After the Catastrophe

Brazil confronts its crushing World Cup loss
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Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

“Ah,” the old man said to me. “É um problema enraizado na história” (It’s a problem rooted in history). We were wedged together face to face on an overloaded bus inching its way, after a torrential downpour, through the flooded streets of Recife, the capital of the northeastern state of Pernambuco. On our way to watch the Americans play the Germans in the 2014 World Cup, he’d asked me about my travels around the country, and I’d told him about visits to several mass occupations of land by opponents of the government, like the Copa do Povo on the outskirts of São Paulo. In downtown Recife, protesters had reclaimed public land reserved for a development on the day the competition began. These occupations were a form of protest that had largely replaced anti-government demonstrations in the run-up to the tournament, as part of a strategic decision by organizers not to alienate soccer fans.

But the man was far more interested in the unexpected surge of competitive national fever I confessed had washed over me on the flight from São Paulo to Recife. If the Americans were going to lose, I hoped it would be to anybody but the Germans. He laughed, and diagnosed the feeling as a fever rooted in two world wars. “História,” he repeated. As our bus huffed on toward the city’s beautiful new stadium, I asked whether, given the circumstances, he really expected his country’s young, inexperienced team to win the competition for the much-vaunted hexa—the sixth Brazilian victory in the history of FIFA’s global games. “Está garantido” (It’s certain), he said, echoing so many other Brazilians I’d interviewed. Then, he paused, thumbing his thick mustache. “Duvido” (I doubt it).

Caught in the interstices of that pause were parallel universes that Brazilians seemed to inhabit simultaneously—of high hopes and emphatic certainty alongside hard-headed evaluation and grumpy complaints. Here was a double-sidedness I’d noticed over beers, and meals, and during conversations on the beach. Strains of magical thinking collided with clear memories of earlier defeats, like the stunning elimination by the Italians of an extraordinarily talented Brazilian team in the 1982 World Cup, and Brazil’s embarrassing loss to the Netherlands during the quarter-finals in South Africa four years ago.

One defeat cast a longer shadow than the others, though. “Maracanaço,” the man murmured, flushing and looking away. This earlier debacle, in the 1950 World Cup, occurred in the year of his birth, but he could call up every significant detail about the contest. Uruguay had beaten Brazil 2-1 in the final game of the Copa. It was the first, and only other time, that Brazil hosted the games.

Then, the loss had been treated as a national catastrophe akin to defeat in war. The writer Nelson Rodrigues even claimed that it was a kind of psychological cataclysm, creating an inferiority complex, one infused with racial stigma, in the population. Since Uruguay had fielded a largely white team, he noted, while Brazil had been represented by seven Afro-Brazilians, including the goalkeeper, the loss provoked a color-coded experience of shame. He called it “complexo de vira-latathe mongrel complex.

As it happened, I’d been reading this history in a chapter of the riveting new book by the Swedish writer Henrik Brandão Jönsson, Jogo Bonito: Pelé, Neymar, and Brazil’s Beautiful Game, the night before Brazil’s latest humiliation. So, when the Brazilian team shrunk before the Germans on Tuesday, allowing five goals in the first 30 minutes, and drifting apparently aimlessly around the field in neither defense nor attack mode, hanging their heads and openly weeping even before the end of their 7-1 drubbing, the worst in World Cup semi-final history, it made perfect sense to hear Brazilian commentators on television instantly dub it Mineiraço, the disaster in the Estádio Mineirão, in Belo Horizonte.

Fiery denunciations of the Brazilian team’s coach and national soccer officials followed. Mineiraço thus accomplished one thing that hadn’t been achieved in the past 64 years—it replaced the Maracanaço with a new chapter in the country’s chronicle of vergonha, or shame. One commentator argued that the earlier loss was exceedingly small potatoes, by comparison. The Mineiraço is a “national humiliation that will never be forgotten,” he wrote.

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Douglas Foster is associate professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa.

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