For any team that takes Brazil on in the World Cup – there are numerous reminders of the difference between royalty and the serfs. They come through questions; they come through answers; they come through reputation; they come through your own mind; but mostly they come through the five stars on Brazil’s jersey.
Belgium was no different. The European nation had reached just one World Cup semi-final – way back in 1986. A time so removed from the present that it felt more like myth and less like reality. They knew their place in the hierarchy. They better than most knew the challenge. But they did not bow down. Instead, they looked for a way to erase the difference.
The answer they arrived at was essentially simple. Man-to-man Brazil was better, so they had to come up a solution that would make use of their collective potential.
“When you play Brazil you need a tactical advantage,” explained Belgium coach Roberto Martinez. “Brazil bring that psychological barrier, they’ve won five World Cups. We had to be brave tactically.”
That attempt at being brave was evident from the manner in which Belgium set up – rejigged to a 4-3-3 with a false nine from the 3-4-2-1 that they had preferred in the earlier matches. Marouane Fellaine and Nacer Chadli were brought into the starting line-up too.
All this meant three things – it gave Belgium some steel in the middle, it gave them an aerial threat and perhaps, most importantly, it pushed Kevin de Bruyne up the field, into a more attacking position.
Earlier in the tournament, Eden Hazard was counted upon to provide the trickery and De Bruyne the calm. But today, he was let loose. The other change was to play Lukaku on the right. Not bang in front on goal but on the right – where Marcelo, who is only too happy to charge up, always leaves a hole.
Still, coming up with the tactics was the easy bit, but executing them for the full 90 minutes was insanely difficult.
As Martinez said: “Today wasn’t about the tactics; it was about the execution of those tactics. If you execute it like the players did, it makes it difficult for them.”
Belgium’s players had roughly two days to get used to the change in formation. They did more than just get used to it, they mastered it.
The match begins
Still, for the first 10 minutes, Brazil dominated. They launched attack after attack at the Belgian goal, hit the woodwork but just as it looked like they were about to settle into a dangerous rhythm, Belgian went a goal ahead.
The last touch came of Fernandinho but such was the quality of the ball from the corner by Chadli that the Brazilians had no option but to try and put it out of harm’s way. Instead, it hit his elbow and gave Belgium a vital lead.
Brazil looked shell-shocked but the only saving grace was that they had time. Time, to find the equaliser and maybe – as their supporters believed – even the winner. But those dreams came to an abrupt end, when another breathtaking counter led by the irrepressible Lukaku led to a wonder shot from de Bruyne. It beat the goalkeeper and Brazil’s focus shifted from winning to survival.
Once again, the final shot came from Belgian’s right flank. Marcelo should have been there to cover but he wasn’t. He was out of position and De Bruyne’s shot was simply too good for Alisson Becker.
Thirty-one minutes gone and Brazil were 0-2 down.
For most teams, this was an insurmountable wall. But this was Brazil – they could harbour hopes of a comeback. Even the commentator wasn’t prepared to put his neck on the line.
So Brazil continued to charge forward. Tite put in more attacking players and essentially told his team that there was no way back from this.
They responded in kind – forcing Belgium into desperate clearances and tough tackles. Renato Augusto scored just a few minutes after coming on as a substitute. It gave Brazil a lifeline and they created even more chance. But Courtois and Co survived a manic last 20 minutes to advance.
Brazil’s coach Tite, though, made no excuses. “Football has a randomness but I don’t like to talk about luck,” he said. “When it is on our side it is a polite way of putting down the opponent. So I don’t believe in luck. Was Courtois lucky? No, he was great. It hit the woodwork, what can you do. Belgium were competent and effective.
“Randomness, accidents, they happen. And today they happened. It hurts to say that. That is not to undermine Belgium, who are a great team. But chance was cruel to us. It was so hard and it is very hard to accept.”
The numbers show just how hard Brazil tried… how they even dominated but they also show that Belgium were supremely clinical in front of goal. Belgium turned their chances into goals; Brazil only turned them into a statistic.
Yes, Brazil could have won this. But for the Selecao ‘could have’ is never good enough. ‘Could have’ isn’t victory. ‘Could have’ isn’t another star. But it just might turn into an opportunity for Belgium to get their first star – one that will firmly set them on the path to becoming footballing royalty.