Sometimes Ugly Gets The Job Done

This is what Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa said before Saturday’s Copa America match with Brazil. There are subtitles so be not afraid.

And then you watched the match and you realized that Bielsa’s great genius is that there are two of him—one who can send out a cry for the sake of the sport he has loved for six decades, and the one who frames an important game against a neighboring giant as a shin-kick extraordinaire because sometimes loving the game means being pragmatic about it to the point of cynicism.

Uruguay won in a scoreless shootout to advance to the semifinals against Colombia, and the two games could not have been more different if one had been played on ice. Colombia throttled Panama, 5-0—yes, the Panama that got the United States interested enough in soccer to hate its coach and doubt its players two years before a home World Cup. The game was a breeze for the Cafeteros, almost too easy to be fully delightful, but it did offer the tantalizing thought of what they would have done to the U.S.

Then came Uruguay-Brazil, which already had the promise of dissatisfaction because the Brazilian side had been power-dissed by regal alum Ronaldinho. They were inexperienced, particularly at carrying the nation’s football history, and they were missing one of the best players in the world, Neymar Jr., to injury, and another of the best players in the world, Vinicius Jr., to a card suspension. Uruguay, on the other hand, was whole and willing to do whatever was required to pressure the Brazilians out of their comfort zone because Bielsa the poet is also Bielsa the mechanic.

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So it was that the most attractive matchup of the weekend turned into a brawl only slightly modified for younger audiences. The Uruguayans pressured the Brazilians with a seemingly endless number of players, never letting them achieve the rhythms we typically attach to jogo bonito and when challenged to foul them to make sure those rhythms were never heard again. The game was a misshapen eyesore almost from the national anthem with 41 fouls, 26 by Uruguay, with more cards (five) than shots on goal (four), including a red to Uruguayan right back Nahitan Nandez with 16 minutes left that caused Bielsa to play the game he had rather than the one he espoused. He pulled striker Darwin Nunez and boarded up the goal for penalties as a wise coach would, especially one who only had to do so for a quarter-hour rather than for two extra periods as they do in the European Championships, and the result was, well, decidedly unpleasant to anyone’s eye save one in Montevideo.

But it was also a just result in that Uruguay was the superior team while Brazil was trying to figure out whether to go kick for kick with the Uruguayans as it did in the first half or create some space and freedom in the second half, which it did not. The game was played at Uruguay’s insistence and ended as it should, as long as you aren’t stuck on thorny little issues like elegance and safety.

It was almost certainly the least pleasant experience of the weekend, in which five of the eight matches at the Copa and Euros went to shootouts, none of them joyful, and only Netherlands-Turkiye and Spain-Germany achieving the requisite levels of attractiveness to which Bielsa The Good referred. But in the practical world in which Bielsa The Not Quite So operates, the result is sufficient, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that Wednesday’s semifinal against Colombia in Charlotte will have the same imperatives.

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In other words, may the gods have mercy on Colombian shins, because Bielsa’s poetic nature is only reserved for off-days. 

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