Not all scoreless draws are created equal.
Monday saw this World Cup’s first 0-0 draw, as Nigeria and Iran failed to make any headway against each other in 90 minutes of tortuous, and tortured, football. It was almost a rite of passage: No football competition worth its salt goes the whole way without at least one contest that never sees the deadlock broken.
In that spirit, Iran and Nigeria served up a classic. The Group F opener lived up to almost every stereotype there is about goalless draws; filled as it was with uninspired attacking, uncompromising defending and a general lack of either flair or purpose.
It took five days for those two sides to deliver the first goalless game, but the second would follow within 24 hours. On Tuesday, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw with Mexico—or was that Mexico being held to a 0-0 draw by Brazil?—in an entirely different contest in Fortaleza.
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was the hero of the hour (and a half), making a number of key saves to keep the hosts at bay. But Mexico more than created a threat of their own, with Ochoa’s opposite number, Julio Cesar, desperately diving after more than one dangerous, arrowed shot as the visitors threatened to pull off a remarkable upset.
“It was a very difficult match,” Ochoa told reporters afterward, according to Gideon Long of Reuters, via The Globe and Mail. “We knew it would be tough for Brazil because they’re playing in their country.
“We knew we would have to be focused 100 percent for all the 90 minutes.”
Fortaleza is not the biggest of cities in Brazil, and to host a World Cup game featuring the Selecao was a considerable honour—one that sparked a party atmosphere every bit the equal of this tournament’s opener in Sao Paulo last Thursday.
Coincidentally, it was at the same ground, against the same opponents, that the newly minted “tradition” of singing the full Brazilian national anthem (continuing beyond the FIFA-mandated time allowed) was first started, a pre-match ritual that already looks set to become one of the most memorable and inspiring events of this tournament.
For the second time in as many games, David Luiz roared out the anthem to its conclusion, while Neymar—resplendent with a new, bleached hair colour—was visibly moved to tears by the moment.
The emotion and passion did not fully translate onto the pitch, however, as Brazil struggled to impose themselves against a side that has long had a knack for causing them problems. No country has beaten the Selecao more times than Mexico, while Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side only clinched the Confederation Cup meeting between the two countries 12 months ago very late in the contest.
Brazil had their chances in this one, but Ochoa was there to thwart them at every turn.
Ochoa—who, for what it is worth, is currently a free agent—sparked comparisons with the great England goalkeeper Gordon Banks with his first-half save to claw out Neymar’s header, prior to producing similarly spectacular reaction saves to deny Paulinho, Neymar (again) and Thiago Silva before the final whistle blew.
Each save increased the chorus of amazement and disbelief inside the stadium and on social media, a tribute to one of the great individual displays of this tournament so far.
Of course, regardless of Ochoa’s brilliance, the result will be considered a disappointment in Brazil, with the Selecao now needing to get at least a point in their final game against Cameroon to be confident about progression to the knockout stages.
But, taken on its own terms, this was not a poor game. It may have remained scoreless, but there were plenty of chances and attacking intent, with only a remarkable goalkeeping display keeping the home side at bay.
Iran and Nigeria, this was not.
"I did not like their goalkeeper,” Scolari joked to reporters (via the BBC) afterwards. “He was really spectacular, he did a great job, he was calm and confident on the pitch—he was the man of the match.
"We had chances but they had a very good goalkeeper who did a marvellous job. A 0-0 is never a good result, but it does reflect how close this match was.”
Scolari’s words may not pacify a home crowd expecting goal after goal, victory after victory.
After all, Brazil are expected by their fans to win this World Cup, but this draw does not derail that ambition in any serious way. Perhaps, considering the bigger challenges still to come, fans will accept it is better to face an inspired goalkeeper in the group stages than any latter in the competition.