World Cup 2018: Brazil's Exit Signals End of South American Dream
One cannot say that they were outplayed, one cannot conclude that they did not play their hearts out. But in this cruel business, the margins are small and one slip-up means an agonizing wait for another four years.
Brazil - the most decorated national football team in the world, the icons in canary yellow, the pre-tournament favorites no matter what the composition of the squad, who the coach is and what kind of form they carry into it - were knocked out in a pulsating quarter-final by the new kids on the block, Belgium.
However, it wasn't just a nation but a continent that had been knocked out from the quadrennial showpiece. The inexorable burden of expectations is something the Selecao have learnt to live with but one often forgets that it can never be a source of inspiration, it can only be a hindrance to their expression when they step closer to a coveted hexa.
To be fair, Tite's wards were unlucky and their eloquent coach did point that out in the post-match presser. The ball did not break for them, Thibaut Courtois was superhuman in goal for Belgium, and a couple of decisions did not go in their favour on a dramatic night in the graveyard of super-teams, Kazan.
However, for all their relentless pressing and fluid attacking football, especially in the second half, Brazil could only pull one goal back through substitute Renato Augusto's downward header and Belgium clung on for an immortal victory.
It was a glorious exhibition of the sport by two of the leading lights of this World Cup and Kevin De Bruyne's sublime finish in the first half was an event in itself, deserving of victory in any contest - whatever the context may be.
Now we are left with four European teams and the Cup is heading back to the continent once again in a pattern that seems as inevitable as the World Cup expanding to 48 teams in FIFA's untiring quest for commercialization.
South American demise
Brazil remain the last recipients of the crown back in 2002 and since then the European powerhouses Italy, Spain, and Germany have won the World Cup. Argentina did make it to the final of the last edition but they were upstaged by the new-age Germans who became the first European nation to win the Cup in South America.
Before Brazil's exit, Uruguay, missing front-man Edinson Cavani, had been out-muscled by tournament favourites France in a joyless and dour encounter.
Colombia, sans James Rodriguez, had chosen to take the rough path and knocked out by England in a bizarre meeting full of brawls and little in the way of chances.
Lionel Messi's faltering Argentina had fallen by the wayside in a classic where France showed glimpses of the beauty they can offer but have masked for positive results.
All in all, it has been a failed enterprise for the Latin Americans. The World Cup has traditionally been perceived as a battle between the untrammelled skills of the South Americans against the organised power of the Europeans.
Often, before the age of the internet, the South Americans brought along magicians such as Pele, relatively unknown entities who chose to go on playing club football in Brazil despite the fame they garnered from their World Cup exploits.
What has changed?
Things have changed dramatically since those days. Every superstar worth his salt plies his trade in the top European leagues. Not just Neymar or Messi, even players such as Diego Godin and Juan Cuadrado are household names in Europe and familiar to their European rivals.
The Cup has ceased to be a battle between two contrasting styles even as club football in Latin America has devolved, besieged as it is by financial woes and violence. Some even argue that the pinnacle of the global game is not the World Cup anymore but the UEFA Champions League. They have a case.
The way forward
The supply line is creaking, Argentina, for example, brought along two mediocre goalkeepers as a replacement for the injured first-choice Sergio Romero who is No.2 at Manchester United. Javier Mascherano had a gallant World Cup but clearly wouldn't have been there had a replacement come up the ranks.
Even Brazil, despite a commendable showing, have lost their fear factor. For the Latin Americans to reclaim their supremacy, they need to rejuvenate their club systems and invoke their autonomous style of play once again.
Till then, the ghosts of successes past will continue to haunt them.