The chaos that governed the first three days of World Cup group-stage finales did not bypass Group G on Friday so much as churn around the periphery of its two matches, swooping in to cause mayhem in torrents and spurts before leaving as quickly as it arrived.
As Brazil’s reserves clashed with Cameroon, Serbia and Switzerland tussled for the group’s final qualification spot. That match included a paroxysm of goals — five in 30 minutes — and then a barren stretch that taunted both teams, one more than another.
When it was over, Switzerland had won, 3-2, and advanced to the knockout stage, where it will face the Group H winner Portugal on Tuesday. The Swiss overcame a first-half deficit behind Breel Embolo’s equalizer just before halftime and then a decisive strike in the 48th minute by Remo Freuler.
As Serbia rued its missed opportunity — its next appearance in the Round of 16 as an independent nation will be its first — the Swiss celebrated a third consecutive trip to the knockout round. They have become a regular presence there, though not quite as much as Brazil, which tends to forward its mail there every four years.
Its match against Cameroon bordered on anticlimax. Already qualified, Brazil was going to top Group G barring a zany turn of events, which wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. So its manager, Tite, rested nine starters — from Richarlison to Thiago Silva, Casemiro to Vinicius Junior — and played only two regulars, Fred and Eder Militao. It was not a punitive measure; Tite recognized that, with a swift turnaround before Brazil’s next match, he wanted a full complement, or close to it, available against South Korea on Monday.
Brazil earned the majority of chances, and it dominated possession, but it also lacked a certain precision in the attacking third. It tried to score, and it failed, turned away by the dazzling Cameroon goalkeeper Devis Epassy, who was everywhere he needed to be and nowhere he wasn’t.
To qualify, the Indomitable Lions needed more help than could reasonably have been expected, and still, that help nearly arrived: Vincent Aboubakar guided in the decisive goal deep into second-half stoppage time, putting Cameroon ahead, by 1-0, for the only, and final, time. But it needed another goal, which Aboubakar apparently did not realize. He ripped off his shirt in celebration, earning an automatic yellow card — his second — and was sent off.
In snapping Brazil’s 17-game unbeaten streak in World Cup group-stage play, the Indomitable Lions became the first team to register a shot on target against it at this World Cup, and also the first to score. They also, and file this away for a pub quiz, became the first African team to beat Brazil at a World Cup.