cut out by Aldair, who sombreroed the ball over Jan Wouters to teammate Jorginho. Jorginho headed the ball up to Mazinho, who volleyed to Bebeto, who volleyed back to Silva, who volleyed all the way back to Aldair. Aldair headed the ball down to Mazinho, who played a one-touch pass back to Marcio Santos. Santos passed back to Taffarel. The keeper briefly broke the string of one-touch possession by booting the ball forward to Zinho. The Dutch defender was able to outleap him, only to see his header immediately claimed by Dunga. Dunga played another one-touch pass to Zinho; Zinho quickly laid off to Mauro Silva, evading the imminent clamp of Dutch defenders. Mauro Silva cleverly juked his man, then laid off to Romario who had dropped deep and to the left. Romario wasted no time before cutting in, easily evading any attempts against him before passing to Dunga. Another one-touch pass from the Captain, this time to Mazinho. Mazinho passed ahead to the onrushing Romario. Here, Brazil’s talisman was faced with a few options. He might have decided to take on the defense himself, backpedaling as they were on the edge of the box. He might have attempted a through-ball to Zinho, now at the head of the attack. He might even have tried to find Bebeto free on the right. Instead, he chose to shoot from distance, but the shot was straight De Goey and was easily claimed. A wasted change, but still, a gorgeous build-up.
Holland saw their first real chance in the 26th minute, Aldair fouled Roy on Brazil’s right flank. Roy whipped in the free-kick to Bergkamp, who had slid in between Aldair and Marcio Santos. The Arsenal man had a glorious chance with a free-header, but could only send it over the bar. A real let-off for Brazil; one wonders if the entire match would have ended up differently if Bergkamp had only gotten over the ball a little more.
Throughout the match, the commentators routinely remarked how this Brazil was “so much more well-organized” than previous sides. A big part of that was due to Parreira’s aggressive midfield. While there was definitely a let-off in terms of flair, the Dunga-Mazinho-Mauro Silva trio were all much more aggressive in tackling the dribbler, rather than consistently dropping deep like the 70’s and 80’s sides had done. If I were to think of a synonym to describe the Brazil defense, it would be “swarming.” Whenever a Dutch player got the ball, he usually had at least one Brazilian breathing down his neck.
But the Dutch were adept at this too, and if Brazil were “betraying their roots” by fielding such a seemingly-combative midfield, Holland had moved far away from Total Football. One only had to look at Jan Wouters, an out-and-out defensive midfielder if there ever was one, who in the ‘90s was as famous for his elbow as Nigel de Jong would be come for his leg. Throughout the first half, Holland was patient even to the point of being cautious in the attack, and, like Brazil, would routinely put 9 behind the ball, with only Bergkamp given free rein. Thus it wasn’t until the 30th minute that Brazil had a chance to really build-up in the Dutch half…and it was the Dunga-Mauro Silva-Mazinho trio that was at the heart of it. Bebeto began the move on the left touchline, passing in to Mazinho who one-touched the ball to Mauro Silva. Silva’s first touch was brilliant, stepping over the ball with his left leg to re-direct it with his right. Rijkaard shadowed his run wel,l though, so he was forced to play it back to Dunga. Dunga’s one-touch pass went right back to Mazinho, who then squeezed off a pass between two Dutch players back to Mauro Silva, completing a wonderful triangle. Silva found himself with more space than had been afforded any Brazilian throughout the whole half. He strode forward a few yards, then let fly on the edge of the box. A good hit, but just wide.
The moment seemed to galvanize the Brazilians, because suddenly they were spending far more time in the Dutch half, and playing at a faster tempo. I won’t describe every move here, but Bebeto’s classy touch, Mauro Silva’s uncompromising tackles (including a really brilliant one to stop a Dutch counter attack) and Mazinho’s movement all featured throughout. The only thing stopping Brazil was that they couldn’t quite get the ball to Romario in the box, settling for shots from distance whenever they got a bit of space.
Holland, at this point, were only able to attempt feeble counters, but Dunga and Mauro Silva’s aggressive tackling often ended them before they began. Holland was further hampered by their extreme caution. The only joy the Dutch ever got was from set pieces, like in the 33rd minute when a Dutch corner fell to Bergkamp. Bergkamp shot for the near post, but went narrowly wide.
From Brazil’s standpoint, it was Romario’s uninspired play that was most frustrating, coupled with the stonewalling of the fullbacks. Every ball sent to Romario seemed to catch him flat footed, and his movement off the ball didn’t help. While Bebeto was always trying to move into wide positions, Romario operated solely as a target man near the box, which wasn’t helping his team break down Holland’s well-marshaled defense. The few times Romario did drop deep were genuinely effective, thanks to his technical ability, far and away the best on the pitch.
Brazil’s other problem was the aforementioned lack of width generated by their full-backs. This was partially due to Holland’s own exertions, but I wonder if another aspect their own caution. Both sides were clearly reluctant to leave space behind their own lines, making themselves vulnerable to a counter-attack.
But while Romario, Jorginho and Branco were putting in lackluster shifts, Mauro Silva was barnstorming the field. Tackle after ferocious tackle were characteristic, but what was really notable was how Mauro Silva could keep the ball after he won it, by either playing a one-two with Dunga or Mazinho, or by driving forward with the ball himself. Unquestionably, Silva was the outstanding player of the first half, for either side.
In the 36th minute, Romario was again caught flat-footed. Mauro Silva’s long- ball over the top was clearly to him, but he made no move to collect it. Instead he just stood there, glowering, signaling to Silva that he’d prefer the ball fell to his feet. Understandable, yet if so, why not drop a little deeper to make it possible?
As if my words 18 years later reached back into the past to ring into his ears, Romario immediately proceeded to start doing just that. A long Brazilian build-up, with some lovely interplay between him and Bebeto, resulted in the latter being brought down just on the edge of the box. The commentator remarks, “It would be nice to see him do a bit more of that,” speaking of Romario, and I agree. It’s still wonderful for me, all these years later, to see how absolutely unflustered and relaxed Romario was on the ball. Were he but blessed with Ronaldo’s athleticism or Garrincha’s manic energy, we might be throwing Romario’s name into the ring as the best of all time. (As it stands, I’d certainly name him one of the five greatest Brazilians of all time.)
Back to the match. Bebeto had won a free kick in a dangerous position, but Branco’s effort flew straight into the wall. Several other set pieces would take place in the next few minutes, and while each was dangerous (a hallmark of Parreira’s Brazil), each was dealt with. The best chance came from a corner in the 41st minute, with Marcio Santos’ diving header going wide.
As the first half wound down, Brazil summoned up the effort for their finest attack yet. Marcio Santos won the ball off Bergkamp and raced forward before laying off to Jorginho. The rightback sliced a lovely pass into the center to the onrushing Aldair (a center back, remember), who backheeled beautifully to Romario. Romario passed left to Zinho. Zinho faked the shot, dummying a Dutch defender, then passed to Romario on the edge of the box. Romario danced through the defense, then at the last second laid off to Aldair. Sadly, Aldair reacted a second too slow, and could only poke at the ball before the nearest defender converged. Easily the best action thus far.
The half ended. Holland had produced nothing of substance save Bergkamp’s free header. Brazil, meanwhile, had the majority of possession, the majority of shots, and the majority of meaningful action, but had yet to produce anything to truly threaten de Guy. Still, Brazil looked stronger as the half wore on, especially in the last 10 minutes. They had all the momentum going into the locker room, and when the teams headed back out for the 2nd half, they would look to keep it.
In the 48th minute, Dunga intercepted the ball in the midfield. The ball fell to Bebeto dropping deep. Romario immediately surged forward. Bebeto must have instinctively known Romario was going forward, because he instantly turned and fired a through-ball up the middle, splitting the Dutch defense. Romario ran onto the ball, but a Dutch defender (can’t tell who) was onto his right shoulder. Romario could have decided to slide the ball to either post (a 50-50 chance, in my opinion) but instead executed a 360 turn to try and get the ball onto his right foot. Unfortunately, his touch was heavy and the Dutch defender was able to boot it away.
50th minute. Zinho, Silva and Dunga all converged on the ball. Zinho collects and races unchecked up the middle with Romario and Bebeto on either side. Zinho could have chosen to slide a through-ball up the middle to Romario, but instead chose the less ambitious route of spreading out to the right to Bebeto. Bebeto’s first touch was poor, giving Holland the chance to get back. Bebeto tried to float a cross back to Zinho, but the Dutch keeper claims.
Despite these missed chances, Brazil has come out playing at a much quicker pace. Holland was starting to push men forward; tired, perhaps, of playing so conservatively, but the Brazilian midfielders were still claiming the ball easily, then breaking forward through the center, catching the Dutch outnumbered.
Mauro Silva’s movement off the ball, meanwhile, continued to be superb.
52nd minute, a Brazil move broke down on the edge of the box. The Dutch immediately counter. But only three Dutch players get forward (more conservatism!) while Brazil had 5 back. Rijkaard’s searching lofted pass was easily cut out by Aldair, who spotted Bebeto in space (now on the left wing) and with all the precision of an expert artillery-man, bombed the ball up-field to him. Romario, meanwhile, outraced his number up the middle, and it was the simplest thing in the world for Bebeto to center to Romario, who finished smartly on the half-volley. 1-0 Brazil.
The goal was exactly what the game needed as it forced the Dutch to stretch themselves out to be more adventurous. But their most immediate change was to start pressing on the ball much more strenuously, and here Brazil’s lack of technique at the back began to expose itself. Even Dunga struggled. While the captain was a very accurate passer with tremendous vision, he wasn’t a very quick one. He needed time and protection to play longer, diagonal balls up to the forwards.
But the counter was still open to Brazil. In the 57th minute, Jorginho intercepted a sloppy pass on the right touchline and immediately surged forward, playing a neat 1-2 with Mazinho (who chested the return pass, no less.) Jorginho slipped a pass into space behind the Dutch defense. Bebeto latched onto it on the run. He first looked to square to Romario, but Dutch defender Valckx closed quickly, so Bebeto shot himself. The ball curved past the helpless de Goey, but clipped the far post.
Brazil would claim the ball again less than a minute later with a wonderful move by Romario to slide into Valckx’s clearance, then getting up and claiming the ball. He passed to Zinho, but the midfielder’s attempted return was long. Still, as the commentator said, “attacking football is winning.”
Interesting side note: while this Brazil team might not have been as orgasm-inducing on the attack as their predecessors, they were still very much considered an “attacking” side. Another interesting side note: despite only scoring 11 goals in the tournament, Brazil was still voted the most entertaining side of the competition. Lest anyone think that the winner is usually voted the most entertaining side, Scolari’s Brazil in 2002 was not voted the most entertaining, despite winning and scoring a tournament-best 18 goals. In the case of 1994, scoring was down for every side, and Brazil’s 11 goals were still 2nd best…second only to Sweden. (In Sweden’s case, they scored 4 goals in an all but meaningless game against a Cinderella-Bulgarian team. Brazil were unquestionably the best attacking team of the tournament.) So why do they have such a bad rep? Partly, I believe that’s due to the incredible legacy of their predecessors, for which they cannot be blamed. Even more importantly, defense in football was far more sophisticated in 1994 than it was in ’70 or even ’82, but offense hadn’t yet caught up. (Though things were better than they were four years earlier.) If Parreira’s Brazil had played during the 70’s, for example, I have no doubt they would have scored more.
It should be remembered that Parreira did start with the likes of Rai when the World Cup began, and Leonardo was there too, albeit at left-back. So it’s not as if he didn’t call any attack-minded midfielders. True, Rai was no Socrates or Gerson, but you could argue that, even if Brazil had a Socrates or Gerson in ’94, neither would have been effective as you might expect. World Cup ’94 was too physical, too defensive-minded (by everybody), and maybe even too hot. The point is, while Parreira’s Brazil might have traded some flair in favor of organization and physicality, they were still an attack-first team, and when it comes to their reputation, something a victim of the era they played in.
Back to the match. A minute later, Brazil won the ball again. It was passed up to Romario, who juked his defender, but de Goey rushed out to block his shot. “Brazil has this match by the scruff of the neck,” says the commentator, and it’s no lie. Brazil’s aggressive midfield was doing enormous damage, and Bebeto’s movement combined with Romario’s technique was causing Holland constant problems.
60th minute. Brazil’s midfield truly was truly good at closing down on the ball and winning it back. Keep in mind, this was against a very good Dutch side. Not as good as they were in the 70’s, yes, but still one of the four best teams of the competition. But Brazil’s midfield was merciless. Often Dunga, Mazinho and Mauro Silva would all surround a player. Whoever won the ball would then clip a diagonal pass to either Romario, now much more active than in the 1st half, or Bebeto, who would almost always take up wide positions when Brazil didn’t have possession. This allowed them to take on Dutch defenders with plenty of space on either side. It’s in this way that Brazil has always been the most dangerous. It was the best way to make use of Garrincha, Jairzinho, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaka, and Neymar today. While Brazil may have traded some dynamism in their midfield over the past two decades, one thing hasn’t changed – they are always at their best when they find ways to get the ball to their forwards in advanced positions, with plenty of room to take on the defense. This has never changed, and as long as Brazil keeps producing great dribblers (most of them phenomenal athletes, to boot), it probably never will.
62nd minute. De Goey’s goal kick up field is met by Branco, who heads a long way up the pitch. The Dutch, playing with a slightly higher line than before, are all fairly close to where the ball lands, but are caught flat-footed as it bounces erratically toward Bebeto.
Or, perhaps, they didn’t react because they thought that even if Brazil collected, they would be called for offsides. In this they can be forgiven, for Romario had just moved from an offside position. But the rules had recently changed. Since Romario was not directly involved in the play, his position didn’t matter. So Bebeto surged past the stunned defense, evading a last ditch challenge, then easily rounded the keeper to pass into the net. 2-0 Brazil. Bebeto ran to the touchline to perform one of the most famous goal celebrations ever, his rock-the-baby impression as a tribute to his newborn son. (The boy is a teenager now, himself a footballer for Brazil’s U-20 side.)
The match looked over…but Dennis Bergkamp had other ideas. A minute later it was Holland’s turn to score out of what looked like a routine play. Roy’s throw-in was long, and the surging Bergkamp (one of my favorite players of the 90’s, incidentally) ran onto it. His first touch was beautiful, just a simple dink over Marcio Santos’ leg, before slamming it into the top corner over Taffarel. A typical finish, but Brazil’s defense had uncharacteristically fallen asleep.
Now Brazil was starting to look a bit shaken, repeatedly trying to dribble their way out of trouble. The majority of the possession was still theirs, but the Dutch were finally executing counters instead of just thinking about them.
By the 70th minute, Brazil hadn’t regained their composure, and now the midfield, previously so aggressive, started to look very cautious. Gone was the relentless closing; now players were backpedaling, dropping deep, trying not to make a mistake, which only helped the Dutch as they used the time to build without being bullied. In the 72nd minute, Winter was given that sort of time, and sent a good strike goal-bound. Taffarel’s diving save was equally good.
76th minute. Brazil finally get back to doing what got them the lead in the first place. Jorginho sent another diagonal ball to Romario, who was called for offsides. (Wrongfully, in my view.) If the flag had stayed down, he would have had a year to go 1v1 with the keeper.
A minute later, disaster. Holland equalized. Another run from Bergkamp led to a corner off Marcio Santos, with Bergkamp screaming for the ball. But the Dutch took the corner quickly and caught Brazil sleeping again, allowing Aron Winter to head home.
Fortunately for Brazil, the tide would turn only minutes later. Seeking more cohesion in the midfield, trying to give Brazil someone who could maintain their composure in possession, Parreira inserted Rai in place of the bullish Mazinho. But Branco had already decided to take matters into his own hands by cutting into the middle, thrusting his hand in the face of Overmars. The official should have called a foul, but instead rewarded one to Branco a moment later when Jonk’s clumsy challenge brought him down. As Branco writhed on the ground, Ronald Koeman came and planted a boot into Branco’s stomach. He should have been shown a red card, but the official never saw it. (When Felipe Melo returned the favor 16 years later, he wasn’t so lucky.)
Branco was the inevitable man to take the free kick, being the Roberto Carlos of his day both in position, temperament, and power. (Incidentally, he was also the man who kept Roberto Carlos out of the team.) He struck a hard, low drive to the right of the wall and between Romario and a Dutch player, just inside the far post. A tremendous strike, one even Robert Carlos would have admired.
The last ten minutes of the game were tense, but not particularly noteworthy, with Holland dominating possession, desperately seeking to score another equalizer. But Brazil would not make the mistakes of 1982. They closed ranks, looking just to knock it away as often and as far as possible. A brief cameo from Cafu (replacing Branco at leftback, no less) and a few shots of a young Ronaldo were all that remained until the final whistle. Brazil was through to the semi-finals for the first time since 1978. A classic match – perhaps not quite as high on quality as I remembered, but definitely an interesting tactical affair, with several spectacular moments and plenty of drama.