BRAZIL survive, their World Cup continues.
Scorers: Brazil; David Luiz (18), Chile; Alexis Sánchez (32)
But what a game we had here in Belo Horizonte, and what scenes after Brazil stumbled into the last eight despite missing two of their five penalty kicks and being taken to the very brink by an excellent Chile side.
Neymar must be applauded for holding his nerve in unimaginably tense circumstances to score the fifth penalty, after misses by Willian – who shot wide of the goal entirely – and Hulk, whose effort was superbly saved by Claudio Bravo.
Julio Cesar, the Brazil goalkeeper, must also be given credit for two fine saves but it was a post which helped the host nation through, with the unfortunate Gonzalo Jara seeing his kick hit an upright. The piece of goalframe will now surely be exhibited on a plinth in the most football-obsessed city in a football-obsessed country. The missed kick was the final act in a pulsating, glorious contest, one which Brazil should never have allowed to reach such a nerve-shredding conclusion.
If ever a goal was willed into the net then the one that saw Brazil take the lead was it. It was not just one end where Brazil were attacking that helped suck it into the net, it was an entire nation. The ball was even helped over the line by an obliging Chilean in Jara as David Luiz looked to pounce on Neymar’s flicked-on corner at the back post.
And that was supposed to be that. In the Brazilian-conceived narrative, there was meant to be no way back for Chile. The wheeze by one tabloid on the morning of the game to publish times of return flights to Santiago from Belo Horizonte looked to have avoided being considered a pratfall.
Fears extinguished, nerves settled. Brazil could relax and impose themselves on the game in a less frenzied manner than had been the case before the opening goal. However, that wasn’t that; it was a long way short of it in fact.
Brazil were condemned to endure the agonies that all football supporters will recognise. The nation held its breath as their World Cup ambitions teetered on the brink in extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out. When former Hearts player Mauricio Pinilla came on and almost sent a nation into psychotherapy when he hit the bar in the final minute of extra-time the only possible response was a shake of the head.
Although they are host country, this World Cup is certainly not proving malleable to Brazil’s whims. The tournament has a spirit of its own. It is why it is proving so intoxicating. The frenzied excitement started to build in Belo Horizonte many hours before kick-off, and reached fever pitch at around 1.18pm local time in salute of the opening goal. But it began to subside as soon it became clear Chile were making a game of it.
Both teams, though, were doing their best to contribute to a classic, one that might go down as the best game to date in an already utterly engrossing competition. For intensity alone, it has to be considered special. And while mistakes were a feature of the game, so too were remarkably agile saves from both goalkeepers and excellent finishing, from Chile’s Alexis specifically. But there were also some horrible, wild misses. Fred, Jo, Hulk and, yes, even Neymar will have to accept responsibility for making this a lot more fretful than it should have been for, well, about 200 million people.
When Neymar came on to warm up, he bent down, touched the turf and put on a show of keepie-uppies. “Brasil! Brasil!” chanted the crowd in unison. The stadium appeared to move underfoot. One of the conditions of entry seemed to be ownership of a yellow shirt. Another was an unshakeable belief in Brazil’s ability to negotiate this tricky last-16 assignment. But these 120 minutes were a sobering reminder of the potential for self-sabotage.
When Luiz Gustavo won a corner and then gestured as if to ask the fans to create more noise, it seemed like the most superfluous request ever made. You did not have to be from either country to have the soul stirred by both anthems. But the Brazilian rendition was affecting and lengthy, extended by the fans continuing to sing a cappella as Chileans whistled their disapproval.
Referee Howard Webb struggled to keep control although he had only himself to blame. As at the World Cup in 2010, he seemed to very consciously refrain from handing out cards. While this seemed to encourage poor challenges, the lassez-faire attitude also added to the enjoyment of a match that now needs to be inserted into dictionaries as the definition of “breathless”.
Fernandinho might have been the first player booked in the opening minutes when he scythed down Charles Aranguiz, who in turn sent Neymar tumbling. Again, he escaped a caution. Once again, the decision by the “visiting” opposition to highlight concerns about the potential of the referee to be swayed by the home supporters seemed to work as planned. Webb turned away appeals for a penalty after Hulk went down in the box after a challenge by Mauricio Isla.
More contentiously, he disallowed a goal from Hulk in the second-half after deciding, after receiving advice it seemed from near-side assistant Michael Mullarkey, that the player had used an arm to control the ball. Whether they were right or wrong calls, they were undeniably brave decisions. Still, the majority of the supporters howled their dismay.
There was, though, only stunned silence in the immediate aftermath of Chile’s equaliser, after 32 minutes. The excellent Alexis provided a pin-point finish into the corner, although Cesar, who later redeemed himself more than once afterwards, looked slow to react. However, it was Hulk who should be considered most culpable. It was his poor control that meant Chile stole possession from a Brazil throw-in, allowing Varga to thread through a fine pass for Alexis. It was the goal that so very nearly changed everything.