History has a way of repeating itself, whether it's in football or in real life. But as real life threatened on Wednesday to overshadow the latest entry in Brazil's footballing reboot, history happily stood aside.
Sure, it was only the Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal of a tournament and warmup act for next summer's main event. But in a summer without a World Cup, a Confederations Cup semifinal between two old rivals counts as high drama, and with Brazil and Uruguay involved, the past provided the added weight.
Brazil won the match 2-1 behind goals from Fred and Paulinho, and thus advanced to the final, where the opponent will most likely be Spain. But as ever when Brazil and Uruguay play, the match is not just a match.
Old footballing rivals rarely come older than these geographical neighbors, and it is not often that two opponents are more decorated. Winners of a combined seven World Cups, Brazil and Uruguay famously contested the decisive final match of the 1950 FIFA World Cup, also held in Brazil. The match, which resulted in Uruguay's second Cup triumph, was so shocking that it haunts Brazil to this day, after a record five world titles.
And sure enough, 63 years later, another shock was brewing early. Uruguay won a penalty when David Luiz manhandled Diego Lugano in the box. Diego Forlan, the Golden Ball-winning hero of Uruguay's run to the 2010 World Cup semis, stepped up for the kick in the 14th minute. Forlan placed his low shot to Julio Cesar's left-hand corner, but Cesar stretched at full length to parry the ball around the post.
50% - Only four out of eight penalties taken so far in the 2013 Confederations Cup have been converted. Waste. #BrazilUruguay— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 26, 2013
It was a timely escape, and it papered over the cracks of Brazil's off-kilter performance early in the opening half. Despite missing the penalty, Uruguay had largely controlled the show, defending in organized numbers and attacking quickly and with menace.
Brazil's best chance in the first half-hour fell to Hulk when a one-two unlocked Uruguay's resistance. The winger lifted his shot over the bar. Moments later, Forlan had another sight of goal, but his curling shot fizzed high and wide.
Uruguay had outplayed their hosts until then, but with halftime closing in, Brazil pulled a shock of their own. Instead of samba style, the opening goal came from a dose of Route 1 football. Instead of the beautiful game, it was a scuffed rebound.
Neymar ran onto a long ball over the top from Paulinho in the 41st minute, forcing Fernado Muslera to save from a tight angle. Fred reached the rebound first in a chaotic box and appeared to mishit his shot into the far corner.
The crowd in Belo Horizonte erupted, much like it had when fans and players bellowed an impromptu a cappella coda to the national anthem before kickoff. It might not have been the World Cup, but this match mattered, and it showed.
Uruguay, by contrast, looked deflated for the rest of the half. Their verve returned shortly after the break.
Edinson Cavani equalized in the 48th minute, finishing brilliantly with a low shot at the far post after Brazil had failed repeatedly to clear their box. It was a sloppy goal, but it rewarded Cavani's bustling workrate and renewed Uruguay's self-belief.
The match's momentum swung noticeably, and Uruguay nearly took the lead midway through the half when Thiago Silva's defensive header floated just over his own goal.
With the score tied 15 minutes from full time, the match rested on a fragile balance, awaiting a moment of heroism, genius or both to settle matters. The hero was Paulinho, the moment was the 86th minute, and not surprisingly, the impetus came from Neymar.
The budding 21-year-old superstar curled in a corner from the left, depositing the ball at the back post. Unmarked, Paulinho towered to drive his header into the net. Neymar hadn't actually scored the goal—he went scoreless for the first time in four matches at the tournament—but in setting it up, he had underlined his growing importance to Brazil's ongoing building project.
That project should, if the plan plays out correctly, reach its conclusion next summer.
Entering the tournament, Brazil faced question marks over a squad ranked—astonishingly—just 22nd in the world, behind the likes of Ghana, Greece and, yes, Uruguay. With Wednesday's dramatic win, though, Brazil not only clinched a spot in their own final, but also took some small measure of revenge for a wrong that injured the entire country more than six decades ago.
Beating Spain might be beyond this team at this time, but in reaching the final, Brazil showed an ability to rewrite the past while reveling in the new, Neymar-inspired present. The future, and the real test, is only one summer away.
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