Confederations Cup Final: Triumph Veiled in Tragedy

Eric BradleyCorrespondent IJune 29, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 28:  Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva of Brazil celebrate during the 2009 Confederations Cup final match between Brazil and USA from Ellis Park on June 28, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Brazilian fans have every reason to smile today, but even they would probably not have been too disappointed to see the United States finally win a major title. 

For fans of the US team, this was a match that took them to the heights of joy and the depths of despair in a way that no soccer game has ever done before.

But hidden inside the tragedy of this loss, there is also a glimmer of triumph.  The United States did, after all, give the Brazilians something to chase.

To put Brazil down by two goals before half time, while simultaneously shutting them out, is a very rare achievement indeed.

In the end, of course, the better team won.  This is no more than anybody expected, but still for a moment it was tempting to forget history and dare to dream.

Like so many teams that have faced Brazil in previous finals, the hopes and dreams were dashed upon the rocks to sink into oblivion. 

Yet now is not a time to go into mourning, for Americans can look forward to the future with hope and optimism.

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There is no shame in losing to Brazil; they are not considered to be the best team in the world for no reason.  Over many decades, since at least the reign of Vincente Feola as national coach (a man so relaxed about his team's ability he would even fall asleep during matches!), Brazil has been consistently amongst the top five teams.

From 92 World Cup matches, Brazil have lost just 14 of them, and have been World Champion five times from 18 attempts.  They have also won three of their six Confederations Cup attempts, and finished second to Mexico in 1999.

The United States has now faced Brazil 13 times, and have lost 11 times.  Without a doubt, even taking into account the one time that the US has beaten Brazil, this Confederations Cup final was the strongest game they have ever played against the team universally regarded as the giants of world football.

The game started normally enough.  A whistle was blown, the ball was kicked off, and two groups of men ran around chasing after it.  Then suddenly the standard script wasn't being followed any more.

It was Clint Dempsey, a player from the American team, who fired the first shot, and this after only two minutes of play. 

It was a sign that the Americans were going to try and emulate the Egyptian tactic of catching Brazil on the hop, running the ball down the field quickly before their opponents even had a chance to realize what had happened.

But, as the saying goes, "haste makes waste."  In his rush to deliver an unexpected surprise to the Brazilian team, he didn't take enough time to aim his kick and it went astray.

With the ball back in play, Maicon took it out to the right flank and sent it on to Kaka, who brought it back into the American danger zone, but Onyewu did his little teleport trick and opted to put the ball over the side line.

Maicon took the ball again and Jay Demerit deflected it over his own backline to give the Brazilians an opportunity for a corner kick.  The corner was not well executed and Jozy Altidore was able to use his head to clear the ball from danger.

Moments later Maicon had another go, and this time it was Dempsey who conceded the corner kick.  Kaka managed to get his head under it, but couldn't get a solid contact, sending the ball wide of the target.

An effort from André Santos hit the post.  Had that shot been just a fraction more accurate, it could have changed everything.

Over to Jonathan Spector, who ran the ball down the Brazilians' right flank to find Dempsey clear of any threatening defenders, and Dempsey made the most of the opportunity, booting the ball toward the goal.  Julio Cesar could not reach it in time, perhaps because he was weighed down by all the sweaters he was wearing.

Déjà vu.  Just hours earlier the other underdog team, South Africa, had struck the first blow against Spain.  Now here was the US team sending a similar message to Brazil: "We are here to play, and we're playing to win!"

The Brazilians took notice.  A flurry of shots from Maicon, Robinho and Felipe Melo were unleashed at the American goal, but Tim Howard was able to deflect them all.

Somewhere in the middle of all this action, Carlos Bocanegra earned himself a yellow card when he decided to give Kaka a little cuddle. 

The booking is hard to understand, because it was outstanding sportsmanship for him to congratulate his opponent before the match was even half over.

Onyewu and Demerit earned their stripes too, keeping the worst of the Brazilian offensive onslaught under control.

Maicon's unsuccessful attempt resulted in yet another corner kick for Brazil, with Robinho making a mess of it, turning over possession to the American side. 

Donovan and Davies were the dynamic duo here, putting on a bit of a sprint and flicking the ball to each other in good fashion.  Landon Donovan absolutely hammered it from close quarters, Cesar again being caught short.

This was literally the shot that was heard (or at least seen) around the world.  Who could believe it?  The US had scored two power-goals in the first half, with the Brazilians so far unable to reply.  It's a wonder Bob Bradley wasn't seen doing cartwheels on the sideline!

Howard starred again with a good save against an attempt from André Santos, who had fired the shot with great accuracy from the far left side of the box.

Luis Fabiano then goofed twice, missing with an easy shot and then messing up what should have been a very opportunistic free kick.  Perhaps this was an indication that the pressure was beginning to have an effect on Brazil.

A bit of to-and-fro, with the ball coming back to Robinho on the left of the box.  Some nifty footwork here from Robinho as he outfoxes Spector, curving a nice strong shot from a tricky angle, but to no avail as Howard manages yet again to stop the ball from doing any damage.

During the last few minutes of the half Onyewu stuck to his task, playing a major role in frustrating many of the Brazilian advances.

Unless somebody blabs, we shall never know just what it was that Dunga said to his jolted team during the break to revive their morale.  Whatever it was, it did the trick, as Brazil came back onto the field showing none of the strain they had endured during the first half.

Right from the moment of the kickoff they were looking sharp and ready.  This was not a team who were ready to go belly up! 

Inside the first minute Maicon had edged a pretty little kick to Fabiano who employed great control and precision, taking just enough time to set up the shot. 

This came in the shape of a low, fast, and deadly accurate kick that Howard had no chance of stopping.  It was a classic goal, characteristic of Brazil, and a much better display than they had put on in the first half.

This also marked the first serious mistake from the American defenders.  Still floating on the air of success from the first half and with confidence sky-high, they had momentarily let their guard down.

Fabiano had been able to slip through the defenses and was unpressured.  He could take all the time he needed.  You simply cannot give a Brazilian player such a gift and expect it not to come at great cost to you.

It was a major turning point.  Brazil had regained confidence and the Americans were beginning to lose it.  Perhaps more than anything the second half was memorable for the huge number of free kicks that were given away, some of them needlessly.

With the US still unable to regain ground, Gilberto Silva and Lúcio fired off shots in quick succession following a corner, neither player doing damage, but the slow reactions from the American players were a bit worrying at this point. 

Brazil was now clearly dominating the play and it looked like it was just a matter of time before the scores would be leveled.

It very nearly happened on the stroke of the hour, as Brazil were robbed of a goal that was rightfully theirs, Howard fumbling a save but the referee failing to notice that the ball had traveled across the line.

Brazil made many more rushes during the next few minutes, with Onyewu doing most of the work in shutting them down.

A brief moment of respite for the US team as Davies gains possession and gets the ball over to Donovan, but the shot is blocked by Cesar.  Clark takes the ball and threads it through the defense, but Dempsey can't convert and it goes to a corner which proves fruitless.

Dunga now apparently decides to break his resolution not to substitute players, so Elano and Alves come onto the field in place of Santos and Ramires. 

Almost immediately, they make their presence felt, but the long stretch on the bench has meant they are not warmed up enough to cause any trouble.

The rhythm of the game is beginning to change now.  Everything has slowed down and there is a sense that the Brazilians are controlling the play.  The Americans are still (unfairly) ahead by a goal, but those earlier efforts have come at a cost.

It reminded me of Lion Heart's run in the 2004 Kentucky Derby; it is really difficult to break from the gate with that kind of furious tempo and hope to sustain it indefinitely.  Eventually, something's gotta give.

Howard puts a good stop on a shot from Fabiano who has for once managed to slip past the ever-vigilant Onyewu.  Alves drills a miss from the left side of the box, and then it is Melo's turn to shoot it wide. 

They could be doing a little better, the shots are too rushed.  Melo probably should not have taken the shot but he had nobody to send it to.

Kaka now comes down the left with as good an impersonation of Usain Bolt as I have seen, leaving Spector in his wake, puffing like a locomotive engine. 

Clearly, it is the beginning of the end for the American team who have done so well to set up the early pace.

Today, the track is favoring the back-runners, as we saw in the earlier game between Spain and South Africa.  The stayers have the edge over the squibs.

Kaka doesn't set the ball perfectly but it lands at Robinho's feet, who duly slams it into the bar.  Fabiano catches the rebound with his head and it goes over the line and into the net, levelling the score.

If that theory about a butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest is correct, then the collective groan that went up all across the United States at that moment is sure to have caused an avalanche somewhere.

It was an opportuntity to gain some empathic insight into how the South Africans were feeling.  But this was even worse. 

Nothing can describe that sinking feeling that settles in your gut when you realize that a team has simply run itself into the ground and will need to rely on pure luck to get back in front.

The sight of Jonathan Spector huffing, puffing, fading away behind Kaka said it all.  The US team was virtually spent, with at least 17 minutes left on the clock.

Still they fought on.  Bob Bradley decided to bring Altidore and Feilhaber off the ground (why not Spector?), putting in Bornstein and Kljestan to take their place.  It's worth mentioning at this point that Benny Feilhaber had thus far given a good account of himself as a replacement for Michael Bradley, who had to sit out this match due to suspension.

Kaka looked set to menace again, but his shot went wide.  Perhaps his little sprint had taken a bit of his edge off too.  A little time passes, then Donovan gives the ball a little too gently to Cesar, who has no trouble in collecting it.

Bradley's decision to bring on Bornstein nearly pays off when, with his fresh legs and untroubled lungs, he gets the ball a medium distance out from goal, tries to cross it to Dempsey but gets blocked, then regains possession, only to put in a panicky shot that is way off target.

Now Kaka and Robinho are singing the same familiar duet in the American zone, but Robinho places his shot too high. 

Then it was the US team's turn to get robbed as Davies is roughed up in the penalty area but does not receive his due.  Did this referee miss an appointment with his optometrist?  This is his second major mistake inside 45 minutes!

Back to the play and the Brazilians have yet again taken control.  The ball comes back to Howard's end*, courtesy of Alves and Fabiano.  They don't put it through, but DeMerit makes a good block that unfortunately goes on to concede a corner.

Eleano takes the corner kick and it is a massive boot that goes clear across the face of the goal, and Lúcio gets his head under the ball sending it into the net.  One disaster after another for the Americans!  How could things get any worse than this?

Taking a lesson from the South African match, the US team keep plugging away.  They are not about to give up too easily, as there are still a few minutes left in which to hope for a miracle.

Ricardo Clark is brought off the ground, with Conor Casey coming on to replace him.  Lúcio concedes a corner to the opposition and Donovan takes it.  It is a very good kick and Onyewu gets under it, but his header goes too high.  Onyewu's disappointment is plain to see, but it was a good attempt.

Kaka and Alves again threaten with shots, but they are not good ones.  We go into injury time and the Brazilians very smartly decide to turn it into a game of keepings-off. 

The strategy works and the Americans cannot effectively regain possession.  Brazil has squeezed over the line, coming back from a two-goal deficit to win by one. 

Interestingly, it is the same scoreline that we saw in Spain vs. South Africa, 3-2.  This game has been every bit as intense, if not more so.

If it was any other team that had done this, we'd be stunned. Because this was Brazil, nobody is going to be floored by the result.  It's almost expected that they will do something extraordinary, and when they do, it is never considered a big deal. 

It is only on the occasions when they don't seem to be pulling their weight, such as in their match against South Africa, that anybody makes a fuss.  Such is the burden of being great.

Bob Bradley has done a remarkable job of reinventing his team.  Tactics have improved and while their style of play could never be described as graceful or elegant, they are gaining skills and experience with each match. 

No doubt the EPL experience of Tim Howard (Manchester Utd and Everton), Oguchi Onyewu (Newcastle), and Fulham team mates Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey is helping the team as well, since there could be no better learning environment than the top division of English soccer.

Brazil won today because they outlasted their opponent.  The clever strategy of shuffling the ball around at the end was also brilliant, and shows the benefit of experience. 

They were not about to make the same mistake that Spain did and allow the opportunity of a last-second goal.  Once it was clear that they could win, they made sure of it.

Now we can look forward to the World Cup and see what the US team will produce.  They will have gained confidence from their performances against Egypt, Spain, and now Brazil.

Now that they have proved to themselves that they can play a good game of soccer, and now that they have seen that even giants can stumble, further improvement can be expected.

Time now for a new dream.

* Sorry for making all these silly little word play jokes throughout the story. It was just too much of a temptation to resist.