JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The World Cup was treated to its final, just two games too early.
For drama and intensity, the spectacle of the Netherlands stunning and bullying Brazil will be hard to outdo at this tournament.
The five-time champions are such soccer giants that there is always an earthquake-like thump when they are brought to their knees. Yet, this time, their 2-1 loss didn't feel like a massive shock.
Kaka and his friends mistakenly thought they could lift the heavy gold statue without the beautiful game that made Pele and his teammates world-famous.
Coach Dunga gambled that merely winning would be enough to assuage the critics on the beaches and farms, in the cities and shantytowns back home, who worried that Brazil's tradition of entertaining, dancing soccer was being betrayed.
Dunga was right. Had Brazil won, the manner of it wouldn't have mattered. But losing wasn't part of the deal. In the end, the way Brazil played was far more important than Dunga made out. In kidding themselves that efficient, often unglamorous, soccer would take them to the July 11 final, the Brazilians forgot to really sparkle in South Africa.
They were definitely good, but not Brazilian brilliant, and that was their undoing. They let Argentina claim the crown as kings of attacking, inventive soccer. As a result, Diego Maradona is looking like an increasingly good bet to win the World Cup both as a player and coach.
Dunga blamed a poor second-half against the Dutch. But that was only half the story.
In five World Cup games, Brazilian beauty came only in flashes and it wasn't enough. Maicon's oooh-aaah! strike in the first match against the North Koreans, squeezed between the goalkeeper and his post from the tightest of angles, was, in fact, a mirage, because it misleadingly suggested that Brazil would be both flashy and victorious. With hindsight, the 55 minutes it took Brazil to break open the Korean defense should have set alarm bells ringing.
Luis Fabiano's illegally handled second goal took some of the shine off Brazil's 3-1 defeat of Ivory Coast. A goalless draw with Portugal was not only boring but again showed that Brazil couldn't call up goals at will. Only half an hour into the round of 16 elimination game against Chile did Brazil finally turn it on.
Never mind, we told ourselves, this is Brazil. They'll find a higher gear when they need it.
Well, they needed it against the Netherlands.
But instead, they lost their heads. Turns out that Brazilians get hot, bothered and lose their focus when pushed around by the likes of Mark van Bommel, who was a real enforcer in the Dutch midfield, and Arjen Robben, who did not score but made a real pest of himself with his light-footed runs.
A turning point was Felipe Melo's hot-headed stamp on Robben's thigh. It got him ejected with 20 minutes left, scuttling Brazil's chances of recovering from its 2-1 goal deficit.
Also vital was Maarten Stekelenburg's astounding save of Kaka's shot in the first half. Had it gone in, it would have been curtains for the Netherlands, giving Brazil a 2-0 lead.
The lead-up — Robinho wriggling past two defenders, passing to Luis Fabiano, his subsequent backheel to Kaka — was the most delightful piece of Brazilian play at this World Cup. Had Brazil done that more often, Brazil would still be here, not making excuses.
"I just called home and my son was crying," Felipe Melo said after the match. "I have to apologize."
But the fault was collective, not individual. And it didn't help Brazil that Kaka was not at his best in South Africa. Like other stars of world soccer — think Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney or Samuel Eto'o — he failed to live up to his billing.
Like his team.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.