I think that last night was one of the best footballing experiences I’ve ever had. To go to a match as a neutral and just enjoy the game for a spectacle was refreshing, but what made it was the atmosphere. It was incredible. I was in the Hammy End (of course) with the Brazilian supporters, opposite in the Putney end it was packed with Ghana fans and I think both the Riverside and Johnny Haynes stands were all Brazil too. It was fairly informal though, there were Ghana fans sitting next to me and a huge Ghanian flag a few rows infront, all in all (in the stands anyway) the game had a good natured feel to it, although apparently outside the ground it was a different matter. I turned up five minutes late and still managed to get a ticket but apparently poor management by FFC meant people with and without tickets couldnt get in, hopefully they learn lessons if they ever stage an international match of this popularity again.
One of the wonderful things about the Brazilian game is that it is all about subtlety. At least on the ball it is, the diving isn’t so subtle, and I’m not sure how bad Opare caught Lucio but I imagine it wasn’t as bad as the mean looking defender, who looks like he could take on an ogre and win, made out. But it is lovely to watch when it is in full motion. It’s a shame that over the last thirty years or so that Brazil has been moving away from this national identity with football and more to a European, counter attacking, physical style. Their defence and goalkeeping has improved because of it – are there a better central defensive trio than Thiago Silva, Lucio and Cesar in world football? – but the fluid, dribbling, pass and move style isn’t really there. To be fair it is a philosophy that almost everyone had accepted you would need to succeed in football, a solid counter attacking style, before Guardiola’s Barcelona turned up with it’s diminutive Xavis, Iniestas and Messis tearing defences to shreds with ten yard passes. It was a disappointment to see Brazil try so many balls over the top. They were comfortable with their possession with the defense and the midfield but as soon as they would try and finally launch an attack, and alot of credit must go to ten man Ghana for their organisation too, it would be a clipped ball over the top which the keeper would pick up. It’s always easy to say that ‘it’s just a friendly’ but with the approach that both Brazil and Ghana take to playing for their country – many feel that they owe it to their country to give 100% every game and prioritise it over club football, England take note – I don’t think that this applies necessarily.
I was really pleased to see Marcelo and Alves play. They’re two of my favourite players to watch. Both are by trade full backs but they are just so relentlessly attacking that they really really do play like wingers. The pace of both of them is incredible, the speed they get up and down the pitch is just by itself a joy to watch and the stamina that they demonstrate genuinely leaves me in awe. They are both good defenders in their own right, in my opinion they are underrated in that sense, but they really also have the ball skills of a winger. Marcelo especially has wonderful balance and dribbles in tight spaces for fun, which makes a nice contrast to Alves who is just so direct with his running, he’ll make a sudden burst forward, unmarked, from right back and Xavi or Iniesta will switch the ball over to him, and he just won’t stop. Marcelo was probably the funner to watch last night because there wasn’t the space for Alves particuarly but even still, I’m glad I got to see them play.
There are two major shining lights in Brazilian football at the moment. There are always a few but these two are the ‘special’ ones. The first is the diminutive playmaker Paul Henrique Ganso. A wonderful attacking midfielder, I was really looking forward to watching him play but unfortunately he was taken off injured. The other is Neymar who has been well documented in the British press as being a fourty million pound target for Chelsea but instead signed a five year deal at current club Santos, and he will be all the better for it I think. Neymar is a supreme talent for sure, and will be talked about in the same way as Ronaldo and Romario, the two dominant Brazilian strikers of the last couple of decades, if he lives up to his promise. He didn’t get too many chances, playing out wide right I’m not sure it suits him, his best was probably a fairly awkward header from 12 yards which he put well over which he was disappointed in (he’s walking back below, after spending about 30 seconds on the floor), but he demonstrated his skill with some lovely touches. I’m not sure if England will be the best place for him because the Ghanian defenders could out muscle him relatively easily, Spain would be the ideal place for him I think. The goal itself from Damiao was one of the few times that Brazil actually punctured the Ghana defence, Fernandinho playing a sublime pass for Damiao to run on to, control and power a shot passed Kwaresey. Damiao was actually quite impressive, and I’m suprised that it was just his third appearance for the national team.
There was a clear star of the show however. Ronaldinho started for Brazil after what has been a renaissance for his current club Flamengo (Tim Vickery has a superb read on it here). It wasn’t too long ago that Ronaldinho was the greatest player in the game, a magician with the ball, but an unprofessional outlook on football that only Romario has ever gotten away with lead to a drop in form and a vast loss in fitness. It was evident yesterday that the little burst of pace that seperates great players from good ones was not there, nor did he display that audacity to try the totally unexpected, no real flight of foot. Infact, he had relatively little impact on the game until the second half when he dropped into the midfield from the left side of the attacking trio, but when he did he displayed his wonderful ability on the ball. He first crossed in a wonderful ball from deep for Pato to head to goal, forcing the Ghanian keeper into a marvellous save. Then just before full time he stepped up to take a free kick. The strike itself was perfect, it was curling with an extraodinary amount of movement round the wall into the back net, surely this was what was needed to make the statement ‘Ronaldinho Is Back’… but again, the keeper had other ideas and pulled off an extroadinary stop.
There is no doubt that Ronaldinho is still adored by the Brazilian public. Any time he touched the ball there was a buzz, every time he prepared to take a set piece he got a standard ovation. At the end of the match he wondered over to the centre circle and applauded the three sides that Brazil were based in. At that point everyone in the stand around me stopped what they were doing and greeted him with applause, cheers and woops of joy. The passion that both sets of fans showed towards their national team was outstanding, and made me quite envious actually. Even when Cesar walked to the back of his net to get a bottle of water, the block of fans behind him went mental, arms outstretched, trying to reach their hero, which he at least responded with a clap of appreciation. It is something that is really evident between the Ghana and Brazil fans and national teams, the bond between them.
The atmosphere as a whole was great. In the Hammy End alone there were two samba bands, one on the right and one on the right, with horns, vuvuzelas (I think), and trumpets littered about the stand. At one point the three sides of Brazil fans were all singing in sync, and it was a sight to behold. When Damiao had a goal disallowed for offside the fierce staccato chant that followed was so full of frustration and disapproval, rather than the rather more tongue in cheek approach we take. And when the goal finally was scored, the celebrations were wild, the Hammy End shook, it was great. Whenever someone did anything remotely impressive it was met with squeals of delight. The Ghanian fans were fantastic too, so enthusiastic. An attempt on goal would be greeted by a huge OOH, no matter how close it was, the Putney End would stand in unison and you’d be hit by a wall of noise. Even when there was no singing in particular there was a buzz around the ground, not the quiet awkward ones you sometimes hear but a real sense of excitement. While some scenes might have looked like it would cause trouble (the Ghana flag being waved any time the Brazilians started singing, people ignoring seats and just filling the stairwells, the whole stand standing) it passed by peacefully. They were just there to enjoy the football. And it was great. A carnival at Craven Cottage. What better place to have one eh?
I must apologise for mainly focusing on Brazil in the article rather than Ghana but they were the headline act of the show in a sense and when I went to the game I really wanted to observe how they played. I’ll say though that Ghana were impressive, despite being down to ten men. African teams have been known for their lack of discipline but they seemed very well organised (bit tackle heavy although is it ever necessary to show 8 yellow cards in an exhibition match?) and attacked with directness and pace. A midfield of Essien, Asamoah and Badu looks on paper to be very strong and at the back Inkoom and Mensah are impressive defenders. Add to that the talent of Gyan and Ayew upfront, not to mention the other talented players and the strength and pace which they all to a man possess, and it seems to be a promising future for Ghana.
And of course, there was one Ghana player who wasn’t making their debut at Craven Cottage. Pantsil started and played all ninety minutes, and was the one to console Opare as he went off the pitch. He played well, going up against Ronaldinho and Marcelo down the left was never going to be easy but rarely did they break down that side. At the end of the game he went over to the Ghana fans at the Putney end so no last lap of honour but it was great to see him again, and I wish him the best of luck with Leicester this season. Hopefully this time next year we can see him at Craven Cottage in a Fulham match so we can give him a ‘proper’ display of appreciation, even if he’s not on our side.