Following the trauma of last week’s humiliation by Germany, it could be assumed that Neymar and Thiago Silva, the high profile names who missed Brazil’s “most shameful defeat”, had in fact been lucky passengers who had missed the flight on a doomed jet. Of course, football is ultimately just a game, but the shock in Brazil is symptomatic of something that represents a very real national tragedy.
They have been here before of course. In that final match of the 1950 World Cup Brazil took on Uruguay needing just a draw to be world champions (the competition then was decided on the outcome of a four team final group stage). They had proclaimed themselves champions before the match started, went 1-0 up, and were wallowing in their own self-congratulatory state when Uruguay had the temerity to equalise. Tense, Alcides Ghigghia then struck a shot which went past the Brazilian goalkeeper Barbosa’s near post to win the tournament for the Albiceleste.
That was the Maracanazo. Brazil had been waiting 64 years to finally end the hurt of that memory, banishing those ghosts by lifting the trophy in the same revamped stadium in front of an adoring public. Instead, they got the sequel – the Mineirazo.
It was always tempting to think before the semi-final with eventual World Cup winners Germany that there were two likely ways the game would pan out. Either Germany’s superiority on paper would see them cruise to a comfortable win by a couple of goals, or the sheer emotion and passion of Brazil’s play would find a way to confound another superior opponent. Simply no one seriously imagined it could be 4-0, or 5-0, or 6-0, or 7-0. Or 7-1 as it was.
The first goal pricked Brazil’s protective emotional bubble which had carried them through the tournament. When Miroslav Klose wrote his name into the record books with the second, what was remaining of Brazil’s self-confidence was shattered. Incredibly, four minutes later, it was 5-0. Of course games like this happen every season. Arsenal fans last year were used to it. Manchester United were crushed by Manchester City at home 6-1 a few years back. Feyenoord lost 10-0 to PSV Eindhoven not that long ago. Barcelona were crushed 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals in 2013. But never has there been such a heavy humiliation on such a stage and in particular, involving a country such as Brazil. This, the greatest team in football history, of the great Garrincha, Zico, Socrates, Pele and countless others, were subjected to the greatest ever defeat in a World Cup semi-final, their greatest margin of defeat ever. At home, in their own World Cup.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side were ripped apart by a German side who realised with every passing goal their superiority. Ultimately they paid the price for beating two arguably superior teams in previous rounds in Chile and Colombia. Thrust into the semi-final against what is now the best team in international football, they proved hopelessly out of their depth. Brazil were living proof that running around a lot with intense passion means nothing if lacking tactical awareness, intelligence and skill. They were a collection of individuals. Against a team with five superbly balanced creative central midfielders, Brazil had deployed precisely no one in particular. Time after time the space they left open was exploited, Marcelo going missing in action, David Luiz running around like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights, Fernandinho wondering where the nearest German was and why he couldn’t kick them as much as he did James Rodriguez in the previous round.”
The result had been long coming for Brazil. Approximately 40 years to be precise. Just four years after wowing the world with their stunning win in the 1970 competition, they were beaten by an energetic Dutch side in the World Cup in Germany. That result convinced many that they needed to match the physicality of the Europeans, in order to allow their superior technique and skill to prove decisive. In 1982 they again produced a wonderful side which went to the World Cup in Spain, but they came up short and that was that. If winning meant abandoning their traditional style, that was what they would do.
Ever since Brazil have not been the true heirs to the likes of Garrincha and Pele. They were functional in winning the World Cup in 1994 and their 2002 triumph was due to the outstanding individual brilliance of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo, who took advantage of European teams exhausted after a tiring season in what was a World Cup played earlier than usual due to the rainy season in Japan and South Korea.
For over 20 years now, Brazil have been a functional side, relying on individual brilliance and set pieces to win through. Comforted by the five stars on their shirt and the fact that most teams no one has ever heard of will do anything to sign a Brazilian simply because of his nationality, they have been pulled into a deep cycle of complacency. This World Cup showed up so many of their problems. Over-emotional, and almost convinced that they had a right to win the World Cup because it was at home, Scolari sent his sides out to break up play with tactical niggly fouls, to take advantage of set pieces where possible and hope that the individual skill of Neymar would somehow get them through. Brazil had betrayed those who went before them.
The symptoms of the decay run far deeper too. In Brazil’s domestic football calendar there is simply no break. The main season runs from the end of May to December along with the Copa Sudamericana. By January they are playing again in the state championships, the Copa Libertadores and the domestic cup competition. When there are major competitions, the Copa America or World Cup, the domestic calendar gets shunted around and squeezed. It is hardly conducive to producing good football.
These problems stem from the incompetence of the Brazilian Football Confederation, run for 23 years until 2012 by the inept Ricardo Teixeira, the former son-in-law of FIFA’s ex-president Joao Havelange, who resigned amid a string of corruption allegations. Havelange was the man who brought great wealth to FIFA, but also allegations of corruption and bribes from their old marketing partner ISL whilst in office. He also brought Sepp Blatter. With Teixeira focused on maintaining his position of power over the years, he has bowed to those who give him that power, Brazil’s states. As such, the states demand the maintenance of the prominence of their state championships. And so Brazil’s cluttered calendar goes on.
This organisational dysfunction, combined with the view that players must be six foot or taller to compete, and that central midfielders’ primary function is to destroy rather than create, has created the conditions for what was seen at the World Cup. For years now Brazil has believed that two strong central defenders covered by two strong central midfielders is enough when boasting talented full-backs supporting a world-class front four. That is fine when players are of the quality of Roberto Carlos, Cafu, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo. But when they are Marcelo, Fred, Hulk, Maicon and Oscar, it simply isn’t enough.
The toxic pressure they were under in a country which is more obsessed with winning at all costs than many realised before this tournament was another factor contributing to their failure. Those who watched Brazil lose the final of the Olympics in London to Mexico would not have been surprised that they crumbled in front of their own fans. Having never won the Olympics, they were desperate to finally win the competition and thought it was going to happen as they romped to the final, only to be beaten at the last hurdle as the pressure proved too much.
Beyond that suffocating pressure, the fact that Brazilian society and politics in general is so interlinked with the fortunes of the football team (few countries have as many politicians who owe their positions to roles at football clubs), meant that all the conditions were in place for a humiliation of the sort that was seen against Germany, topped off by the third-place playoff defeat to the Netherlands. But whilst no one could possibly have foreseen the punishment Germany inflicted on the Selecao, Brazil can’t say it hasn’t had it coming. And perhaps the biggest loss of all is not the semi-final itself, but the image, adoration and respect that their teams of the past have worked so hard to create.