The 2022 World Cup knockouts appear to be continuing where the first fortnight left off: exciting, filled with goals and drama packed with tension. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day's action.
For day 16, we pick a moment-within-a-moment. It's the calm before the storm -- the fleeting instant where Vinicius Jr. sets himself up before scoring the first goal in Brazil's 4-1 hammering of South Korea.
It starts on the right flank. Raphinha receives a sharp ping from Eder Militao in the seventh minute of the game, and simply decides to turn it on. A jink inside to move past Hwang Hee-chan, a high-speed elastico to sashay past Hwang In-beom and he plays it square to Casemiro. He, in turn immediately pushes it forward to Paqueta, who twists his body and nudges it around the corner. Raphinha races back onto it, bullies his way past Kim Jin-su and drives to the byline before smashing a pullback across the face of the goal. As each of these passes are being made, you can hear the volume levels in the stadium rise - this is jogo bonito being executed at breakneck speed.
Now, while Raphinha's been setting up this pullback, Richarlison has raced to the front past dragging the centre-backs with him. Neymar and Paqueta have made identical runs towards the centre of the goal, just in front of the penalty spot, and everyone in red has followed them. Raphinha's pass has too much oomph, and the ball zips across the face of goal, to Vinicius Jr. who's just jogged into a spot inside the Korean box where he's surrounded by nothing other than green grass. Vinicius takes two steps towards the ball and takes a touch.
Then times stops.
You know how they say the best sportspersons often operate in their own bubble? How they seem to process things faster than those around them, calculate angles, measure out distances and chart out trajectories in the time it takes for us to blink an eye? As the world rushes toward him headlong, that's what Vinicius is doing: channeling his inner Neo.
In the instant he takes that touch, he's calmer than anyone in the stadium. As the ball bounces up, with just a hint of backspin, he looks up to see four people rush at him -- Jung Woo-young, Lee Jae-sung, Kim Min-jae and the goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu. They are making themselves as big as possible, blocking Vincius' path to goal. It would be but natural to rush your shot there, to think 'oh, no, I should have hit that first time. My first big chance in my first World Cup knockout tie and I'm going to mess this up!' A year and some ago, he might have done just that -- his final third decision had become so erratic that it had become a running joke. A lot of introspection and a (reported) spell with a sports psychologist later, things have changed. The Vinicius of 2022 (and late 2021) is a very different beast.
As the ball loops back with the backspin carrying it back towards him, he waits and waits. The ball bounces once, then twice. Just then Jung dives in to block the shot. At that instant, Vinicius stabs it with the side of his big toe -- a shot that takes very little backlift but produces immense power and just the right amount of curl to take it past the four advancing Koreans, and a fifth (Kim Young-gwon) who's made a desperate jump to intercept the ball. If he had hit it first time, he might not have gotten the direction to get it past the five Koreans between him and the goal. If he had used a higher backlift one of the four who had thrown themselves at him might have reached it first -- something that might also have happened if the ball hadn't spun back that touch. Elite skill made to look almost too easy, with a nonchalance that borders on showboating.
That goal opened up the floodgates as this yellow-and-blue clad carnival of chaos played out their best hits over the next half hour or so. Neymar rolled a penalty into goal so slowly it was almost obscene. Richarlison scored one of the great goals of World Cup football -- juggling the ball on his head thrice before exchanging quick-fire passes with Marquinhos (!) and Thiago Silva (!!) at the edge of the Korean box and passing it into the corner in a move that was so fluid it was poetry-in-motion. Lucas Paqueta made it four when Vinicius turned provider at the end of a sublime counter-attacking move. As they scored these goals, they all danced -- coach Tite included -- with all the flamboyance demanded by any self-respecting carnival. By the end of the first half, Stadium 974 had become party central.
This party, though, with all this liquid football, all this dancing... had started with that moment of deep clarity from Vinicius Jr. early on. It had been the calm before the storm: in more senses than one.