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 filthily good you needed a cigarette and a shower after watching it. For 40 minutes Neymar and Richarlison and Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior and Lucas Paquetá blazed little triangles, quadrilaterals, shapes that didn’t have a name yet, shapes embroidered and gilded with wicked flicks and outrageous stepovers.
The crowd bayed for more, not because they wanted to see the Koreans humiliated, but because how could you possibly want this 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 called Pelé watching this mesmeric blur of yellow shirts and offering a quiet nod of approval.
Does this bring that fabled sixth World Cup within reach? Yes, but only one game closer. The tightly wound fist of Croatia, who await them in the quarter-finals, will offer a different flavour of test entirely to the cavalier South Korea.
Coach Tite may just raise a qualm or two about some of the defending, with Paik Seung‑ho claiming a late consolation and Alisson required to make at least two magnificent saves. But really, this was not a night 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. Already you got the feeling it was going to be a long evening for South Korea.
The returning Neymar scored with a penalty six minutes later, sending Kim Seung-gyu the wrong way with a little comedy shuffle. Richarlison, who had won the penalty, would go on to score the best goal of the game on 28 minutes: dribbling the ball three times on his head, laying it off, getting it back, and finishing with an affected coolness. Even Tite did a little jig on the touchline this time.
South Korea went for it. What else could they do? Alisson made two good saves from Hwang Hee-chan, but every Korean attack left them ever more vulnerable to the speed of the break, and shortly before half-time one such counter led to a dinked cross from Vinícius Júnior, finished with a scathing finality by Paquetá on the volley. Brazil could conceivably have been six or seven goals up by half-time.
And that was enough, really. Had they simply called off the game and rolled the credits after 45 minutes, everyone would have been happy. And yet due to competition regulations Brazil were still contractually bound to play the second half, a half that unfolded with roughly the same pace and intensity as a money-spinning pre-season friendly in Charlotte. The luckless Son Heung-min curled a shot just wide. Later he would be denied by two brilliant blocks from Marquinhos and a fingertip save from Alisson.
But the Koreans deserved something for their presence, even if it was only the footballing equivalent of a party bag. Paik’s goal, smashed in from long range after Casemiro headed away a free-kick, was a welcome point of catharsis for the Korean fans, who have been so memorable this tournament. Brazil continued to twiddle and fiddle away, desperate to crown this triumph with one last Instagram-worthy moment. But it was not to be.
And so Asia’s World Cup has lost its last Asian team. South Korea have certainly had their moments in this tournament, not least their dramatic win over Portugal, and in particular those few minutes after the end when the entire squad hunched around a tiny mobile phone screen to watch the climax of the Uruguay game. The bulk of their squad probably has one more World Cup in them – Son will be 33 – and in the striker Cho Gue-sung they have unearthed a real talent who may well soon be taking up residence in the UK as a new signing for Celtic.
But it was Brazil’s night, even if it was not theirs alone. Up in the stands, his bald features framing a thin smile, the Fifa president Gianni Infantino gazed upon the spectacle he had brought into being, the monster he created that turned out could sing perfectly in tune. In a way, this was the sort of unforgettable entertainment content he had been craving all along from this tournament: the point when all the awkward moral questions and irritating Western provocateurs could simply melt away, buried under an avalanche of Brazilian pizzazz. So yes, this was Brazil’s triumph. But in a way, it was also Qatar’s.