I was just listening to the excellent Guardian football podcast (posted daily during the World Cup) and someone described Costa Rica’s performance against Italy (a 1-0 victory for The Ticos in the group stage) as being particularly brave.
Now, these podders are UK -based, mainly, and describing a soccer performance as brave is a particular British way of putting it, but as with many things English (the game, our language) it fits remarkably well.
What does brave really mean? There are so many contexts that inform, but let’s choose one familiar to us. Some Civil War figure grabs a flag standard and runs out in advance of the front lines, to encourage and embolden his mates. Well, let’s examine the act, and the word that could well describe it is brave.
Putting one’s live at risk, i.e. dancing around in the line of fire, without a gun (but with this honking big flag and pole), is something we would not normally do. It’s not advisable. If there’s an overarching strategy for humans (stay alive), and we apply that strategy to a war context, this act makes no sense. Better to stay in the anonymous line — and try to pick off some of those other guys whose strategy involves shooting at me (or better yet, find some nice, rear-guard job in tending to the sick or feeding the horses).
Teams like the Costa Ricans — lightly regarded for several good reasons: performance in WC Qualifying, history of producing players and teams of quality, the quality of their domestic league, number of players playing abroad in good leagues — would typically approach a game, such as their group encounter with four-times world champions Italy, with trepidation.
What does that mean? It means the opposite of bravery: defend like the dickens, in great numbers (say, 9 “behind the ball” — always between the ball and their own goal), and hope to lure enough Italians away from their defensive positions goal-scoring positions that the Costa Ricans can win possession and quickly counter-attack against relatively few defenders.
That’s a strategy, a common one for soccer teams playing a superior opponent. It’s a time-tested option — the strategy Jurgen Klinsmann looks to deploy with this American team. It’s not brave. It’s practical, and it’s part of what makes international football so interesting to watch, because it can work to great effect: An inferior-but-disciplined team can beat an superior undisciplined one.
Costa Rica took no account of the fact that the Italians (and the Uruguayans, and the English) are considered superior in all the ways listed above. They simply went at them, all over the field, contesting every inch of it, and ultimately scored way more goals than their opponents.
They were brave and they were rewarded.
Chile were brave yesterday vs. Brazil, a team that has now knocked them out of the last three World Cups. The strategic thing to do against the five-times world champions (who just happen to be playing at home, where they’ve not lost a competitive match since 1975) would be the practical, counter-attacking route. But Chile played their fellow South Americans toe-to-toe.
I think that, in general, this has been a particularly brave World Cup. The evidence is simple and straightforward: There have been lots of goals (the most in a group stage since 1958) and a remarkable predominance of open play.
In part, it’s the Brazilian ethos that has made them brave. How can you got to Brazil — the soccer nation that invented “flair”, that pissed way even more World Cups because they insisted on playing open, brave football — and not play open, attacking, “Samba” soccer? Forget the fact that this particular Brazil team is among the most “practical” the country has produced; it was chosen to grind out results rather than simply outscore its opponents (indeed, apart from Neymar, they appear to have a real striker problem; Fred and Jo have been next to useless).
But the Samba Ethos was formed decades before and will outlive this current Brazil squad. More than in any World Cup I can remember, teams came to this World Cup to win and look good doing it. Italy refused and couldn’t get out of the group. England flirted with the idea, gave it up and went home.
There are dangers to bravery. Portugal is going home because it continued to go forward after falling behind Germany and going down to 10 men. If they had hunkered down and kept that game 2-0, the Portuguese might ultimately have gone through. Instead, as they weren’t inclined to damage control, got drilled 4-0, and that goal difference sent the US to the round of 16 in their place.
Which is why today’s Sunday’s slate of knockout games is going to be so interesting. The Mexicans play like Chile, i.e. almost incapable of throttling back their pressure game all over the field. Surely the Mexican coaching brain trust, and the players themselves, understand the Netherlands can utterly shred that sort of adventurism. To wit, a 2-0 plucking of Chile itself in the group stage, and a 5-1 embarrassment of reigning World Cup champion Spain, who didn’t even play that bravely, or openly, and still got dismantled.
And then we have brave Costa Rica taking on the most practical, disciplined side left in the tournament, Greece, who never play bravely but have a knack for eking out results against better teams. Indeed, they won a European Championship doing this, in 2004. This was perhaps the most remarkable underdog performance in the history of major tournament football, ever, and just 10 years removed from that experience, the Greeks are loath to switch strategies.
Will Costa Rica just fly at them and let the chips fall where they may? Here is a side brimming with confidence — but here is a side that is poised to produce the greatest sporting result, perhaps the greatest geo-political result (a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals) in its national history. Perhaps they temper the bravery and try to beat their opponents another way, lest they risk conceding an early goal and playing into the Greeks’ hands.
The choice is the Costa Ricans’ to make. This afternoon we will test the conventional wisdom, that fortune favors the brave.