Brazilian football needs to take the opposition seriously
I flew back to Brazil from London on the day that the group phase of the Champions League kicked off. I well recall that the talk in England at the time was that the entire group stage was dull and predictable. It was almost too easy for the Premier League sides. But that is not the way things have turned out.
The gods of football have a tendency to punish such hubris. Perhaps the most famous example is that of the England national team. Begged to appear in the first, pre-war World Cups, England stood imperially aloof. In 1950, when they finally did deign to appear, fate laughed in their faces, reserving for them a sensational 1-0 defeat by the United States.
Albeit with more justification, Brazilian football can occasionally trip up on a tendency to underestimate the opposition.
I have always been fascinated with Brazil's displays in the 1974 World Cup. I was nine, it was the first World Cup I had followed and my head was full of tales of how astonishingly brilliant Pele and company had been four years earlier. What would they produce this time?
Not too much, as it happened. Full of internal problems, the team proved unable to play to anything like its potential.
I can still remember the glamour of Rivelino's rocket free-kicks, and, in the early stages at least, right winger Valdomiro produced some touches and made everyone fight for the right to 'be' him in the park after school.
But the overwhelming memory, right from the first game against Yugoslavia, was one of intense disappointment. In the end, in what was effectively the semi-final, the Netherlands put them out of their misery, with the air of the dynamic new force knocking out the declining old champion.
About 10 years ago, I came across some copies of 'Placar,' the excellent Brazilian football magazine from the early 70s. It was full of information about how the Brazil team of the Mexico 1970 World Cup had been rebuilt on the road to West Germany four years later.
There was one article that stuck in my mind. In 1972, Brazil organised a big international tournament - in effect part of Joao Havelange's campaign to secure the Fifa presidency. Invites were sent out to teams all over the world. Many declined. This particular issue of the magazine registered the fact that the Netherlands had refused to participate. "Just among ourselves," said the magazine, "Holland will not be missed."
The Brazilian press underestimated Johan Cruyff's emerging Netherlands side. Photo: Getty
Admittedly, the Dutch national team had not done too much by 1972. But Feyenoord and Ajax were already major players at club level, the latter with a philosophy of play that would revolutionise the game - and would be employed with success against Brazil in that decisive game two years later, when the gods of football demanded their revenge.
The gods were busy again last week in the first leg of the semi-final of the Copa Sul-Americana (as it is known in Brazil, or Sudamericana elsewhere - however you spell it, the competition is the continent's Europa League equivalent).
Vasco da Gama of Rio were at home to Universidad de Chile, who this year have been one of the sensations of South American football.
'La U', as they are nicknamed, have been dubbed 'the Barcelona of the Americas'. Their coach, Jorge Sampaoli, recognises that this is a massive exaggeration, but he is rightly proud of what his men have been achieving over recent months.
Their style of play is an indication that Marcelo Bielsa planted some interesting seeds in Chilean football before he resigned as national team coach and ended up at Athletic Bilbao, where he has made such an interesting start.
Sampaoli is a Bielsa disciple. Like his mentor and fellow Argentine, Sampaoli wants his teams to attack at all times, regardless of the opposition or the location of the game.
'La U' defend high, looking to win possession in the opponent's half of the field. Compact, dynamic, aggressive, they attack with a centre forward and two wide strikers, with Eduardo Vargas on the right the team's most dangerous player.
In style and with a swagger, they have now gone 30 games unbeaten. The undoubted highlight of the run was a 4-0 win away to Flamengo of Rio, Ronaldinho and all. And the most astonishing thing is that the scoreline was an injustice. 'La U' would not have been flattered by a seven-goal victory margin.
But before Wednesday's first leg, none of this seemed to impress Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Fernando Prass.
There are solid reasons for Prass to be full off confidence. Vasco are having an extraordinary year, winning the Brazilian Cup, in with a chance of the league title going into the final round and also into the last four of the Sul-Americana.
A thoroughly competent keeper, Prass has made an immense contribution to the cause. But last week he missed an excellent opportunity to stay silent.
Unimpressed with all the 'Barcelona of the Americas' stuff, Prass played down the threat of Universidad de Chile. The Chilean Championship, he said, was well below the Brazilian in terms of technical quality. Fair enough, 'la U' had thrashed Flamengo, but he was unable to judge them on a couple of games.
Prass seemed to be overlooking the fact that the good results of 'la U' were not restricted to Chile. Vasco have struggled away from home in their Sul-Americana campaign. 'La U' have sailed through, winning away to Arsenal of Argentina after disposing of Flamengo.
They looked like dangerous words from the Vasco keeper, and so it proved.
Vasco had the better of the first half and took the lead. Sampaoli, though, had misjudged his selection, and needed an early substitution to put things right. After the break, his team managed an equaliser - with a bit of help from Fernando Prass.
Vasco's keeper was not the only one at fault for the goal, conceded from a free-kick. But his decision to come out was a poor one. There was no way he could reach the ball, and he was in no-man's-land when a back header from Oswaldo Gonzalez went in.
Fernando Prass had paid the price for tempting the gods of football. I wait eagerly to see what they have in store for Wednesday's return match.
Comments on the piece welcome below. Email questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week. From last week's postbag:
Q) I remember listening to the Radio 5 live World Football Phone-in about a couple of years ago when one of the topics was people's favourite football books. There was one that you mentioned that I meant to make a point of buying but I can't recall the name. I'm sure it was a football history one. Any chance that you know which one I mean?
A) I believe I do! It was The Ball is Round: A Global History of Fooball, by David Goldblatt. An immense achievement, it does South America better than almost anything else that's out there in English, and covers the rest of the world too.
On the subject of the World Football Phone-In, this is a nice moment to get the word out that instead of our standard hour and a half, we're doing a mighty four-hour special on 16 December.