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world cup

Good-bye to Tournament Dark Horses: Brazil Rules All

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today ... Brazil, stepping up their game — again.

Brazil's response to Argentina: Anything you can do, we can do better. How great would a World Cup final be between Argentina and Brazil, the two South American powerhouses that seem to be peaking at just the right time? It could well happen if the two sides continue to play as well as they have so far. One day after Maradona's bunch hung three goals on Mexico, Dunga's crew scored an equal amount on Chile — and for once, none of the goals were bullshit. (Nice job, FIFA: Your officials made it an entire day of the sport's most important event without fucking anything up!)

The joga that the Brazilians play under Dunga might not be as bonita as their countrymen would like it to be, but it sure works. What Brazil's play lacks in style, it makes up for in substance, and for the first time in history, I think you can make an argument (I'm going to, anyway!) that what makes Brazil great is not offense, but defense. To suggest as much probably amounts to heresy in Rio, but it makes sense that a team coached by a former defender, and with a defender as its best player*** — in my opinion, it's Maicon who makes this team go — would build its strength from the back. Of course, Brazil defense isn't Serbia defense. Maicon and Lucio surge forward to start offensive charges as often as they stop the ones coming back. And there still are plenty of players up front with the ability to juggle the ball on their heads while tying their shoelaces and making an açai smoothie. I'm just saying that for once Brazil is capable of winning ugly if need be. And that might make them more dangerous than ever.

Yesterday's win over Chile was convincing, especially since I'd fallen rather hard for Chile's high-octane soccer. Led by Suazo and Sanchez, the Chileans push, push, push, and that is great soccer until it's not — when a skillful opposing side steals the ball and counterattacks, taking advantage of the Atacama Desert–size gap in your midfield. Halfway through the knockout round, I'm 0 for 3 on dark horses (sayonara Serbia, Ivory Coast, and USA, sniff) and my fourth underdog, Chile, just got run over by Brazil's runaway banana truck.

Holland now stands between Brazil and the semifinals, and that's as good a game as any you'll see this early in the tournament (or at any point in the tournament, for that matter). I picked the Dutch to win, and I still believe they're capable, even if they've yet to put on a crisp display of the so-called Total Football those Orangemen are known for. Total Football espouses a fluid, everyman-plays-every-position philosophy, in which the fullbacks are as good as the strikers, and the Dutch are indeed that good. So good, in fact, that they look overly comfortable at times, almost nonchalant, as if a pesky opponent has deigned to interrupt their practice.

Against the Slovaks, which leads the tournament in tattoos as well as variations on the faux-hawk, the Dutch were sluggish but efficient. They dodged a few early scares, then settled in for a long stretch of good, but not great soccer with occasional flourishes of brilliance. The first came from Arjen Robben, who has now scored in both of his appearances for Holland after sitting out the first two matches with an injury. It was a fantastic — and devastatingly fast — buildup: Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder, playing defense way back by his own penalty box, intercepted a ball, looked up and unleashed a perfect booming ball that flew 50 yards in the air and dropped into the path of a full-speed Robben, who took a few dribbles, veered left to set the ball up for his stronger left foot and then fired a perfect ball into the lower corner, just beyond the outstretched hand of the diving keeper. It was beautiful, and the kind of thing only a few teams in the world can do.

Robben plays a little like a tall, balding Lionel Messi — I said, a little like — so good is his control with the ball at his feet. And with Sneijder and Robin Van Persie, the Dutch have a trio of players as good as any team left in the World Cup. (And the super-sub Eljero Elia looks to be capable of scoring every time he touches the ball.)

Holland's weakness, I think, is at the back. It was only luck and some great play from the Dutch keeper Stekelenberg that kept the Slovaks from scoring on the few chances they had. (The lone goal came on a penalty kick that was literally the last play of the game.) Those aren't chances Brazil will miss.

I tend to think the Dutch will rise to the competition, though, and they are unquestionably the pre-Masters-win Phil Mickelson — the best team left that's never won a major, er, World Cup. One small advantage that could be the difference is the crowd. Holland's legion of orange-clad fans pack stadiums around the world regardless of location, but they have reinforcements in the form of South Africa's Afrikaaner population. These Dutch descendants rarely get a chance to gather together en masse — at least in broad daylight — and they also like the color orange. So much, in fact, that their home region, smack in the country's center, is known as the Orange Free State.

My prediction, which is probably more of a wish, is that Holland wins 3–2 in a thrilling game of end-to-end soccer. Then again, that torpedoes the whole conceit of my lede for today's column. Hmmm.

*** Notice I said "best player," not most talented. That's probably Robinho, who is capable of dominating a game, and also of sulking his way out of one if things aren't going right.

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Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images