Brazil repays Kochi's love with scintillating performance against Spain
There's just something about watching a winger run down the flanks, hugging the touchline and whipping crosses in... you don't see it much these days, inside-forwards and inverted-wingers being the rage as it were, and there's something gloriously brilliant about suddenly seeing what was becoming a nostalgic memory come to life right in front of your eyes.
For all the talk about this being the future, Brazil and Spain opened up little windows to the past as they gamboled along around in front of a not-as-jam-packed-as-ticket-sales-showed Kochi stadium (only 21,000 of the 29,000 allotted seats were occupied - this despite the official website, and offline counters stating that all the tickets had been sold out... a damn shame)
Whether it was Ferran Torres peeling back time by playing the role of right-winger to perfection, Abel Ruiz striding around regally, the very picture of a proper ol' centre-forward, shirt tucked in and waistband pulled so far up it could well have been 1960, Wesley running up and down the right flank playing the role of the stereotypically brilliant Brazilian fullback to perfection, or Alan jinking and weaving in between the lines of the Spanish midfield and defence, it was all just quite the throwback
"The lads were a little nervous in the beginning. Quite naturally too, these are young guys and it was their first World Cup"
Coach Carlos Amadeu was right about that - I'd be nervous too if I had Torres run at me at full tilt. The young Valencia winger has been eliciting interest from both Real Madrid and Barcelona recently, and it took him all of three minutes to show Kochi, and the watching world, just why.
Too fast to handle for the combined might of Paulinho and Weverson, Torres's first run and whipped cross was met with a Ruiz shot that Gabriel Brazao did well to save - but there was nothing the unfortunate Wesley could do with his Torres' next cross as it careened off his leg (just in front of Mohammed Moukhliss - if he hadn't touched the ball, Moukhliss would have scored) and into the goal. Four minutes into the game, Spain were already leading.
Brazil had every right to feel nervous.
The first half started off showing signs that the European Champions would wipe the floor with their South American peers with that frantic high press and those cute little passing triangles that once had Sir Alex Ferguson saying of Barcelona - "They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing" (there was a particularly brilliant moment when Diego Pampin, Sergio Gomez, Alvaro Garcia and Carlos Beita exchanged a series of passes that had the men in yellow chasing shadows and the partisan crowd on their feet - their eyes telling them to applaud despite their hearts telling them not to), but the fact that by the end of the first half, the possession stats read 64% Brazil to Spain's 36% is statistical proof that La Furia Roja did nothing of the sort.
"We started the first half well, but as they started attacking they looked better" rued Santiago 'Santi' Denia, and he was right, his opposite number attributing Brazil's ascendancy to his team's mental power (strength) - "The most important thing is mental power, because it is the basis of everything we do in life. Even though we conceded an early goal, this mental power of ours helped us stay in the game"
With Alan and Marcos Antonio pulling the strings in the middle of the park, A Selecao wrested back control of midfield - something that you rarely see any Spanish side, of any age group, relinquish easily - and with fullbacks Wesley and Weverson pegging back the Spanish wingers Sergio Gomez and Ferran Torres, Brazil pegged Spain back and everyone could see what was coming.
The equaliser, scored five minutes before the half-hour mark, was deserved reward for the tenacity the young Brazilians displayed - Lincoln was a tad lucky that he got a second bite at the apple after connecting with nothing but air on his first try after Brenner's mazy run and cross in, but he made no reflection as the ball deflected off the unfortunate Diego Pampin and came back to him five yards from goal.
The fact that he pulled off the "Kylian Mbappe pose" after that tap-in tells you that he's got what it takes to be a center-forward at the top of the game. Pippo Inzaghi would have been proud.
As Brazilian continued their slow strangulation of Spain, penning them within their own half - they brushed aside the stereotype that Brazil stands for individual creativity while Spain stands for the strength of the collective; if anything, it was the exact opposite.
A minute into stoppage time, Brazil were rewarded once again for their attacking endeavour when the Spanish midfield inexplicably stood off Marcos Antonio and allowed him to scoop the ball into Paulinho's path... the talented winger lifting the ball over a hapless Alvaro Fernandez with the calmness of a natural finisher.
Denia claimed that his side had the better of the second half, and he was probably right, Brazil allowing Spain more possession of the ball, sitting back in their own half and looking to hit back on the counter - but the sheer calmness of the Brazilian defence was another of those stereotype-busters; in the best possible way.
Vitão's eerie composure had been evident in the build-up to the game, but during the duration of the second 45, the captain marshalled his defence with all the calm of an experienced HR manager organising the seating chart in his office - he and his defensive colleagues put on a display that would have made even the Italians of yore proud, defending 12 corners and reducing the Spaniards to pot shots from distance (a Sergio Gomez thunderb****** from twenty five yards the only one that had Gabriel scrambling) and as the energy-sapping combination that is Kochi's wilting heat and intense humidity took a hold off the players, the Spaniards stood no chance.
Amadeu self-effacingly attributed the defensive masterclass to his side's mental power, "While winning a game, we need mental power more than ever. You cannot relax and you need total concentration in the match. Our boys knew that they have a good coach and good players with great technique and [they didn't switch off even for a moment]"... and if the evidence of this match is anything to go by, it will take something very special to stop this Brazil team from going to the very top.
Meanwhile, the Kochi crowd loved every minute of it. Amadeu insisted that he had realised the love for football, and Brazil, during FIFA's technical visit to the city, and that he'd been determined to "give something back; to repay the love of the people" and across 90 minutes of high-class football in their first match here, his team did just that.