Brazil 6 (Jô 8′, 34′, Neymar 36′, Ramires 58′, Pato 73′, Gustavo 84′) beat Australia 0 at Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, Brasília, crowd ~40,000, international friendly, 7 September 2013.
Stepping off the plane in Brasília is like walking into some element of Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, an outmoded 1950s vision of the future sitting like an oasis in the red dirt and oppressive heat of the dry Brazilian Highlands. Brazil’s planned capital is architect Oscar Niemeyer’s magnum opus; ‘opened’ in 1960 and unaltered ever since. There’s something surreal about Niemeyer’s sci-fi architecture and the Martian landscape, like the entire city is an elaborately constructed Hollywood set for a Jetsons movie or a Dune remake. Imagine what Canberra would look like if Walter Burley Griffin was relieved of his duties and the design job was given to Isaac Asimov and whoever built the UTS Tower. It’s other worldly to walk around a city that feels like it’s been dreamt up by some 1950s speculative fiction paperback.
If Brasília itself springs from the pages of Asimov, then its World Cup stadium comes straight from the portfolio of Albert Speer. The Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha – named after Brazil’s answer to George Best, the hard-drinking lynchpin of the Seleção‘s 1958 and 1962 World Cup triumphs – is characterised by its towering concrete pillars and immense size. Plonked on top of a hill overlooking the city centre, the city is unapologetically enormous. It lacks any noteworthy characteristic, any quirk, any unique location. It’s just a huge, intimidating ring of concrete that seats 73,000 people; the type of stadium Speer might have trotted out for Berlin’s 1936 Olympics.
Inside, the red seats made it seem a stitch-for-stitch replica of Wembley or the Emirates; the type of bland, carbon copy all-seater that has São Paulo FC fans doing cartwheels that the 2014 Copa do Mundo is leaving their iconic Morumbi untouched. Thanks to the generosity of Socceroos officials I was able to watch the squad train on the pitch the day before the game inside the cavernous arena. The handful of English-speaking journos had fallen victim to South American organisation and missed Holger Osieck’s blink-and-you-miss-it press conference, where the local scribes – for some reason – were more interested in chatting to straight-talking rent-a-quote Big Phil Scolari than the hyper-charismatic former Eintracht Gelsenkirchen/1. FC Mülheim/Rot-Weiß Oberhausen megastar.
I felt fortunate to be the only ‘supporter’ in attendance, alongside the small clutch of reporters and a host of staffers from the Australian embassy. It was fascinating to observe how a professional side trains, if you consider an ageing group of squaddies and journeymen who ply their trade in the Middle East a professional side. Dozens of local journos hovered around to catch a glimpse of Archie Thompson the day after he plonked his foot in a steaming pile of dog excrement by calling Neymar overrated. Melbourne Victory mustn’t be huge in Brazil because most of them were asking the same question the Barcelona recruit was: “Who is Archie Thompson?”
While Holger Osieck wandered around the pitch in an unflattering shorts and long socks ensemble and a troop of portly middle aged assistants chatted earnestly in the background, Aurelio Vidmar took control of training. The former Adelaide boss split the squad into ‘probables’ and ‘possibles’, the former overwhelmingly made up of the *ahem* older statesmen of the group. In their opposed session, the youthful ‘possibles’ outfit in the fetching orange bibs played the veterans off their legs. If Lucas Neill ran half as much as he talked, he would be Australia’s very own Haile Gebrselassie. Unfortunately his mouth wasn’t a match for Tommy Rogic as he teed up Mark Milligan for the only goal of the game. The 1-nil result to the Young Turks illuminated the need for change to blind Freddy but apparently not Osieck, who stood silently by himself before awkwardly retreating up the tunnel before the players – including new boy Mitch Duke on ball-bag duty – had left the track.
I woke up the next morning to the news that Australia had elected Tony Abbott to the prime ministership, hours before thousands of people lining Brasília’s streets for independence day festivities. Once the majority of revellers left the Eixo Monumental – an esplanade linking the nation’s ministries to the federal congress building – a sizeable group of boisterous protesters remained, to pick up where they left off during the Confederations Cup. My Portuguese is very limited – to me, Brazilians generally sound like Borat speaking Spanish when they communicate in their native tongue – but it doesn’t take an expert to figure out what “Fora Corrupção” means.
That catch cry unified a broad church of protesters on the lawns of congress. Gay pride flags flew alongside spray-painted anarchist banners, students wearing Guy Fawkes masks marched next to men in Ronaldinho tops, a man dressed as an alien stood arm in arm with a Mr. Miyagi doppelgänger. Teenagers were particularly fond of any symbol of English-speaking culture with a hint of anti-establishment about it – Ramones and Sex Pistols tops were very much in vogue – as if the Westernisation of Brazil’s political processes would serve as a panacea for their nation’s political ills (I suspect that would have raised a smirk among my Facebook feed full of Abbott critics treating the Coalition’s election like the foundation of the Fourth Reich).
On a day where millions of grumpy Australians were forced to choose between two abjectly uninspiring candidates, seeing genuine political disenfranchisement puts our own gripes into perspective. Interestingly, as a group of around 500 made their way towards the stadium brandishing ‘FIFA go home’ banners, the protesters took a detour to the offices of O Globo, the Brazilian media behemoth with such market power that would turn even Rupert Murdoch green with envy. As a pocket of Guy Fawkes imitators stormed the foyer in the name of indiscriminate destruction, the police wheeled out the water cannon and pepper spray in response, and a web of choppers and a fleet of four-wheel drives screamed in for support, that was my cue to leave.
The atmosphere around the stadium was decidedly more placid. The police had ringed a car park where cars were not permitted to park, allowing the fake merch vendors and cold beer salesman to peddle their wares to a crowd sporting team colours from the length and breadth of the nation. The majority made their way to their seats slowly, stopping to gawk and take photos of the brand new stadium, which was still caked in a thin layer of dust resulting from either the construction or the barren surroundings (or both).
Sadly, the cost of tickets had evidently priced many regular Brazilians out of a seat. The lower tier was sparsely populated and the upper deck – where the cheapest tickets still set you back about US$50, pretty steep for what is still a developing country – was filled with day trippers. The reception for the Brazilian team – indeed, any Brazilians; I’ve never heard two substitute keepers begin their warm up to such an enthusiastic gallery – could have been lifted straight from a One Direction concert; the kind of shrill, shallow fervour produced by politicians, bureaucrats and bankers who possess wallets fat enough to fork out the small fortune needed to attend. The difference between the well-heeled Brazilians in their shiny, official Nike shirts inside the stadium, and the earthy locals outside selling cheap cans of Skol from rubbish bins filled with ice, reveals a lot about the inequality the protesters were railing against.
It quickly became apparent that these spectators weren’t the type of people accustomed to spending their Saturday arvos at the football. They ignored the Australian national anthem and barely knew the words to their own. They refused to acknowledge the minute’s silence for esteemed administrator Sir Arthur George but kept their lips tightly pursed during the match, saving their squeals for Brazil’s (admittedly frequent) attacking raids and little else. If you think the atmosphere at home Socceroos games is flat, try sitting with day trippers while you watch football’s Harlem Globetrotters mercilessly destroy whoever’s unlucky enough to be that day’s Washington Generals.
Before the first whistle, David Luiz and Thiago Silva prowled high up the pitch as if an Australian turnover was inevitable, and they weren’t far wrong. The visitors did well to hold on for eight minutes until Bernard’s volley ricocheted off the post into the path of Jô, and it was that same combination that laid on Brazil’s second. Almost immediately from the restart, Ramires caught Australia napping with a deft pass that put Neymar one-on-one with a hapless Mark Schwarzer who was like a rabbit – or some animal even smaller and more helpless than that – caught in the headlights of an 18-wheel semi-trailer rolling at 120km/hour. Neill admonished his teammates but his defensive pairing with Saša Ognenovski – showing all the mobility and fitness you would expect from two men with a combined age of 69 whittling away their careers in football’s Arabian retirement home – might have done well to look in the mirror at half-time.
The break failed to act as any kind of circuit breaker, with Brazil continuing to choke Australia out of the contest. Every time Australia would scrimp and scrap to hold off the perpetual pressure imposed by the wall of canary yellow shirts, they would inevitably turn the ball over within three passes. On the rare occasion when the ball found the visitors’ boots, it was too often hoofed away mindlessly to an aerial contest that relieved any modicum of pressure on the hosts. Holger’s Dad’s Army (is it possible for a German to lead a Dad’s Army, or is that a contradiction in terms?) wilted in the Brasília furnace, crippled by their inability to control the ball.
Thiago looked to have netted a dominant header early in the second term until the benevolent Paraguayan referee Enrique Cáceres took mercy on the Socceroos by spotting a foul. It didn’t see to matter a minute later when Ramires leapt over a bungling Matt McKay like Alex Jesaulenko soaring over Graeme Jenkin for Brazil’s fourth. McKay, Neill, et al. – allowed to remain on the pitch by a manager who seemed to forget that the purpose of a friendly is to experiment – were caught ball watching like starstruck teenagers when a jinking Neymar gallop teed up Corinthians new boy Alexandre Pato for the fifth. By this time, the rout was so consummate that the only enjoyment I was going to get out of the remaining 20 minutes was some Samba party tricks and Luis Gustavo delivered in style with a long range rocket that rounded out the 6-nil scoreline. ‘Australia hit for six’ is something we’ve become used to hearing after a glum Ashes series, but Michael Clarke’s men had few moments quite as mortifying as this, being rag-dolled by an opponent who treated the clash as little more than a glorified training run.
The criticisms of Osieck are plain and simple: he needs to blood new players. What do we learn by giving a 40-year-old Mark Schwarzer his 108th cap, or Neill his 92nd? Why would you inject a 34-year-old Archie Thompson before Rogic or Duke? How does a 25-year-old Rhys Williams, who captains a big Championship club, not get a look-in when the incumbent centre halves are barely capable of breaking out of a jog? There are pressing big picture problems, too. Osieck was given a mandate to qualify for the World Cup, which he did by the skin of his teeth by taking no ‘risks’ with untried players (the real risk, of course, being total stagnation). But where does that leave the squad after the exodus that is sure to follow the 2014 tournament, six months before hosting the Asian Cup on home soil? A 6-nil loss is a full blown, wheels-falling-off, catastrophic defeat. If there’s a big red panic button at FFA HQ then Frank Lowy needs to press it. Things could not get any worse, and even if a new coach takes an inexperienced squad to a battering in Brazil next year, at least fans can take solace in building a new squad better equipped for the 2015 continental championship and the WC qualifiers beyond.
It’s hard to decide what I found strangest: Brasília’s architecture, Archie Thompson having the audacity to slate Neymar, the sight of an extra terrestrial picketing on the lawns of congress, or Holger Osieck’s tactics. Which one was most baffling? Take your pick.