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Brazil's "Bullyball" Goes Belly Up

1-7 is a result, too

Francois Xavier Marit/Getty Images

I'm sorry, and I say this as someone with family in São Paulo, but I don't feel the slightest bit of remorse for this Brazil team.

Watching it in this World Cup has been like drinking a glass of salt. And don't even get me started on the players Scolari left at home! The people deserved better. Far far better.

Scolari’s Brazil was always designed to live by the result, and now a result that’s difficult to fathom has been burned onto his résumé and gilded onto our collective World Cup memories. Regardless of who I’m rooting for I hope for skill, goals, cohesion, positivity in a game. Today, only one team provided this. But with Scolari involved that was always likely to be the case. When you lament the loss of Luiz Gustavo to the point in which you wonder whether your midfield can even function without him (when you have Ramires and Paulinho on your roster and left home Lucas Moura and Philippe Coutinho) then you are beyond a victim of your own tactics. You are haunted.

To kick, claw, and negate your way to narrow wins is the tactic of the overwhelmed, the cowardly, or those who only understand expression in bellicose terms. Scolari was the latter. His team played all of their games in their home country, but he, and subsequently his players, treated the World Cup as though they were at war. The press was a problem; the referees were a problem; and eventually Colombia, a team Scolari went out of his way to state was not a problem, became the biggest problem of all after 31 Brazilian fouls and a broken vertebra for the one anti-hero in Scolari’s drab drama. Alas, poor Neymar.

Brazil huffed and puffed their way through the tournament, and as they did you could see the stress on the seams, the gaskets loosening. They appeared after each result more relieved than anything. But they thought they could hold out. They didn’t need to call for their lines, the  script was right in front of them: ride the crowd and jostle the opposition until no one was left. Just two more games to go.

Their obvious dependence on Neymar was frightening. But this happens. Mário Zagallo’s Brazil was every bit dependent on Romario in 1994, although Romario at that point was a much better player than Neymar is now. The same is the case for Argentina with Leo Messi. Neither this, nor Neymar’s absence, was ever going to be the insurmountable problem. The insurmountable problem was always going to be what happened when the one thing Brazil did perfectly didn’t go perfectly. David Luiz without Thiago Silva at his side is the same David Luiz that another manager who lives by the result, José Mourinho, practically refused to play in defense and subsequently sold. Today against Germany he looked like a snail in the ocean. He couldn’t command cover nor could he take cover behind the command of his better.

But even this only guides us to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter in the Germany game is a human condition: the inevitable lightness of the bully.

Scolari’s art has always been so obvious that when, prior to the ’02 World Cup, it was coined “bullyball,” what else could you do but nod your head in agreement? Bullyball. Such a simple, proud, and ridiculous idea. Close spaces. Intimidate. Kick. In Japan and South Korea, Scolari only played with three recognized defenders. But he also had Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, and Cafú on that team. You need to have the capacity to intimidate with the ball. Brazil, with Neymar out was always going to prove incapable of that. So Scolari opted to go all in on intimating without the ball. Enter Dante for Thiago Silva and re-enter Luiz Gustavo after his suspension. And just like that, any mental edge Brazil hoped to have in a game against Germany was gone.

A simple enough decision, Brazil's inclusion of Dante and Luiz Gustavo. Safe. Some would say sensible. But these are two players who, no surprise, rely entirely on physicality. And they weren't going to concern the German players in the slightest. Dante is the weak link in the Bayern defense and for his part Gustavo was cut loose from Bayern prior to last season. Never underestimate how much your plans go to mash when you rely on intimidation and the opposition doesn't give the slightest damn. It’s the smallest things in a defensive player that can cause an opposing player to pause, be it that their uncertainty of the defender's speed, reaction time, or inclination to challenge violently. Conversely, the greatest aid to player is comfort. In short, the two players added to Brazil’s lineup with the mission of discomforting the Germans were two players with whom the Germans were resoundingly familiar. And the German midfield certainly played like it.

The funny thing about teams designed to live by the result is that in their compact, course minimalism—in which the idea of conceding two goals is an unthinkable nightmare—seduces them into the false security of believing that only one type of result exists: the low score. If you decide that football is about the results, that’s fine, but then you have to be prepared to live with 1-7. That, after all, is also a result.