It was a still and sultry night in Qatar’s capital: the grass a little greasy to the touch, the stadium bouncing and jiving, the football from a brighter and less troubled world. And there were times when watching Brazil’s symphonic demolition of South Korea when it was briefly possible to leave behind earthly cares, partake of the simpler pleasures in life, lose oneself in the pure, riotous joy of football.
Brazil really were that good. For the first 40 minutes, as they waltzed and wove their way to a four‑goal lead, they played the sort of football we have not seen from them for many years: special-effects football, computer-game football, football so filthy you needed a cigarette and a shower after watching it.
The crowd bayed for more, not because they wanted to see the Koreans humiliated, but because how could you possibly want something this fun to end? It was a reminder, perhaps, that while football may have been invented on the public school playing fields of England, it was perfected on the pampas and praias of Brazil. And it was possible to imagine, watching on a hospital television somewhere in Sao Paulo, an 82-year-old cancer patient offering a quiet nod of approval at this hypnotic whirl of yellow shirts.
Afterwards, Brazil’s players gathered up a banner bearing a single word: “PELE!” It was respectful and restrained, fitting and stirring: everything, in other words, that their preposterous Neymar tribute eight years ago was not. Perhaps this is a Brazil side that are not only inspired by their history, but have learned from it too.
And so, will this be 2002 or 1982? There will be no grace for Brazil in leaving Qatar as beautiful losers. None of this means anything unless they win. The tightly-wound fist of Croatia, who await them in the quarter-finals, will offer an entirely different flavour of test to the cavalier and exhausted South Korea. There remains a qualm or two about the defending, with Paik Seung‑ho claiming a late consolation and Alisson required to make at least two magnificent saves. But really, this was no time for cold realities.
That much was clear from the moment Vinícius Júnior opened the scoring with an incredible, improvised practical joke of a finish: a little punt of the toe, Ronaldinho-like in its cheek. It was Raphinha who set up the chance with some brilliant skill on the right. The clock showed seven minutes.
Almost immediately Richarlison was fouled and the returning Neymar scored the penalty, sending Kim Seung-gyu the wrong way with a little comedy shuffle.
That was the point when South Korea may have suspected it was going to be a long evening. Richarlison would go on to score the pick of the goals on 28 minutes: dribbling the ball three times on his head, laying it off, getting it back, and finishing with an affected coolness. Even coach Tite joined in with the jig this time.