Brazil move on — and that is all that matters. No matter that their game subsided into confusion after the two hours, no matter that Chile hit the bar at the end of extra time, no matter that the five-time World Cup winners needed penalties to stagger forward.
Brazil, hosts of the most dramatically exciting World Cup in years, can be proud of little more than heart. But football is about more than skill and strategy, technical proficiency and devoted support — it is also about qualities and character and human spirit.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men proved they possess these attributes in abundance, though they may pray it is their skill and talent that can reassert themselves from the quarter-finals and, hopefully, onwards.
The greatest drama was reserved for the last minutes. Two minutes from the end of extra time, Chilean substitute Mauricio Pinilla thundered a shot against the Brazilian crossbar. Hence the score remained locked at 1-1 and threw the outcome to the winds of the penalty spot.
Goalkeeper Julio Cesar saved initial Chilean kicks from Pinilla and Alexis Sanchez but failures by Willian and Hulk left it all down to the last exchange of spotkicks: Neymar, Brazil’s magic-touch superstar, lived up to the responsibility of the last kick.
Chile’s Gonzalo Jara walked forward and shot wide of Julio Cesar only to see the ball, agonisingly, hit the inside of the keeper’s left-hand post, ricochet back across the face of goalÖ and out of play.
Back in the centre circle every player of either team, winners and losers, all collapsed in floods of tears of muddled emotions.
Brazil deserved to go through. They were the one team that sought to construct and create. The trouble was, they did not do it very well. Chile, working like a horde of scarlet-shirted demons, stifled and harassed and chased themselves to a near-standstill.
Brazil’s goalkeeper Julio Cesar saves a shot from Chile’s Alexis Sanchez during the penalty shootout. Cesar made two saves in the shootout to ensure his team stayed alive in the World Cup. (Reuters)
But it was not enough against a Brazilian team that proved their own worst enemies.
A finer stage would have been difficult to imagine: Belo Horizonte’s vast Mineirao bowl in the early afternoon sunshine which enhanced the colour clash of Brazilian yellow with pockets of Chilean scarlet.
Brazil were nervous, conceded coach Scolari on the eve of their confrontation. Not nervous because of the pressure which weighs down on all hosts but nervous because this was the World Cup. After all, 12 years had passed since the Selecao last carried off the ultimate prize in the world’s greatest sport.
Nervous also, perhaps, because Brazil had not been at their best. The brilliance and the four Group A goals of Neymar had brought them to this point. No one had ever doubted that they would emerge from the first round.
But the knockout stage is different. Here there is no safety net. It’s win or lose. Do or die. Success or failure. No draws. No half-measures. No compromise with fate.
Scolari retained Fernandinho in midfield in place of Paulinho who had served Brazil so well in last year’s Confederations Cup victory but had looked something of a lost soul here and now.
Chile were at full strength with the fragile but talented Arturo Vidal restored to the creative heart of midfield after being rested from the conclusive group outing against Holland.
The early pressure was all from Brazil, producing a vain penalty appeal by Hulk, and free kicks from left and right by Neymar and Hulk which keeper Claudio Bravo stretched to deny.
But the corner proved fatal. Neymar’s kick was skipped on off the head of skipper Thiago Silva and poor, doomed Jara jabbed the ball back into his own net, though David Luiz, immediately behind him, claimed the goal.
If Brazil benefited from Chilean help, they returned the favour in the 32nd minute. Hulk, deep in his own half, produced a sloppy touch of the ball which left the waiting Marcelo stranded. Alexis Sanchez took sharp advantage to seize possession, cut into the penalty box and rifle a low shot beneath Julio Cesar’s right arm and inside the keeper’s right-hand post.
Oddly, it was Chile who began the second half with more self-belief. Brazil, having switched Hulk to the right and Oscar to the left, looked uncertain about what they were supposed to be doing. Neymar, pushed up front, vanished from the game.
Not that this prevented them apparently taking the lead 10 minutes into the second half. An angled ball from the left was controlled high by Hulk who then shot into goal off his left knee. Brazilian celebrations were cut short when referee Howard Webb ruled that Hulk had controlled the ball with his arm.
Had Brazil not won on penalties then there might have been talk of another English plot to match the fuss over the suspension of Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Perhaps it was simple justice that the woodwork came to their rescueÖ even twice over.