Sunday, 4 July 2010

'Underdogs don't play'

I wrote this piece before Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in a generally similar manner to a bunch of staggering, indignant drunks being thrown out of a pub at closing time.

There wasn't exactly a World Cup Final in 1950, but the final pool game between Brazil and Uruguay effectively amounted to one. Uruguay only needed a draw - Brazil had to win the match to finish top. Waiting in the dressing room underneath the Maracanã, hearing the noise made by some 200,000 Brazil supporters, Uruguay manager Juan López Fontana called his team together and gave a speech along the lines of "Okay, lads, we're the underdogs here, we're playing away, so let's keep it tight and try to hold on for a draw." After Fontana had left, captain Obdulio Varela addressed his team-mates in a rather different tone: "Underdogs? Pfah. Underdogs don't play. Let's put on a show."

I've taken liberties with the wording and the whole story may be apocryphal - but as with all good stories, being fictitious wouldn't make it any less true. Varela was more right than he could have realised. The record of World Cups since that day in 1950 has shown that underdogs don't play - at least, not against Brazil. They seem to have the unique ability to intimidate smaller teams into all but eliminating themselves.

Brazil - great teams, average teams, desperately dull teams, it doesn't seem to matter - have finished top of their first round group in every World Cup since 1982. In six of those eight groups, they kept a perfect three-wins record. The only times they dropped points were in drawing with Sweden in 1994 and losing to Norway (thanks to a last minute penalty) in 1998. Even that isolated defeat didn't seem to break their stride: they still won the group and strolled past Chile in a routine second round game.

The list of teams who've actually knocked Brazil out of World Cups contains Hungary in 1954, Portugal in 1966, Italy in 1982, Holland and Argentina at various times, and France in two recent tournaments. There are no less illustrious names. For Brazil, there is no equivalent of Senegal-France, Croatia-Germany, USA-England. Or even Slovakia-Italy.
Looking past the calamitous defeats, the other major footballing nations have all struggled to beat theoretically weaker teams in difficult campaigns. Brazil seem uniquely able to cruise through World Cups without breaking sweat . A banana-skin exit at the hands of lesser opposition would be as unthinkable to them as failing to qualify.

What these statistics cannot convey is just how perfunctory the Brazilians' runouts against less illustrious opponents appear to the viewer. Mark has written about this before: it's almost as if, at some point after the playing of the national anthems, the opposition collectively realise that they cannot win, they're only playing for pride, and that the best they can hope for is an honourably narrow defeat with perhaps a consolation goal. The actual relative quality of the two teams becomes an irrelevance. The underdogs huff and puff, but believe that the game is over. And the mass hypnosis that affects the players seeps through to the broadcast team, who present the match in the same terms. "Chile almost deserve a goal, for their pluck," commented Clive Tyldeseley in the closing stages of Monday's game - at least he didn't call it "their World Cup final".

Recent victims of this self-fulfilling acceptance of defeat include Belgium (and arguably England) in 2002, Ghana in 2006, Chile in 1998 and 2010, the US on their own turf in 1994... many of these were talented teams, examined in isolation, and stood a decent chance in theory - but that was of no relevance once the Brazil-determinism of the knockout stages swung into effect.

Mark ended his Brazil post by asking who could possibly stop them this time round. Well - the one team who seem to unsettle Brazil, and who are able to turn the historical record against them, are Uruguay. They may not be among the tournament favourites, but it would be nicely fitting if they held on to their fortitude and turned the psychological pressure on the seleção.

With hindsight, I'd add that the bewildered way Brazil reacted to being behind and under pressure against the Dutch showed just how much even they rely on this 'self-fulfilling defeatism'. When the script doesn't go as expected, Brazil don't seem to have any additional sources of mental strength - they simply fold. For the amateur-hour defending and petulant tantrums in the second half against Holland, read the dazed performance by the whole team against France in 1998.

I agree with various contributors here that the power of belief in football is a subject that deserves to be explored in more depth.


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  2. Another interesting aspect of this subject is the perception of how weaker teams 'ought' to play against big boys.

    The most notable piece of giantkilling so far was Switzerland beating Spain - and they did ir playing Fontana's way, rather than Varela's.

    We saw in Argentina-Greece that most pundits hate seeing underdogs play negatively - they want teams like Chile to go out with a reckless cavalier performance, to get their consolation goals (and give Kaka and co plenty of space to show off their skills at the other end). It's the voice of inevitability - 'you're going to lose, you might as well make some friends along the way'. Faced with that attitude, who can blame Rehhagel for his team's approach?

    But the victories of RSA and Slovakia over giants - albeit ailing ones - suggest that it's still possible to attack a better team and not get flattened for your trouble.

  3. If you want a wild piece of speculation: 'underdogs should try to play football, even when they don't have a chance' = 'poor people should be happy with their lot, not be resentful and carry chips on their shoulders'?

  4. Absolutely: "je sais bien, mais quand meme...." - sort of "I know it CAN happen but all the same" (found somewhere or other - Zizek? I'm a little scatty with my sources) works on all kinds of levels: the arch Nocebo effect... weird that it seems to work particularly well in the World Cup (as opposed to, say, the FA Cup where giant-killing is a well-worn theme (I was brought up in Yeovil - living for almost half a century off a previous giant-killing) and thus regarded with less wonder than a World Cup little un giving a bigger boy a kicking....

  5. Australia tried in 2006 but Markus Merk wasn't having a bar of it.

  6. I am sorry but this article has mistaken information. In 1950 Brazil went to the final game needing only a draw and was Uruguay who needed to win the game. I fact, after Brazil scored the first goal, they were celebrating and even after Uruguay tied, they were still the champions. Just wanted to clarify that fact