After the Catastrophe

Brazil confronts its crushing World Cup loss

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.

Undoubtedly, memory of the tournament will sting for years. But I suspect, given what I heard from Brazilians during the last few weeks, that the double vision they regularly employ will buffer the social and political effects of the resounding loss. After all, nationalistic soccer fans I’d met inside the stadiums described their mixed feelings about the Copa in remarkably similar terms to the most ardent opponents of FIFA and the current government. “It’s not like we’re brainless people of samba and soccer, dancing around and shouting ‘Goool’ all the time, in spite of the country’s problems,” a security guard in Salvador told me. He didn’t think much of the protesters, but he loathed the current government, too. Many others expressed high hopes for victory that were interspersed, sometimes in the same sentence, with far more realistic predictions about the prospects of a poorly prepared and quite green team.

There’s also the onward march of history, the one my friend in Recife had suggested I take into account. The contexts for these two World Cup meltdowns, which bracket the country’s recent past, are quite different. Unlike in 1950, Brazil is no longer an aspiring power, or even an emerging power uncertain of its footing on the world stage. It’s already claimed a large role in continental affairs over the last 20 years. As for Nelson Rodrigues's theory about the country's inferiority complex, the racial bigotry so deeply embedded in the national psyche has been more openly confronted and debated in recent years. Regular criticism of a elite branca (the white elite) frequently appears in newspapers. The conditions under which these twin humiliations were endured are distinct, and so the implications are bound to differ, too.

Before the games began, much of the commentary involved anxious outsiders speculating about whether Brazil would pull off the World Cup. Would stadiums be finished on time, and would the spectacle unfold properly? In the end, those fears proved unfounded, as they do every four years. Instead, it was the Copa itself that failed to deliver on its promise of helping build the nation and burnish the host’s reputation.

The wisest counsel on the day of the Mineiraço came from David Luiz, the stand-in captain of the Brazilian team and the only player applauded by disappointed fans as they left the stadium. “I'm sorry, everyone. I apologize to all Brazilians, all I wanted was to see everyone smiling,” he said. “God knows how much I wanted the whole of Brazil to be happy.” The Germans, he added, “were better, they prepared themselves better, they played a better game.”

Then he suggested a novel remedy for the nation’s spiral into mass depression. “I hope fans, the Brazilian people, use the national team and our closeness, to reach out for other things in life, not just things related to football.” His comment amounted to an invitation for his countrymen to resume a fierce debate that had broken out in massive street protests a year earlier. That debate—about governance and corruption, about environmental degradation, about the quality of housing, healthcare, education, and transportation systems—had been interrupted twice in 2014, first by Carnival in February, and then by the month-long pageantry of the World Cup. These problems are just as certainly rooted in history, too.

This Sunday, during the final World Cup game, Brazilians face an unpleasant choice: either rooting for the Germans, who so ignominiously routed their team on Tuesday, or gritting their teeth and cheering for their most-loathed continental rivals, the Argentines, who managed to play such a beautiful game against the Netherlands on Wednesday. In Brazil, thoughts are also turning toward less poetic considerations than soccer, including concerns about the tenor of Brazilian democracy and the health of the country’s economy. Thoughts are tilting forward, as well, to the $15 billion that it will cost the country’s citizens to welcome fans during the Summer Olympics two years from now.