Note from Black Matt: Our own Lisgarfund has graciously contributed this amazingly detailed guest article about one of the most classic Brazil matches of all time.  This is Part 1, which covers the first half.  Part 2 will appear later in the month.  

Take it away, Lisgarfund!   

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Whenever Brazil and the Netherlands meet, there always seems to be a feast of football. Brazil and Netherlands have met four times in the World Cup tournament and each time it has been a classic.The story of this installment happened in 1998 at the World Cup in France. Both teams were amongst the favourites to win the tournament. After the victorious USA ‘94 campaign, Carlos Alberto Parreira stepped down from the Seleção head coaching position.  In came the legendary figure of Mario Zagallo. This was the second coaching spell for Zagallo. He had already won the World Cup twice as a player, and as a coach, he also lead Brazil to glory in the 1970 World Cup. He was a lucky man, for the amount of footballing talent Brazil had to offer has reached an all-time high.

With the much-feared FIFA players of the year Romario and Ronaldo (Ro-Ro attack) tandem in front (the two of them combined to score 38 goals for the Seleção in the 18 months before the World Cup, including each getting a hat trick in the 6-0 demolition of Australia in the 1997 Confederations Cup final), the world’s best u-20 player in Denilson, other great young players in Roberto Carlos, Djalminha, Juninho Paulista, Dida, Ze Roberto, and seasoned veterans such as Dunga, Bebeto, Cafu, Taffarel, and Leonardo, there was not much doubt in the Brazilian hearts that the Seleção would be able to defend their World Cup title and put a fifth star on the Seleção crest. And for much of the World Cup cycle, there was no reason to doubt that Brazil would not be able to raise the World Cup trophy. Despite not having to play any World Cup qualifying matches (at the time the defending champions earned a free pass to the next edition of the World Cup), Brazil’s prowess in other competitive tournaments was breathtaking to watch. Brazil came into France 98 as both the defending World Cup champion and the hottest team in world football, winning both the 1997 Copa America and 1997 Confederations Cup with ease. They seemed unstoppable and had no weaknesses.

The route to defend the trophy, however, took a turn for the worse when Romario suffered a muscular injury on the eve of the World Cup and had to sit out the tournament. It was later revealed that the injury turned out to be less severe than reported, and that the true reason why Romario missed France 98 was due to the tension between he and the coaching staff headed by Zagallo and Brazil’s second greatest number ten, Zico. According to Zagallo, Romario’s antics threatened to disrupt the unity within the Seleção and the coaching staff refused to give special treatment when the enigmatic striker asked for it. The muscle injury turned out to be the perfect reason to take off Romario. Zagallo instead chose to bring back Romario’s strike partner at USA 94, the 34-year-old veteran Bebeto.

With Romario out of the picture, all the pressure to perform fell on the two-time FIFA player of the year, Ronaldo. Although only 22 at the time, he has already scored 25 goals for his country in just 37 caps and looked to join the exclusive clique of Pele, Garrincha, and Romario who lead Brazil to the World Cup. With all the comparison to the great Pele, he needed to have a great tournament to live up to the hype. His supporting cast looked just as strong as the legendary squads of the 50s and 60s, with the likes of Rivaldo, Leonardo, Dunga, Roberto Carlos, Taffarel, and Cafu all having wonderful club campaigns in the twelve months before the World Cup.

However, the road to the trophy had its twists and turns. Brazil kicked off the tournament with a nervy 2-1 win over Scotland where they looked very vulnerable in defending and had a lot of miscommunication at the back. Despite a masterful World Cup debut performance from Ronaldo, it took an unlucky own goal by Tom Boyd late in the second half for the Seleção to earn all three points. In the next match, Brazil put on a much better performance with a powerful 3-0 win over Morocco. All three attacking players Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Bebeto, found the back of the net. With this win, Brazil secured top spot in Group A and had little to play for against Norway in the final group match. Despite this, Zagallo still fielded most of the top players. However, Brazil was playing against the only team never to have lost to the Seleção in senior international football.  Not only were Brazil unable to break this awkward record, they lost the match 2-1, with Norway scoring both goals in the last 10 minutes in a sensational comeback that vaulted the Scandinavians into the last sixteen.

Fortunately, the Round of 16 match went better.  In an open and entertaining match, Brazil started the knockout stage with an easy 4-1 victory over their South American rivals Chile, with Ronaldo and Cesar Sampaio each getting a brace.

The quarter-finals had Brazil facing a good Danish side lead by legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and the mercurial Laudrup brothers. Brazil started the match on the wrong foot, conceding a free kick just outside their own penalty area. Denmark took it quickly and Jorgensen scored on the play, putting the Danes in front less than 100 seconds into the match. Then Ronaldo, who had another great game despite being marked tightly and unable to make many of his trademark runs, dropped back into midfield to assist the veteran Bebeto for the equalizer on his first effective touch. The rest of the first half was a great example of fast-paced, entertaining football, with both sides having good chances to score. But it was Brazil who went into halftime with a 2-1 lead, courtesy of a Rivaldo goal off another Ronaldo assist.

The second half began much like the first, with the Danes scoring again on a Brian Laudrup effort just five minutes after the interval. However, Rivaldo seals the victory for Brazil with a 25-yard sizzler that beat Schmeichel comprehensively. Brazil managed to hang on for the 3-2 victory, allowing them the right to face the Netherlands in the semi-finals.

The Netherlands were a team on the rise. Incorporating many players from the legendary Ajax squad of the mid-90s, Netherlands were once again establishing themselves as a force in international football. After a mediocre Euro 96, Guus Hiddink made an overhaul of the squad and permanently brought players such as Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Jaap Stam, and Phillip Cocu into the starting lineup. He also made amends with key Juventus player Edgar Davids; this move would pay great dividends in the 1998 World Cup.

Holland easily finished atop of their World Cup qualifying group ahead of Belgium and Turkey and looked to have a great tournament. Like Brazil, they started nervously with a scoreless draw against neighbouring Belgium, unable to gain revenge on the 1-0 loss they suffered 4 years ago in USA 94, despite the fact Belgium has grown weaker over the last four years while Netherlands had greatly improved. Then Netherlands played some of the most eye-pleasing football of the entire tournament in a 5-nil demolition of South Korea. After only getting a draw in the final group match against Mexico (they had a 2-0 lead for most of the match), Netherlands also topped their group.

In the first knockout match, Netherlands faced a talented Yugoslavia side. Bergkamp put them ahead on the stroke of halftime, before Yugoslavia equalized off a free kick. Then Yugoslavia got a penalty kick as a result of a Stam foul (the foul was overly harsh in my opinion), but Mijatovic hit the crossbar with the penalty kick. With Yugoslavia not taking their opportunities, Edgar Davids took the matter into his own hands and blasted a 20-yard skimmer right at the death to win the match for the Netherlands.

Netherlands then managed to eliminate fellow World Cup favourites Argentina in another World Cup classic with another infamous late winner, this time by Dennis Bergkamp in a hot Saturday afternoon in Marseille. Then they were to face Brazil on the same ground they beat Argentina in.

With the background story in mind, let us get to the match itself.

Line-up and Tactics:

For this match, both sides had to make changes to their starting XI. Brazil missed the right fullback, the great Cafu, to suspension as a result of the accumulated bookings he received against Chile and Denmark. 29-year-old former auto mechanic/watermelon salesman Ze Carlos came into the side for his international debut. To this day, it remains amazing how someone of this pedigree could be called up for such an important tournament. I couldn’t help but recall the Mano era where he called up a ridiculous amount of players like Ze Carlos that had no business in the Seleção. This selection would prove to be a big hole for Netherlands to exploit. Other than that forced change, Zagallo continued with the same 4-4-2 line-up used in previous France 98 matches. Dunga and Cesar Sampaio playing in deeper central holding positions, Rivaldo starting wide and looked to cut infield whenever Brazil has the ball to accommodate for the overlapping Roberto Carlos on the far left.  Meanwhile, the most expensive player in the world, Denilson, was left on the bench to be used mainly as a situational player.

An interesting note on Leonardo: despite having to field the incompetent Ze Carlos, Zagallo chose to stick with Leonardo on the right midfield position in favour of a more defensive-minded player like Emerson or Ze Roberto. Perhaps Zagallo was hoping that unlike in previous matches where he came infield to link up with the overlapping Cafu, Leonardo would try to keep to the right touchline to better protect Ze Carlos and also be the recipient of Dunga’s diagonal passes from deep on attacks. However, despite making a good effort to generate that instructed width, Leonardo did not look comfortable there. It was just not his type of game, as he is more comfortable playing in a central position.

Netherlands, on the other hand, could not deploy the left back Arthur Numan nor Winston Bogarde as the former was suspended for his red card offense against Argentina while the latter was injured in training. Arsenal’s speedy winger Marc Overmars was also unable to start due to a hamstring problem suffered during the match against Yugoslavia. Thus, Hiddink put out a 3-5-1-1 formation, with Bergkamp playing off Kluivert at the front and overloading the midfield. In came the versatile Phillip Cocu at the “left-back” position, but compared to a conventional fullback Cocu seemed to be much more of a midfielder for this match. Cocu also played second striker, wide midfielder, and holding midfielder in the 1998 World Cup, a testament to his versatility. To replace Overmars, another similar type of player, the young Boudewijn Zenden came into the side for his first competitive start as well. He would be the one asking all sorts of questions to fellow newbie Ze Carlos. Veteran Wim Jonk was also handed a start in favour of the terrific Clarence Seedorf, further proving Hiddink’s intent to win the midfield battle and offering more protection to the backline in helping to stop Ronaldo, Bebeto, and Rivaldo.

The match – First Half:

The Dutch kicked off the match and settled in well. They provided a lot of good off-ball movement, but did not penetrate through the Brazilian defence.

In the 2nd minute Roberto Carlos played a 1-2 ball with Cesar Sampaio, and then charged down the left lane. He dawdled and tried a few tricks to win himself some room, then tried a cross which was easily collected by Van der Sar. In the third minute, after Dunga stripped the ball from Zenden, he almost immediately got a long ball towards Ronaldo, but was thwarted again by Van der Sar coming off the goal line to collect. This was one of the hallmarks of the Zagallo era Brazil, as the Seleção looked to quickly break after winning the ball, using either width or launching pinpoint attacks from the back to generate offense. All of this was in exhibition within the first three minutes.

In the fourth minute, Stam made a pass to Ronald de Boer on the right, who then passed to Kluivert, who with brilliant footwork evaded Dunga and Aldair. Kluivert made the pass to Bergkamp, whose shot was just over the bar. Early Dutch threat.

After the Dutch exchanged a series of passes, Wim Jonk launched a ball from the midfield to find Zenden with space on the left side of the penalty area. Zenden took three touches before attempting to find Bergkamp who was just a little behind the ball. Roberto Carlos deflected the pass for a corner, which came to nothing.

Early on, you could see the Dutch prowess in passing and finding space.  Despite Brazil’s aggressiveness in pressing the midfield and final third, Holland simply passed out of every trap with great composure, building up superbly with each subsequent pass. This was evident again in the 6th minute, when Cocu, Zenden and Kluivert linked up to allow Kluivert in with some space on the left side, forcing Dunga to make a tackle and concede a corner. Philip Cocu, who rose over both Baiano and Aldair, headed the resulting corner over the bar. Aldair soon after had another pass read out by the Dutch who intercepted and tried to find Kluivert. Luckily, Aldair recovered and managed to clear away the danger. You can see that the Seleção defense was certainly not as technical as today’s Thiago Silva or David Luiz is. Even Roberto Carlos was inclined to just clear the ball away instead of finding the midfielders to build up. Brazil would have a lot of trouble playing out the back, in stark contrast to their opponents and to the defensive unit of today’s Seleção.

But Roberto Carlos, for all his shortcomings, brought many special things to the table. In the 11th minute, he once again showed his proficiency in overlapping runs, this time by combining with Rivaldo. The return from Rivaldo was way too far for him, but you see my point. So far most of Brazil’s attacks had been either through Roberto Carlos on the left wing or through long, probing balls from Dunga to the front two of Ronaldo and Bebeto, clearly not trusting Ze Carlos overlapping on the right and also choosing to bypass much of the midfield. Patient build-up from the midfield was almost non-existent for Brazil in this match.

The Dutch, on the other hand, were very good at quickly switching flanks and finding space in midfield. This was also helped by the fact they were winning most of the aerial duels and making a lot of off the ball movement.

In the thirteenth minute, Ronaldo made his very first run of the game. After a series of one-touch passes, Ronaldo came in from the right byline and cut into the middle, only to be brought down by Zenden. The referee rewarded Brazil with a free kick, which Dunga delivered into the box only to see it headed over by Cesar Sampaio.

But Ronaldo was just getting warmed up. In the 16th minute, Brazil won a throw-in. Ze Carlos sent the ball Ronaldo’s way who played a beautiful one-two with Bebeto. Ronaldo got away from Davids and Cocu. Bebeto sent him free into the box, with only a last-ditch tackle from Stam to deny him a shot on goal. This was vintage Ronaldo.

In the 19th minute, a through-ball was played from Davids towards Bergkamp, who was ruled offside (wrongfully in my view), as Aldair played him on.

Not content with the support he had been getting, Ronaldo started to drop back into the midfield to help with the build-up. He received the ball from Junior Baiano on Brazil’s side of the midfield, passed to Leonardo who in turn probed a through-ball behind the Dutch defense, only to be cleared by a backtracking Zenden to prevent the so far quiet Ze Carlos from reaching it.

21st minute, another throw-in for Brazil resulted in Rivaldo returning the ball to Roberto Carlos on the left side in a congested area. RC then crossed the ball into the box towards Bebeto. Bebeto reached the ball before the Cocu and Frank de Boer, but he headed just high. It should have been 1-0 right there.

As the game went on, both sides settled in and the match became one of attrition. Netherlands, similar to the way Denmark set up their defense in the first half of the quarter-final match against Brazil, played a high backline to leave as little space as possible between the midfield and defense. This way they could contain Ronaldo effectively and not allow him to turn and make his devastating runs.

Sure enough, apart from a couple of instances, Ronaldo simply could not go on any penetrating runs, as there were always either Davids, Frank de Boer, or Stam right behind him no matter how deep he dropped back. The Dutch were gambling that the large amount of space left behind the defense would not be exploited by Bebeto, as the Dutch (correctly) calculated that the 34-year-old striker had lost too much of his pace to pose any threat.  Moreover, compared to previous opponents, the two Dutch defenders Frank de Boer and Stam were more or less able to keep up with Ronaldo’s pace, thus giving the Dutch an incentive to gamble.

Netherlands, on the other side, had three parts to their game plan:

  1.   Whenever Aldair and Junior Baiano received the ball, press immediately.
  2.   Generate width by exchanging quick passes from flank to flank. Isolate and exploit the Brazilian fullbacks, especially Ze Carlos. Then put in crosses for Kluivert to head.
  3.   Once the Brazilian defense as stretched, look for Bergkamp to exploit any space between the fullbacks and center backs.

This strategy paid dividends quite soon. Both Kluivert and Bergkamp pressured Aldair and Junior Baiano and caused significant problems. On two occasions, Baiano was quite shaky on the ball and his back-passes to Taffarel were very difficult for the Brazilian goalkeeper to deal with.  Only Taffarel’s alertness kept the Dutch at bay.

For the second part of the strategy, Zenden managed to get past Ze Carlos on one occasion after Ze Carlos slid in for a slide tackle but missed the ball completely. Zenden then sent in a cross, but the final ball was poor and looped over the goal. Signs of what was coming.

Just a few minutes later, after some neat and tidy Dutch passing in the Brazilian half to stretch out the Brazilian defense, Cocu surged forward and passed ahead to Zenden. With a one-timed cross, Zenden aimed the ball for the head of Kluivert. Kluivert beat Aldair to the ball but to the relief of the Brazilians, headed just high from around eight yards. It was easily the best Dutch moment to that point.

For both Boudewijn Zenden and Ze Carlos, this semi-final match was their first start in a major international tournament. But it was the younger of the two debutants, Zenden, who made the positive contribution to his team. His defensive work was especially impressive. His pace down the Brazilian right was getting too hot for Ze Carlos to handle, and before the first half was over, Ze Carlos had earned a yellow card for barging into Zenden. Needless to say, the booking severely restricted his defensive freedom and put Brazil in an uncomfortable position on the right.  For the rest of the match, Dunga, Junior Baiano, and later on Emerson all had to come and rescue Ze Carlos whenever the Dutch targeted their overwhelmed right-back. Frankly, against a team of such quality, one wonders why in the world Zagallo chose to start a non-defensive minded player like Leonardo in favour of Emerson, given the fact that Ze Carlos had neither the international experience nor the pedigree to stop good players such as Cocu and Zenden. For a country with so much talent on every position, was it so difficult to select a better fullback than Ze Carlos?

Ze Carlos was certainly not the only one underperforming. The player ahead of him, Leonardo, was hardly setting the world on fire. For such a good player, his contribution to the Seleção over the course of the tournament had been next to nothing. For the most part, he had been on the fringes of the game and looked extremely conservative, putting in backpass after backpass to Dunga and Junior Baiano. He looked uncomfortable playing in the wide right position.

Another veteran of the 1994 World Cup winning squad, Bebeto, had been looking short of pace and stamina. He went on several 1994-esque runs to pursue long balls played by Dunga and Junior Baiano, but came out either called for offside or getting beaten to it by the Dutch defenders. In the 33rd minute, he had a good scoring opportunity when he slid in front of Frank de Boer to try to turn a Rivaldo pass into the net. But his loss of pace meant he was simply unable to get a touch on it. There was not much he could do except apologize and acknowledge to his teammates that the idea had been good. The Dutch made the gamble to play a high backline and Bebeto’s performance had thus far justified Guus Hiddink’s decision.

38th minute, more problems down the Brazilian right. After Leonardo had to be stretchered off for treatment on a collision with Cocu, the Dutch worked the ball to the weakened left side. Cocu makes a through ball for Zenden to chase. Zenden beat Ze Carlos to it again and drove the ball across the face of goal where Ronald de Boer was charging. Roberto Carlos was again defensively alert and managed to put off Ronald de Boer enough to prevent the Dutchman from making contact with the ball. A minute or so later, Ze Carlos and Junior Baiano miscommunicated on a loose ball and Ze Carlos made a mess of a backpass to Taffarel. Taffarel was lucky to bang the ball away just before the onrushing Cocu could get to it.

For the rest of the half, Netherlands had a lot of joy down the left (Brazilian right), as after Davids outmuscled Ronaldo off the ball, Wim Jonk penetrated the Brazilian defense superbly, catching both Ze Carlos and Junior Baiano out of position. The ball fell to Kluivert down the left and Kluivert made an immediate cross to Bergkamp, but once again Roberto Carlos rescued Brazil with a perfect chest pass (yes, you read that right) to the safe hands of Taffarel.

Despite the Dutch enjoying a good spell and generating multiple half-chances, Brazil still could muster up some responses of its own. The principle orchestrator of the responses has been none other than Roberto Carlos. He had enjoyed an excellent game in defense so far and whenever Rivaldo or Dunga had the ball, you could count on the little man scuttling down the left. On one instance, after a slick series of one-touch passes, Rivaldo saw the overlapping Roberto Carlos with some space and passed it to him. RC then took on Ronald de Boer before unleashing a cannon shot that soared just wide of van der Sar’s far post. On another instance, after Ronaldo won a free, Roberto Carlos went for glory. Unfortunately, he was unable to reproduce the jaw-dropping free kick he made in the Tournoi a year ago; the shot was low and straight at van der Sar for an easy save.

As the match went into injury time, the Dutch created one more chance. Kluivert managed to hold off three Brazilian players before laying the ball off to the right. Ronald de Boer then passed to Wim Jonk, who subsequently sent a diagonal ball into the box. Kluivert, being played onside by an injured Junior Baiano, climbed up to reach a free header, but his header was just over the bar and landed on the roof of the net. Not an easy chance, but a good one nonetheless, as the Dutch end the first half on a high note.

The rest of the match will be covered in Part 2, coming later this month.