Marta, Brazil take a turn to the dark side

Updated: July 11, 2011, 1:48 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | Special to

The Brazilian women's team confidently sambaed down the tunnel before the quarterfinal game against the United States like a squad convinced of destiny. The players dragged themselves off the field two-and-a-half hours later as a shattered collective, after squandering a one-goal lead and one-player advantage and having resorted to a sordid display of gamesmanship that had been a rare feature of the tournament until today.

In Brazilian soccer, there is Futebol Arte -- the elegant game of feints, fakes and extravagance. And there is Futebol de Resultados -- a pragmatic approach in which victory trumps style. This Brazilian display against the U.S. showcased both. Marta's second goal was a perfect symbol of the former: a visionary flick that outfoxed U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo. An apt piece of poetry that, with victory, would have been etched into the pantheons of Brazilian soccer history. The kind of finish the men's team so desperately needs in the Copa America.

But Marta herself led the descent into the dark side of the ugly game. Niggling, heckling, faking injuries and flopping to run out the clock. Her performance stooped so low, she achieved a rare feat -- the heckling of the Brazilian jersey. Neutrals in the crowd whistled her every touch. The world's finest female soccer player transformed herself into a wrestling heel.

The United States scored two goals to bookend the game. The first -- a scrappy own goal -- shocked Brazil, but it also masked the truth about a lack of craft in the U.S. game plan. Unsophisticated in possession and with a midfield unable to hold on to the ball, the Americans were akin to a female Stoke City with Abby Wambach as Ricardo Fuller and the speedy Heather O'Reilly in the Jermaine Pennant role.

With the cumbersome Wambach trundling round like a siege tower, the Brazilians were more than able to snuff out any threat and began to control the game. A goal was always going to come. It arrived courtesy of a penalty and red card awarded by a referee displaying all the creativity needed for her day job as a graphic designer.

But Rachel Buehler's dismissal proved to be the game's turning point. The U.S., meek with 11 players, became galvanized with 10. On this day, less was more. As the game dragged on, the battle became one in which fitness and preparation mattered more than talent. It was a game the Brazilians were always doomed to lose.

Ahead of the tournament, Marta herself had worried aloud that the team's lack of organization might prove to be its Achilles' heel. Her withering words about the squad's haphazard preparation and shoddy infrastructure that are "trailing a step behind teams like Germany or the United States" seem all too prophetic now.

Cristiane bravely mounted solo expeditions deep into the thinly stretched U.S. defense, but few teammates had the energy to follow. A desperate Brazil relied upon an array of amateur dramatics to run out the clock. Defender Erika was suddenly struck by an injury requiring prolonged treatment and the arrival of the Brazilian stretcher. This stretcher was evidently gifted with the kind of miracle healing powers traditionally only seen on religious telethons. Within seconds, she had leapt up and raced back onto the field to receive slaps on the back from her teammates and a yellow card from the referee.

The U.S. was on the brink of defeat, within seconds of departing with only its dignity intact. But then came Wambach's Wheaties box-worthy moment. A smash and grab that crushed the Brazilians even while delighting sporting ethicists around the globe. Marta's team will have time to recover ahead of next year's Olympic tournament. But now it must sit and watch as the U.S. women's national team bandwagon fires up in earnest.

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett