When Brazil’s left-back Michel Bastos takes to the field on Friday to mark Holland’s genius Arjen Robben it won’t be his first experience of the Netherlands, but it will be his most glamorous.
In 2001 the teenaged Bastos arrived to play for Feyenoord Rotterdam. The club, not famous for brilliant decision-making in the transfer market, farmed the kid out to their tiny neighbours Excelsior. After one unremarkable season there, Feyenoord returned him to Brazil. Bastos wept. Now he looks headed for a World Cup final, as long as he can contain Robben.
This year’s Brazil and Holland look so similar that you wonder whether they are by any chance related. Once famed for creative football, both teams have counterattacked here. Both have coasted through games. Even the two most typically Brazilian footballers playing on Friday, Robben and Robinho, sound like relatives. Yet if these teams are brothers, Brazil is the big one. It plays like Holland, but just a bit better.
That’s not because individual Brazilians are so wonderful. Zico, a past Brazilian who was wonderful, has marvelled at how such modest parts make up such a strong whole. Bastos, for instance, is a makeshift left-back: like many Brazilian full-backs who come to Europe, he proved so comfortable on the ball that his clubs promoted him to midfield.
Brazil’s defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva is 33 and fading. Felipe Melo won the Golden Dustbin for biggest flop in Italy’s Serie A last year. Robinho promises much and delivers little. Even Kaká has had a gruesome year at Real Madrid. Compared with the Brazil of 2002, Friday’s lot look on paper like the C team.
Yet on grass they “exude invincibility”, admits Holland’s coach Bert van Marwijk. Brazil have won games here while holding something back for later. What pre-tournament friendlies are for other countries, the first four World Cup matches have been for the Canaries: a gentle warm-up for the real thing. They let the opposition play, then strike the instant they win possession.
That moment of turnover, as it’s called in basketball, increasingly determines modern football. The Dutch rely on it too. They figured out years ago that endless passing, or “knitting”, no longer cuts open defences. Now only Spain knit.
Once Brazil or Holland – or indeed Argentina – score an opening goal, the game is in effect over. The opposition has to attack, spaces open up and the Dutch and Brazilians exploit them. These guys rarely miss chances. Brazil’s Luis Fabiano is his country’s best poacher of goals since Ronaldo, but much less fat.
The Dutch have coasted too. Since winning their opening game against Denmark on June 14 they have been waiting for this day – like turkeys for Christmas. The Dutch know their own weaknesses all too well.
Brazil’s right-back Maicon will hope to explore the territory of Holland’s non-tackling left-back Gio van Bronckhorst. (Dutch tactics largely revolve around hiding Gio.) Holland’s centre-back John Heitinga occasionally wanders off like an errant pet. Robin van Persie has looked unhappy at centre-forward. In fact he has provided the one classically Dutch dispute of the tournament: substituted against Slovakia, he allegedly yelled at Van Marwijk that he should have taken off Wesley Sneijder instead.
Furthermore, Holland lose to Lusophones. Brazil or Portugal have knocked them out of their past three World Cups, and in 2002, when the Dutch missed the tournament, Portugal knocked them out in qualifying. The Lusophones can hold the ball when necessary, and control the tempo of the game. That’s just what the Dutch expect to do themselves.
Probably only one man can swing this game for Holland. Everyone knows exactly what Robben does: dribbles inside and shoots with his left. But because he can change pace apparently with every step, he’s almost unstoppable. Bastos needs to prove just once more that Feyenoord erred in rejecting him.