FOXBOROUGH — This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no foolin’ around. Big Phil, Brazil’s chief Talking Head, has said all along that as his canary-clad Selecao dances toward next summer’s World Cup on its home turf that his guys aren’t playing nicely in the sandbox with anyone.
Portugal learned that firsthand at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday night as the Brazilians did a quickstep on their cultural cousins en route to a 3-1 victory in their not-so-friendly meeting before a close-to-capacity gathering of 62,310.
“This is a game like a World Cup and the World Cup is even worse than this,” said Luiz Felipe Scolari after his squad had handed the Portuguese, his former squad, their first loss in seven matches since February. “We have to be ready. That is why we’re playing teams the quality of Portugal.”
The Portuguese were amply compensated for their trouble but they might well have enjoyed the experience at a different time. They came here from Belfast after sweating out a victory over Northern Ireland in last weekend’s crucial Cup qualifier and were without superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who beat the Irish all by himself with a second-half hat trick but stayed behind, reckoning that rest would help ease his tendinitis.
“We will know in October if this is the best thing that can happen to us,” observed manager Paulo Bento, whose squad will play its final two qualifiers at home against Israel and Luxembourg. A home draw with Northern Ireland in Porto last October still haunts Portugal, and the Russians’ 3-1 victory over Israel in St. Petersburg on Tuesday put them back in first place in their group by a point.
To clinch it, though, the Motherland will have to win its final matches on the road at Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. “I believe we are going to be in Brazil in 2014,” said Bento. “We depend on ourselves to reach at least a playoff place.” That’s what the Portuguese did last time, getting to South Africa by way of Bosnia.
That’s a conversation for next month, though. This trip was a chance for Portugal to show its colors to its fans in Fall River and New Bedford and Taunton and Cambridge and Somerville who live and die with Benfica and Sporting and to get an energetic but amicable bit of exercise against the five-time world champions.
Portugal and Brazil have passed time together in Rio and Sao Paulo, in Lisbon and Porto and even in London. This was their first time together Stateside and it was a opportunity for their communicants to break out their national jerseys, fire up the grill, heap on steak and sausage and turn the parking lots alongside Route 1 into the planet’s largest outdoor churrascaria.
But as the night wore on it became a Brazilian fiesta as Neymar, the 21-year-old wonderchild who wears Pele’s old number (10) and played for his club (Santos) before signing on this year at Barcelona, put on a sleight-of-foot show, scoring one goal and setting up the other two.
“Only once every 15 or 20 games does he not play what he knows how to do,” said Scolari. “Normally, Neymar is this.”
All it took to shake Brazil out of its samba rhythm was an almost comical giveaway by defender Maicon in the 17th minute. His unthinking header off a blocked shot ended up on the foot of Raul Meireles, who promptly and thankfully put the ball past goalkeeper Julio Cesar after he’d put his own header off the right post five minutes earlier.
That was all, though, for the Portuguese, who left a few more first-half chances unfinished and couldn’t stop the Brazilians from cashing theirs.
“For a team like Brazil, you end up paying very expensively,” remarked Bento.
Neymar promptly began collecting the bill. He deftly looped a corner kick that Thiago Silva soared and headed past keeper Rui Patricio in the 24th minute. Then, 10 minutes later, he dribbled through a thicket of red shirts and popped one into the left corner.
Finally, he orchestrated a bit of pinball wizardry, setting up Maxwell who fed Jo for the killer in the 49th minute. “We lost deservedly,” acknowledged Bento. “After Brazil made it 3-1 the game pretty much ended.”
Maybe if they’d had Ronaldo fit and fresh, the Portuguese could have done some business but they needed more than one magician to match what Brazil put on the field, even missing four starters in forwards Hulk and Fred and defenders Dani Alves and Marcelo.
“We didn’t lose the game due to [Ronaldo’s] absence,” said Bento.
Brazil has been doing this to people all year. If it’s any consolation to the Portuguese, their Spanish neighbors had it even worse.