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-lata”—the 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.