Brazil's beautiful game turns ugly
BEIJING -- It was a zany night at Workers' Stadium, a Brazil-Argentina soccer showdown that included a Kobe Bryant-driven human stampede, a good-old-fashioned journalist scuffle, the sight of Diego Maradona talking on a 1980s-style cellphone and a beleaguered Brazilian manager who dressed like a Club Kid, coached like a fraidy-cat and, in the end, mistook me for an Englishman.
That would be Dunga, curator of O Jogo Feio (the Ugly Game), who gave me the old hard-man's stare when I caused a small international incident in the press conference after Brazil's 3-0 loss to Argentina.
"Two red cards, defensive play, zero goals," I asked the Brazilian coach after his team had squandered yet another chance to win his nation's first Olympic soccer gold medal. "What happened to the Beautiful Game of Brazil?"
A night this strange deserves its own running commentary. So let's dive in:
7:15 p.m.: Brazil-Argentina! Ronaldinho-Lionel Messi! An Olympic semifinal for the ages! To feel the excitement first-hand, SI's Alexander Wolff and I drop in at Alameda, a renowned Brazilian joint a few blocks from the stadium that Zagat calls "Beijing's Most Popular Restaurant." Surely the Brazilian fans will be in full force. Caipirinhas! Samba! Scantily-clad soccer-loving beauties!
But when we arrive the place is half-full, eerily quiet and (truth be told) not very Brazilian at all. With no caipirinhas on the menu I order a glass of Argentine malbec in protest. (That said, the food really is amazing -- after two weeks of Chinese fare a good medium-rare steak is a lifesaver.)
8:55 p.m.: I've been timing my kickoff arrivals to perfection, but there's a surprise waiting for us when we reach the stadium's media entrance five minutes before kickoff. The doors are chained shut with giant padlocks. A stern-looking Chinese security henchman steps into me like a Duke Blue Devil taking a charge and shakes his head violently. Frantic arm-waving ensues. But we're out of luck and have to watch the game on TV in the photographers' work room.
As I'll learn later, so many journalists have come that the entire media section is bursting with a mass of humanity. "Anarchy," my pal Michael Lewis will say, describing a scene of journos jamming into aisles, screaming expletives in eight languages and even exchanging elbows and shoves in the halftime restroom line. There's nothing like the third week of the Olympics when it comes to scribe-on-scribe aggro. I can't believe I'm missing it.
Minute 20: What the hell happened to Ronaldinho? The world's greatest soccer player (circa 2006) has turned into a piece of do-ragged, multi-million-dollar statuary. Overweight and undermotivated, Ronaldinho refuses to make any of the explosive runs that used to unhinge opposing defenses. Instead he just sort of hangs out on the left side, tries a few moves in tight space and sprays some harmless passes to his teammates. This new Ronaldinho is not menacing at all, and the ever-spry Messi only highlights the contrast. How do you say I want my money back in Italian, Silvio Berlusconi?
Minute 40: It's still 0-0. On the sideline, Dunga shows off yet another example of the Dunga Face -- the blank look of a man who doesn't realize his overly defensive tactics are torpedoing the most storied soccer team on the planet. Why is forward Alexandre Pato on the bench? Why are so many guys in yellow shirts playing defense behind the ball? Why is this former defensive-midfielder coaching Brazil anyway? The guy can't even dress the part. With that diagonal-striped shirt, Dunga looks like he'd rather be clubbing in the nearby Sanlitun bar district than coaching these guys. They'd probably be better off if he was.
Halftime: Still 0-0. I'd told Alex on the way over that I was worried this would devolve into a chippy rivalry game, and that's exactly what we're seeing. At least the Argentines have had a few good scoring chances -- including a screamer by Messi that I have no idea how he even got off. But Brazil? Zero shots on goal, zero free kicks, zero corner kicks. No wonder Diego Maradona, slimmed down after his Al Roker surgery, is talking excitedly to someone on his cellphone in the VIP tribune. But what's up with El Diego's mobile? That oversized phone looks like the one Michael Douglas was using in Wall Street.
Minute 52: Argentina 1, Brazil 0. Maybe Maradona was calling his daughter Giannina, who's dating Argentine forward Sergio (Kun) AgŁero, who puts the Albiceleste up by blocking a cross from Angel di Maria into the goal. You have to like how some of these young studs are identifying themselves on their jerseys at the Olympics: Spanish hoops prodigy Ricky Rubio wears RICKY on his back, while AgŁero's jersey reads KUN AGUERO -- "Kun" being some sort of allusion to a Japanese anime character. The spirit of HE HATE ME lives on overseas.