By Mina Rzouki
In a game dominated by predications and statistics, the rare anomaly offers a unique thrill to the audience. My favourite moment of the Copa America lies in a match reminiscent of the one between David and Goliath otherwise known as the 2001 quarter-final match between Honduras and Brazil.
The circumstances were truly exceptional.Argentina pulled out of the Copa America tournament days before it was due to take place due to threats received from terrorist groups and the security issues surrounding the competition. Honduras, the tiny nation who were thumped 8-2 by Brazil in 1994 were invited to the tournament in Argentina’s place. A humble footballing nation with little time to prepare, it was surprising they had even managed to reach the quarter-finals to face the Golden colours ofBrazil.
What was so particularly beautiful about the game was realising just how much of an impact the unknown can make in such a competition. No-one watched, understood or particularly paid attention to the Honduras method of play. An anonymity, they took their greatest weakness and turned it to their greatest strength, building themselves a reputation as somewhat of a surprise package as they slayed the giants that lay ahead of them including Uruguay in the group stages.
This was a Honduras side who were ill-prepared, without their star players and who lost their playmaker Oscar Lagos to suspension due to his dabbling in illegal drugs. Yet their game was solid, especially effective and wonderfully well played. Defensively they erected a fortress that the selecao failed to penetrate despite the consistent pressure applied in midfield. Packed with creative talent and enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Brazil took the match and their strength for granted. Belittling the might of their opponents, they kept their minds focused on their upcoming World Cup qualifier against Paraguay when they ought to have been focusing on the task at hand.
No amount of creativity Brazil threw on made a difference and for a girl who worships defensive fortitude this was a brilliant example of creative offence coming up short against a solid back-line. Honduras soaked the pressure, held on and then slowly got into the rhythm of the game – managing to create a perfect balance.
An own goal put Honduras ahead as the ball rebounded off Juninho Belletti to roll in but the Selecao did not give up. Raising the intensity of the game and pilling on the pressure, they attacked in unison leaving their defence almost entirely exposed. Effectively noticing the flaws of the Brazilian game, Honduras exploited the empty space at the back and created several chances of their own whilst the heroics of their goalkeeper Noel Valladares kept them in the game. Tempers flared and players were sent off as the atmosphere grew more and more hostile. However, the day belonged to the minnows as they snatched a second and knocked the Samba stars out of the competition.
My father was livid, an organised man who hates surprises, this was not going to plan. As a Brit, I always root for the underdog and as an Italian football fan, Honduras’ organised game was particularly appealing to me and thus the rest of the family and I were cheering them on. We watched as a historic event unfolded and all I could remember was the loud and rapid yelling of the Spanish speaking commentator who was screaming every time Honduras touched the ball. I was studying Spanish at University and my entire family were crowded around the TV asking me to translate every word that was being said. I was speechless and unwomanly in the sense that multitasking was a foreign notion to me. So accustomed to tactical games played at a much slower pace, I had never witnessed a match played at such speed and I was mesmerised by the quick touches, the slick passing and the swift movements of these 22 lithe players on the ground.
What is especially memorable about this game, for me as a football writer, is the sense of panic that gripped Brazil after the defeat cueing hysterical panic and woeful forecasts for the future. Critics and fans alike were hailing it as the end of Brazilian football and their domination in world football. Papers run sensational headlines the next day including Lance, the sports daily running a front page headline that read “Are you serious?” President of the Honduras Football federation was left speechless as the world looked to him to comment on what was hailed as the biggest shock in the tournament’s 91 year history. Meanwhile a sullen Luiz Felipe Scolari sulkily remarked: “I, Big Phil, will go down in history as the Brazil coach who lost to Honduras. It’s horrible.”
Of course it wasn’t the end – nor was it even close. Brazil went on to win the World Cup the next year despite the struggles suffered in actually qualifying and have since continued to develop even further as the recession bypassed the South American nation and even improved it economically. More investments have been made in the domestic league, Brazilian clubs are able to hold on to their young talents for longer and defensively, they are producing some of the greatest defenders in modern day football. The ‘crisis’ was soon averted and the media calamity seemed nothing more than mere theatrics as Scolari revelled in the trust of the fans to produce a real squad enamoured with the footballing ideals of their attack minded Coach.
However, on that day in 2001, unpredictability won in a manner that was not only fully deserved but fully appreciated by the many neutrals who watched and especially my family who now insist on watching the Copa America – in English! It may not have been the greatest match I have ever watched but it certainly was one of the most emotional and a fine introduction to a worthy tournament.