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 filthy 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, crowned with the choreographed dances they have been preparing for months in advance.
The crowd bayed for more, not because they wanted to see the Koreans humiliated, but because how could you possibly want something this fun 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 offering a quiet nod of approval at this hypnotic whirl of yellow shirts.
Afterwards, Brazil’s players gathered up a banner bearing a single word: “PELE!” It was respectful and restrained, fitting and stirring: everything, in other words, that their preposterous Neymar tribute eight years ago was not. Perhaps this is a Brazil side that are not only inspired by their history, but have learned from it too.
And so, will this be 2002 or 1982? There will be no grace for Brazil in leaving Qatar as beautiful losers. None of this means anything unless they win. The tightly-wound fist of Croatia, who await them in the quarter-finals, will offer an entirely different flavour of test to the cavalier and exhausted South Korea. There remains a qualm or two about the defending, with Paik Seung‑ho claiming a late consolation and Alisson required to make at least two magnificent saves. But really, this was no time for cold realities.
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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.
Almost immediately Richarlison was fouled and the returning Neymar scored the penalty, sending Kim Seung-gyu the wrong way with a little comedy shuffle.
That was the point when South Korea may have suspected it was going to be a long evening. Richarlison would go on to score the pick of the goals on 28 minutes: dribbling the ball three times on his head, laying it off, getting it back, and finishing with an affected coolness. Even coach Tite joined in with the jig 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.
That was enough, really. Had they called off the game 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. And ultimately the Koreans deserved something, 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 cheering souvenir for the Korean fans, who have been so memorable this tournament.
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 Heung‑min will be 33 in 2026 – and in the striker Cho Gue-sung they have unearthed a real talent who may soon be signing for Celtic.
But it was Brazil’s night, even if it was not theirs alone. Up in the emptying stands, his bald features framing a thin smile, the Fifa president Gianni Infantino gazed upon the spectacle he had brought into being.
In a way, this was the sort of unforgettable entertainment content he had been craving all along: the point when all the awkward moral questions and irritating Western provocateurs could simply melt away, buried under an avalanche of Brazilian pizzazz. A monster singing in perfect tune is still a monster. So yes, this was Brazil’s triumph. But in a bleak sort of way, it was also Qatar’s.