When the Weight of Expectations Overwhelms the Power of Belief.

I know some of you out there watched the Brisbane Lions play host to the GWS Giants last weekend. Against my better judgement, I wasted some – a very little – of my divided attention on the game. Despite my observational powers being heavily compromised, by the fact I didn’t care much about the outcome, one thing was blatantly obvious.

Brisbane expected to win.

Coming off two unlikely, hard-earned wins in a row, the Lions clearly thought they just needed to show up for this win to come to them. Petulant non-effort, petty thuggery which ended up backfiring and an unbelievably virulent strain of ‘entitlement’ – after two wins, are you kidding me? – were the contributing factors to Brisbane’s ultimate defeat.

A clear case of expectations flattening a mediocre team getting way ahead of itself.

But that was two of this year’s also-rans, in a relatively obscure domestic competition. The World Cup of Brazil 2014 is anything but. An international showcase of the most watched sport worldwide, it has so far achieved the admirable feat of exceeding both the toughest expectations and the highest hopes.

Until today.

Match-Day Six served as both the pneumatic door-closer on Phase One of the Group Stage, and gave us the opportunity to see the hosts Brazil in action again. Before play started, only four teams remained to open their Mundial accounts:  the heavily fancied dark-horse of the last two years – Belgium – were scheduled to face African afterthought Algeria. And two sides residing on pretty much the same pre-tournament level of expectations – technically known as Enh … WC (Who Cares?) – Russia and South Korea, would close out the day’s play.

Sandwiched in between, Brazil would host a Mexican team that although lucky to qualify out of CONCACAF this year, were desperately unlucky not to emerge from their first game in Brazil 2014, with at least a 3-0 victory. As you will see soon, I very much fear that’s going to matter a great deal, by the time the Group Stage is over.

A new Head coach, Miguel Herrera and a new attitude seem to have reawoken Mexico’s usually unimpeachable self-belief and instilled a redoubtable level of application, to complement Herrera’s obvious tactical acumen. Oh, and El-Tri clearly have a keeper (in every sense of the word) in Guillermo ‘Memo’ Ochoa, as Brazil found out to their chagrin, time after time throughout today’s match.

We also found out – or had our Match Day 1 suspicions confirmed – some things about this particular Brazilian team. It is undoubtedly a group made up of quality individuals. This group of seasoned professionals clearly has a well-spring of individual determination to call upon.

Unfortunately, what Mexico was able to expose, through their undivided application of a gameplan that was equal parts discipline and equal parts daring, is that this group of Brazilians is not a quality team – especially weighed down as they clearly are by the expectations conspiring to erode their belief.

There is no doubt that Brazil created enough opportunities to win. But to say they ‘should have’ done so is doing a disservice to Mexico’s team performance … And Ochoa’s transformation into the anthropomorphic manifestation of ‘Pong’, right before our eyes.

Not even the most stone-hearted bank-manager could have replicated the number, or the manner of steadfast denials Ochoa dealt out to Brazil’s increasingly desperate individual efforts. So mesmeric was he, that no less a towering presence than Brazilian Skipper, Thiago Silva, all alone in the middle of the six yard box, with a free header and the goal at his mercy, hit it right at Ochoa … at point blank range.

Either side of the gallant custodian and a goal was a 99% ‘sure-thing’.

Anyone else, any other day I would have said CERTAINTY. Here’s why I gave myself some wiggle room. Sure the header was hit cleanly right at him from point blank range. You would expect Ochoa to have been the beneficiary of his size and positioning and Silva’s poor aim.

No!

‘PONG’ saved the ball with his hands!

He moved with the dexterity and calm anticipation of a Zen Master, to block the ball, rather than act as a fortunate barrier for Silva’s poorly aimed attempt. Even if the ball was either side of him, I can’t be certain Ochoa would have let it past.

While that save was emblematic of Ochoa’s mastery of the moment, acting as the ultimate foundation of Mexico’s resilience, so too was Silva’s individual effort more than a mere misstep, seen so often on football pitches all over the world.

It was a clear indication that the moment of a Home World Cup has thus far mastered this group of players. Their lack of cohesion as a team has allowed the weight of expectations to limit their belief. They got away with it on Match Day One, with significant help from the referee. Not so today.

And here is why I pity Mexico their poor rub of the ‘official’ green in their first match against Cameroon. Unlike Brazil today, Mexico SHOULD HAVE won 3-0 (at the very least) that day. Given today’s result, they SHOULD lead Group A, on goal-difference.

Instead, Brazil still retain pole-position to win the Group, as per pre-tournament expectations AND as the cards lie. Cameroon’s all-round fragility is ripe for Brazil to exploit, whether they play cohesive team football or not. Mexico have the much tougher assignment in Croatia.

Still, Mexico’s ability to harness belief from teamwork and marshall a result through the excellence of execution, more than doing justice to an astute tactical plan and exposing Brazil’s comparative lack of one, at least gave them a still live mathematical opportunity to succeed.

It has also created in Brazil the unexpected danger of relative failure. That has not even been a Group Stage possibility for as long as I can remember.

That’s what expectations can do to you.

We saw it all day today, with Belgium’s vast gulf in talent eventually managing to keep alive, but not enhance their ‘dark-horse’ status, against Algeria’s effort to pre-empt Mexico’s successful tactical display. We saw Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev spill Lee Keun-ho’s speculative shot into his own net, because he finally lost his game-long battle with his failing self-belief.

Whether there are too many outside their own countries who expect much from the Russians & South Koreans is debateable. But there is no doubt about the expectations these players have of themselves. Sometimes unfortunately though, that can crush their belief, as it did for Akinfeev. As it almost did for Belgium as a group.

Or, as seems to be happening to Brazil, those expectations can weigh even on a group as talented as they obviously are, causing what should be an unshakeable collective belief to be compartmentalised, by gifted individuals with no mutual trust.

Divide and conquer seems to be the answer for Brazil’s opponents. Sadly, the normally celebratory Brazilians are doing it to themselves.

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Watched quite a bit of this game. Ochoa was just brilliant, loved watching him deny the Brazilians while still hoping to see Brazil score.
    Thanks Gregor, really enjoying your World Cup posts.

  2. E.regnans says

    Gregor Lewis, despite, or perhaps because of, the exciting run of attacking and positive energy of these Group matches, I have greatly enjoyed your reports, maybe more so than the games themselves.
    Admirable linguistic mastery and dexterity, mixed with subject knowledge and discipline.
    Superbly played, sir.

  3. Glen Potter says

    Algeria – African afterthought. Brilliant!
    Superb summary.
    Glen

  4. Gregor Lewis says

    Thanks for the positive exhortation lads. Absolutely rapt with your feedback.

    Now, in the appropriated words of The Joker, lets … ‘kill the Batman’.

    Don’t be afraid of the moment Socceroos!
    ‘Here … We … Go!’

    grl

Leave a Comment

*