The World Cup turned both ugly and farcical last night when one of its best players was sent off as a result of an appalling piece of gamesmanship.
Brazil’s Kaka was dismissed for two yellow cards, the second coming when the Ivory Coast substitute Abdul Keita ran into him, then collapsed in a broken heap. Kaka left the field with a smile composed not so much of anger but disbelief. The smile, though, will prove enduring because both he and his team finished the bizarre but often thrilling night with, surely a sense of reawakened destiny.
Brazil’s coach Dunga was enraged by the behaviour of Sven Goran Eriksson’s team, and appalled by Kaka’s fate, but soon enough he could afford to make a philosophical shrug. He has been accused of destroying the beauty of his nation’s football but here last night there was plenty of evidence that he could soon be saluted as a guardian of both insight and sturdy principle.
Kaka, we can be sure, will be involved significantly at some later point of this tournament. Brazil are indeed a serious team again – and Kaka showed before he left the field that he is finding again some of his old touch.
Earlier, though, there were times when the agonies of the Bernabeu appeared to have simply moved a whole continent south. But then if Real Madrid’s second most expensive signing sometimes struggled to reclaim from the razor touch and beautiful rhythm that once made him the world’s best player, you did not have to look too hard for signs that a resurrection might just be trying to happen.
The seemed a touch risible when Emmanuel Eboué swept both him and the ball away so casually the Arsenal man might have been part of a post-game clean-up gang. There were other occasions when Kaka harboured good ideas without quite producing the means to put them into practice; times when, essentially, he had to pick himself up off the ground and try to make something work.
All the time you had the idea that he was, of all the Brazilians, most vulnerable to the strength of the team who, with Didier Drogba occasionally stirring himself into moments of heightened interest, might just prove to be Africa’s most serious challengers. In both cases, it was an illusion.
Kaka may still be a somewhat frail at the moment, and some may still feel that his place in the Brazilian sunshine is destined to be short, but before the end he made two impressive statements that he may just fight his way back to some of of his old influence.
He had such flashes, fleeting in the extreme, against North Korea but last night he made both of them linger powerfully in the memory. He conjured a goal of superb impact by the striker Luis Fabiano in the 25th minute. The Ivory Coast defenders, who had run down so fiercely the Brazilian attacking forays, initially launched most showily by Robinho, were suddenly short-circuited.
They were left stranded by Kaka’s brilliant understanding of space and defensive depth and his pass went perfectly to the feet of the big man of Seville. Dunga, the World Cup-winning player who is perhaps now being scolded less intensely at home for what some claim to be his war on the nation’s finer football feelings, looked to the heavens in his pleasure this moment of sweet vindication.
In his dug-out, Eriksson could only wince at this evidence that if Brazil are some way from what they used to be they retain formidable qualities. Fabiano quickly emphasised that he is one of them with a superb run that brought him a second goal and the crushing of Eriksson’s hopes that his team could make an impact at a formative stage of the tournament.
Fabiano, no doubt, had some considerable benefit of the doubt from French referee Stephane Lannoy when he appeared to control the ball with his right arm before the match-killing strike. There was no question, though, that Dunga’s men were finding some impressive elements of style along with the mountainously serene defence of Lucio and Juan.
Kaka’s confidence was growing noticeably and so, inevitably, was his appetite for the ball. His passing was becoming increasingly acute as the Ivory Coast began to be stretched by the quickening rhythm of the Brazilian game. Dunga’s face was losing all signs of the tension he first brought to the touchline. He looked like a man who was beginning to enjoy his work, most exultantly when Kaka went round the back of defence and crossed perfectly for Elano to score the third goal.
By now Dunga’s satisfaction was most at risk from some increasingly cynical tackling by the Ivory Coast, and his first worry of the evening came when Elano was carried off. Then Drogba scored. But the coach could rest easily enough. This was a big performance from a growing team, one more than capable of dealing with the odd convenience, however ridiculous.