In this special 10-part series, ESPN’s Jayaditya Gupta, who has attended every World Cup since 2002, recalls his favourite matches from the tournament. At No. 6 is this Group F game from 2006 where Brazil finally got into their stride.
The final group match, with Brazil — the defending champions — having qualified and Japan, needing a big win, effectively playing for pride. Brazil, though, needed to make a statement after a scratchy 1-0 win over Croatia and being similarly unconvincing while beating Australia 2-0.
Brazil’s 8, 9 and 10 were Kaka, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho; Japan’s Brazilian flair came from their coach, Zico, and their left back, Alex, marshalled by Zen master midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata. Result: end-to-end attacking, creative, adventurous football. It was 1-1 at the break but could have been half a dozen for each side had there been better finishing for the superb through balls, passes and bits of dribbling. The second half was all Brazil, who added three goals as the samba finally came to town.
The Two Ronnies, with their support cast of Kaka, Robinho and Juninho, in full flow. Their understanding was at another level; each player seemed to know where his teammate was, or where his teammate would pass. Club teams achieve that by dint of playing together 50-plus matches a season; here were players who played for different clubs, sometimes on different continents, syncing together.
Ronaldo was alarmingly overweight, and the white shorts didn’t flatter his figure, but what he’d lost in speed he seemed to have made up with his footwork and awareness. He scored twice, overtaking Pele and joining Gerd Muller with the most World Cup goals.
Ronaldinho was a blur; I was watching this match from the fifth row, instead of up in the stands, and to see him run at full speed, ball at his feet, was an unbelievable sight. “The way he steps over a ball, pauses with his foot poised above it, then drags it back, all in a split second.” That was one line from report in The Indian Express the next morning. “Behind that bug-eyed, smiling face, behind that slightly loopy, goofy exterior, lies a brain that is constantly ticking. Conjuring up the next move, deciding, perhaps, which way to pass the ball or move with it; from the outside of his foot, with his head, his thigh, his heel, dinking or scooping it up.”
The goals came from everywhere: heading in from the close range (Ronaldo), shooting from distance (Juninho), running and shooting (Gilberto). And finally Ronaldo again, receiving the ball on the edge of the box, surrounded by Japanese blue shirts; a swivel, a lift of the right leg and in the back of the net.
Brazil wouldn’t go too far in this World Cup, knocked out by France in the quarters. But for one night in Dortmund, they brought fantasy football to life.