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Pierre's World Cup Diary

GAME 12, GROUP F, JUNE 13, 2006 --BERLIN
BRAZIL 1, CROATIA 0
FINAL

So far today we've had one fairly good game with that 2-1 South Korea win over Togo, and one absolutely horrendous game, a 0-0 tie that takes its place alongside England-Paraguay and US-Czech Republic as the tournament's least exciting. It's up to Brazil and Croatia to give us a lift, from Berlin of all places--the stadium of the infamous 1936 Olympics, the stadium where, just as infamously, the English national team traveled for a game in 1937 and did the Heil Hitler business right there, turning to face Goering in the stands (Hitler was not there; Werner March designed the original Berlin stadium by the way, not Albert Speer). Two years ago we had the Turin Olympics played in a stadium that gave Mussolini a few extra heartbeats. But let's not get lost in silly sporting guilt by association. As the economist noted this week, "every time Germany wins football's World Cup, some pundits assert, the country takes a turn for the better. Thus 1954 saw the start of the economic miracle, 1974 the birth of modern Germany and 1990 unification." Not that either Brazil or Croatia intend to let Germany make good on a fourth World Cup. The general consensus is that Brazil is taking this thing hands down. From the quality of play we've seen so far, the other powers certainly haven't made a case for it (despite Germany's welcome Klinsmannish twist toward offense). That's Ronaldinho by the way, scissor-kicking that ball in the picture. He's wearing Pele's Number 10 and hoping to emulate it. Also in the line-up of Brazil's equivalent of Bronx Bombers, but on a much larger scale: Cafu, Emerson, Robert Carlos, Kaka, Ronaldo, Ze Roberto... need we go on? Every one of these names is a Mickey on football's highest-shelved mantle, every one of them a Da Vinci code of his own for the opposition to attempt to decode. It's not impossible. Brazil lost two games on the way to qualifying. And by the way, this is the first time a defending champion has had to qualify like everyone else. The only country that got a bye is host Germany. Brazil lost on Nov. 17, 2004, against Ecuador, in Quito's high atmosphere, 1-0. And Brazil lost again in Argentina on June 8, 2005, 3-1.

At home, Brazil defeated those two teams by the very same scores: 1-0 over Uruguay, and 3-1 over Argentina, that last on June 2, 2004: quite a while back, and you can make the argument that the Brazilians have improved since, but so have Argentina. Brazil also had too many draws for a team of its quality: Peru, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia all drew the mighty ones in qualifiers, often in unseamly 0-0 fashion. So they're not only not invulnerable. They can be humbled. Then again: no team is a weak team in Latin America. But they're starting their 2006 campaign against a small, powerful squad in Croatia.

FIRST HALF.......

2... Off to a faster start than any of the day's games, thank Brazil...Terrific play already, Ronaldinho beating one, two, three defenders, snapping inside the box, getting it back... it was broken up, but beautiful to see.

7... Croatia gets its first corner: it's through these set plays that it has a chance. But we're seeing Brazil playing the break-away, with terrific, instinctive passing all the way to a shot on goal that sailed high. Great pace, beautiful two out of two touches for Ronaldinho. The Croats on the other hand are unbowed: they've come out to play (and as always to shove and thump).

Ronaldinho has been very visible in this game: a bad sign for Croatia, while Croatia's own guns have been mostly silent.

14... Roberto Carlos, a missile from 30 yards out, just saved over the bar. Corner leads the ball to Ronaldinho, he blasts it for another save and a corner, which leads to yet another strike, that one high and out. One, two, three. The Croats are being shelled. They're not yet shocked. But Ronaldo is one step behind the rest of the team.

20... Croatia attacks--one man's run--he's double-teamed, outrun, beaten. Who said Brazil can't defend?

22... Croatia just took their first honest-to-Berlin shot on goal, just wide of the near post. A nice run, a nice finish, in sync with this game's torrid pace.

What's with Ronaldinho's teeth? His dentist must be British. Anyway his true bite is lower down. He's still all over the ball. Croatia shot, saved, corner, swerved off...Ronaldo is not looking good. No no. Also, he's got some of that Babe Ruth rind around the waist.

29... Nasty Brazilian foul on Kovac, the Croatian star (Adriano pulled the guy's shirt; a wonder it didn't rip).

30... Foul on Brazil on the border of the box, a direct kick on goal, Brazil's biggest chance... Roberto Carlos to unleash, almost straight on, three feet away from the box... goes off the wall. Croatia eventually regains possession.

So 35 minutes in, no goal, no true, great offensive explosions except for the one more than ten minutes back: Brazil has been held in check, Ronaldo is definitely a step behind his team, and the inventors of football are still looking for 2006's first patent.

36... A back-and-forth run outside the Croat box, a shot by Emerson, a high lob above goal.

38... Croatia just missed its best chance on a free kick from the near wing, curling nicely for two players flying toward goal, but both of them were inches from contact. Brazil takes it back upfield...builds a nice attack through the middle until they reach the box, pass to Cafu, shot, saved. The great Kovac is out, looking worn out.

Brazil's Emerson lands himself a yellow card for instepping a Croat.

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL KAKA BRAZIL 1-0 OUT OF NOWHERE!

CAFU TOOK THE BALL AT MIDFIELD, TOOK IT ALL THE WAY DOWN THE NEAR WING UNCHALLENGED, BIG, BIG PLAINS VASTLY GREEN AND UN-CROADED AROUND HIM, HE CROSSES IT TO KAKA WHO'S IN THE MIDDLE AT THE Edge of the penalty box, and Kaka unleashes a curling ball that goes around the keeper and into the upper left corner of goal for the 1-0 lead. Very beautifully executed.

We're in injury time, but Brazil has redeemed its slightly less than stellar first-half play. Croatia try one last gasp of an attack, Prso takes a weak shot from beyond the box, dribbles it out. The half has ended.

SECOND HALF...

50... Croatia's Prso just took a fabulous shot straight on goal, saved, bounced off, cleared for a corner that was not executed as successfully: Brazil on the attack, but doesn't look as if Ronaldo has made it out of the proverbial locker room yet. He's a negative force right now, neutralizing Ronaldinho's energy...

53... And another Croat attack that forces a smothering save by the Brazilian keeper. Croatian fans are starting to sing like Mets fans in 1969. They're noticing the virtual absence of Ronaldo, except as a spolier of Brazilian rythm, and they're probing the Brazilian keeper enough to make Brazil think twice about playing the instinctively forward game it prefers. The 1-0 lead is looking more tenuous than when the Brazilian left the field at the half. Wait! Ronaldo just unleashed his first Hail Mary toward goal, and it was just short of grace. He may not be full of grease after all.

60... Second-half lull time in Berlin.

62... Ronaldinho just almost made it 2-0 on a terrific header from a perfect cross, but a bouncy save from the keeper, and a turnover.

67... Brazil is against the ropes here, Croatia managing attack after attack, one that just skimmed past the keeper on a save by one of the defender, another one just now that was shot high over the crossbar: "We believe, we believe" in Croatian? And again! A cross into the Bra box, a dive for a header but the ball is sloughed off by a Bra boot. And finally, Ronaldo is taken out. The dark energy has left the field. The neutrons are gone. The zero-sum game is finished. The Babe-Ruth-near-retirement has gone to Florida. Let's see some action now. But no, instead we get another Croatian attack, and a shot on goal forcing yet another save.

72... Another beautiful strike from Kaka, from a long way off, sending the Croat keeper at full stretch, but the ball is just wide. Here come Croatia again.

75... Good sencond half, both teams are alive, the Croats, unbelievably, are building more steady, better-thought-out attacks. All out. Silly take-down on Croatia's part, a Brazilian free kick some 30 yards out, from the far side. Robert Carlos, the Pershing Missile of the Brazilian 11, took it but to no end: wall shot.

80... For a first game not a bad performance on Brazil's part but not awe-inspiring either. Brazil took the field knowing this would be its toughest test in an easy draw: Japan and Australia cannot possibly put up much of a fight, and you could sense that the Braz were holding back from unsnapping and revealing their bounties entirely. A bit disappointing for us, but if the score holds, it's still a victory against one of Europe's tougher teams, in Europe. The worry, of course, is Ronaldo, whose cup size has gone from runneth over to double z, for snooz.

86... And now a Croatian fan has run on the field, flares have gone off in the stands, and the ESPN commentator says, "This doesn't happen in America." No, but... well, never mind what does happen.

88... A slow-build Croat attack, a header just above goal, the ball rests on top of the net.

90... Icing on Brazil's cake? Or ice from Croatia? We're at midfield, Brazilian down, yellow for Croatia. Brazil resumes...2 minutes injury time...oatia arttacks, loses, Brazil replies...Croatia repossesses... Free kick Croatia in Bra's half... nice bed inside, headed out. Throw-in? No, that's it: Brazil wins, and gets a record eight straight wins in World Cup play.

Nice run there, but not the overwhelming display of power we expected from Brazil. Croatia has a strong defense, but Brazil was also short of ideas on more than one occasion. It wasn't all Ronaldo's fault. They have a bit of work to do if they're to get back to their bounties--and our joys.

Plus these lo0w-scoring affairs are not going to do wonders for the goal average in this World Cup.

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