Brazil left stunned after World Cup loss to Belgium

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KAZAN, Russia — As the funkiest modern World Cup got still funkier on the way to a “Funkytown” final coming July 15, Friday night in Kazan brought a fresh case of major merit. The impressive construction of a ballyhooed “generation” from the smallish nation of Belgium, a matter that had caused years of discussion but only glimpses of glory, found an ultimate ratification.

Belgium’s 2-1 win against the last standing World Cup kingdom, Brazil, not only pushed the Red Devils into the semifinals, one major tournament after they went out of Euro 2016 with a 3-1 loss to wee Wales. It not only set up a major international semifinal as a border fuss between Belgium and France that doubles as a rich collection of sumptuous attacking. It not only pruned the 32-team World Cup into six remaining European teams with, somehow, only two previous World Cup titles among them, either a far cry or laugh from the same number at this juncture in 2014 (10) or 2010 (seven) or 2006 (12).

No, look what Belgium did to Brazil. In an event in which the mainstays tend to stay main, quadrennium after quadrennium, a country of 11.5 million dumped Brazil alongside fellow titans Germany, Argentina and Spain upon the exit tarmac, just as Italy and the Netherlands never had landed. It not only left Brazil as a beaten quarterfinalist for the third time in the past four World Cups, with the other bringing a 7-1 semifinal loss that made a quarterfinal win seem sort of misguided. It not only meant the five-time champion’s lapse in World Cup titles will have reached 20 years by the time the teams arrive in Qatar in 2022 and that similar questions about whether Lionel Messi could get a World Cup for Argentina at age 31 will hover around Neymar, who by then will be 30.

It also left the kaleidoscopic South American nation of more than 200 million and its thoughtful manager in something of an emotional heap.

“Are you questioning God?” one question went, a reference to how Brazil Manager Tite once did so vocally during a rash of injuries.

“I’m not questioning God,” the thoughtful 57-year-old Tite said. “That was a moment of imbalance of mine.”

He also said, after his gifted team had slipped behind 2-0 by the 31st minute and spent the rest of the evening in an artful desperation: “It’s hard for me to talk to you. It’s very hard. The feeling is really bitter. It’s heavy. It’s hard to be here.” And: “Even with all the pain and all the bitterness and difficulty coming here talking to you, if you like football, you have to like this game. ... You can sit back and say, ‘What a match.’ ... What a beautiful game.”

And as his bummer of a night before a Brazil-partisan 42,873 in Kazan Arena left him venturing into philosophy, he made statements such as: “Football has many variables and has to be seen in a context. It has to be assessed in a very holistic way.”

Yet maybe he never said anything more pertinent than what he said of the Belgians, who spent the 2014 World Cup knockout stage outclassing the United States and then falling tepidly and 1-0 to Argentina: “These are very experienced players,” he said. “(Romelu) Lukaku, a top player. (Kevin) De Bruyne, a top player. (Eden) Hazard, a top player. (Jan) Vertongehen, (Vincent) Kompany, also. (Thibaut) Courtois. It’s technical quality.”

And he raved about Courtois, the Chelsea goalkeeper among eight fellow Belgium starters who played this past season in the English Premier League (most of them for the big-boy clubs) and who, in added time, with Belgium hanging on and its manager still fearing an undeserved loss, got a hasty read on one last Neymar drive curling brilliantly from the top of the box toward the top right corner of the goal.

Courtois reached up with his trailing right hand and nudged it upward over the roof.

“A goalkeeper who really made a difference,” Tite called Courtois.

Brazilian banishment and Belgian breakthrough had collided, and both mattered. It began with the tactical adaptations of Belgium Coach Roberto Martinez, who, as with a horde of his players, knows England and Wales well, having managed three of their clubs on his career path to Brussels. Martinez had people playing in places they hadn’t been playing, including Lukaku on the right and De Bruyne, that maestro passer, in a score-minded motif.

“I think we switched things up tactically speaking,” said De Bruyne, who soon added, “We created a lot of opportunities, and they really didn’t know what they had to do.”

The first goal, in the 13th minute, carried the slight flukiness of ricocheting off a corner kick enough that it seemed to graze the fine head of the veteran Kompany and Fernandinho’s right biceps before deciding to become an own goal. The beautiful second, in the 31st, had Lukaku barreling up the pitch in a bull-in-a-china-shop romp until he fed to De Bruyne who, curiously, had further unmarked help to his right.

He paused, let the game whir rightward by him a bit, then sent a blast into the left corner.

That established the match as a matter of riveting Brazilian trouble. It threw extra onus onto every finish that fizzled or went awry as the second half got going. It heaped a test onto Belgium when Philippe Coutinho’s gorgeous cross found Renato Augusto’s vivid head in the 76th minute, and the latter knocked one home to halve the chasm.

“It was a test of our character, especially the last 15 minutes,” De Bruyne said.

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