It has taken me almost a week away from caring about the World Cup anymore to write this article. It took me almost that long before I could possibly read all of the outpouring of journalism berating or making fun of the Brazilian soccer team, that long even to read Englishman Henry Winter’s beautiful Telegraph letter to Neymar, with which I share many sentiments. Now–as most journalists turns away from soccer to Brazilian politics–is the perfect time to reflect on Brazilian soccer and what it means to this country. In the same way that Lebron James’ return to Cleveland and his letter that accompanied the news should move any lover of sports and its relation to real people, real fans, and real culture and society, the way Brazil lost to Germany was incredibly powerful and moving–only horrible rather than wonderful, depressing rather than uplifting.
It’s hard to describe why I believe this but I really do: While no one, including of course the German team, should feel bad at all for what happened, everyone, including the German team, should understand that it was a terrible day for soccer, for sport, and for Brazil. Again, the Germans just executed brilliantly and took advantage of whatever was going on with the Brazilians. They did the right thing. But the game was still awful,–somehow in an objective way. No one in particular is to blame, but the events of that Tuesday were so terrible that I couldn’t watch.
For me, it was like watching someone get tortured, and it’s not a movie. It’s real life. And they’re over there in another country getting tortured while I’m sitting comfortably at work watching it on my computer screen. It felt wrong. It was crushing in a way that people can probably understand even if they’ve never really cared about Brazilian soccer, even if they’ve never really cared about soccer at all. That being said, I am here to espouse another belief of mine, that this is not doomsday for Brazilian soccer, that, as Henry Dent assures us in The Dark Night: “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”
What’s happened to the Brazilian team in the World Cup is no doubt a catastrophe, even a tragedy in Brazil, and it is absolutely inexplicable in rational terms. The whole energy around the tournament, not just in the home nation, but around the world was completely deflated by the German…for lack of a more accurate word that doesn’t feel inappropriate…victory. All of the neutral fans seemed to care a little less once Brazil was out, and blown out at that. The crowds at stadiums around Brazil were less loud, which made the experience of watching the matches from thousands of miles away much more casual. The period of the highest intensity at this World Cup ran from the beginning of overtime in the Brazil-Chile match to the end of regulation in Brazil’s quarterfinal defeat of Colombia. After that, with Neymar’s injury, and then the semifinal, the air was completely sucked out of not only Brazil’s but the World Cup’s balloon. Poof, gone.
A detailed “investigation” into what actually happened in the build-up to, during, and after the Germany match inside the Brazilian team, the German team, and within the hearts and minds of the Brazilian people watching would be a fascinating sports case study and possibly an intriguing documentary. If anyone reading this has the ability and desire to fund such a project please get in contact. I would love nothing more than a free trip to Brazil to make a movie and comfort all of those beautiful people crying on international TV. I just want to console them.
But seriously, 7-1, 3-0 sounds like a poor two-day stretch for a normal baseball team or perhaps two sets of tennis scored by youngsters who understandably don’t understand tennis’ scoring rules. It is very bad for a soccer team—the decent teams never lose by such margins. And it is unthinkable for the Brazilian team in any World Cup much less the only one in the last 60 years that they have hosted within their soccer-loving nation, making the score line pure fiction in real life. For those who saw the match less like torture and more like a good or simply bizarre acid trip, it was like turning on ESPN—the real one, not Pepper Brooks’ EPSN 8: The Ocho—and watching a legitimate match of Quidditch: Germany happened to catch the Golden Snitch and win by a lot of points. It was that weird.
So for all of its make believe, fictional, mind-blowing qualities, the Germany match was obviously an absolute disaster for Brazilian soccer. BUT the tragedy only extends as far as this World Cup and the recovery period, which may take a year or two but will certainly not last to the next World Cup and maybe not even to the Copa América next year. The tragedy of the current moment cannot be understated, but it really is of the current moment and not of the future.
I understand the animated apocalyptic rhetoric and sentiments shared by many Brazilian supporters and journalists, such as ESPN analyst Fernando Duarte. This match was unlike any other. Not since the early 20th Century were international matches of this magnitude decided by over five goals, or even over three. And it meant so much more to the players and fans, their psyche and identity as a footballing people, because it was played at home in front of a crowd eagerly anticipating a glorious conclusion, riding off into the Rio sunset at the regal and historically significant Maracanã Stadium.
The home team, in their iconic golden jerseys, not only lost, not only lost by a wide margin, but lost disgracefully, without any grace at all, with only capital S Shame, and they didn’t even seem to really try or care. Of course, they showed their emotion at the end of the matches, and they clearly cared a lot, but they didn’t show it in the way they played. They didn’t play with pride or a nose for overcoming adversity or the all-important will to change a game going badly—all of the traits that a great team shows on a difficult title run. Germany showed them against Ghana and Argentina in the final and Argentina’s grit was on display in many of their matches, equally against the likes of Iran and the Netherlands.
The play of David Luiz epitomizes Brazil’s complete lack of mental fortitude at this World Cup, with his consistent mistakes against both Germany and the Netherlands leading to easy, automatic goals such as when Dutch winger Daley Blind gobbled up his first ever World Cup goal off of Luiz’s errant header, served on a golden platter right up the middle of the penalty box. Luiz hasn’t made mistakes like that for Chelsea or Brazil in the past, and his play as well as that of his teammates has more to do with circumstance, the inability to deal with heightened emotions, and possibly a lack of preparation or focus attributable to head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari than with Luiz’s quality as a player.
So yeah, those experts crying out that this is the end of the world for Brazil and that all A Seleção enthusiasts should bid farewell to their loved ones before we descend into an underworld in which Brazil are not a football powerhouse are not exactly crazy. They make sense. But I respectfully disagree with that view. I see a team primed for championships on foreign soil, not quite ready this year to win it at home. It is truly an unfortunate circumstance, a devastating reality, that Brazil was not ready this year, that the loss of one magical player turned the team into a group of losers on the soccer pitch. That is what they were in their final two games, simply losers.
But that is not the identity of any of the Brazilian players from Luiz to Ramires to Fernandinho to Julio César, and it is not the identity of Brazilian soccer or the Brazilian people. The descent of Brazilian soccer to obscurity or even mediocrity seems reasonable this week after two shambolic excuses for soccer matches, but it is also completely unimaginable for these reasons (among others):
Brazil’s problems only arose in the matches against Germany and the Netherlands
Sure, they only tied Mexico 0-0 and needed PK’s to beat a surging Chile side, but this team looked better than any team they played until Germany. This is important, because against Germany, the team was missing its two most important players: Neymar and Thiago Silva. Imagine World Cup finalist Argentina playing without its two most important players, Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano. That team doesn’t get out of the group stages. They could easily lose a game by multiple goals and lose their cool enough to get walloped like Brazil.
Against the Netherlands Silva came back but for what purpose? Third place? No one in Brazil, no one on the team would have truly celebrated a victory for third place in their World Cup. Third place means nothing when you care that much, the tournament’s taking place at home, and your hated rival Argentina might win the tournament the next day. Thankfully for the Brazilian people, Argentina lost to Germany in the final.
Obviously, well disciplined, more machine-like teams such as those from Europe seem to keep playing no matter the circumstances, and we can respect them for that, but I personally can’t fault the Brazilians for not being able to put up a strong performance against the Dutch. Third place matches are stupid. Maybe that’s just an American perspective, but here in this country we all know that you’re either first or last. Playing in a third-place game for the Brazilian team was absolutely humiliating, and all of the players and fans knew it. It is no surprise they lost by a big margin. It would have been more disturbing if Brazil had won the match and celebrated as if it mattered.
When ESPN announcer Ian Darke said, “The Dutch want to win this game, but the Brazilians have to win it,” he must have known that what he was saying wasn’t true. It must have been a filler line some naïve ESPN intern fed him. Sure, it might have been great to see a real Brazilian team show up and score goals, but we knew that wouldn’t happen. Team and country were still reeling. The fact that it was reeling so dramatically is actually positive, showing how much they care, although the reeling itself must be awful to go through. The team had given up seven goals earlier in the week. They couldn’t win the tournament. Neymar still wasn’t playing. And no matter what, they would finish below Argentina. It was too much.
The problems are with current strategy and leadership, not the players
The fact is that Brazil has a lot of good players including one of the best central defenders and one of the best attacking midfielders in the world in Thiago Silva and Neymar. They have weaknesses up front and in the holding midfielder positions, and they lack mental toughness in the face of adversity. They break down structurally on the pitch and emotionally in their heads too easily. That was evident after Neymar went down against Colombia and when the squad was unable to rebound and refocus after Germany struck first in their semifinal bloodbath (there, I did it).
These are fixable problems for A Selecao who need the correct coach going forward. Luiz Felipe Scolari was clearly not the man for the job, as the team was completely unprepared to play without its two best players. Perhaps a tweaked squad needs to be selected for future tournaments, one that is flexible and resourceful. Backup players needs to get more action in pre-tournament and group stage games in anticipation of possible injuries and suspensions. Players’ positions must be adjusted such as moving David Luiz to the midfield. And perhaps most importantly, a leader must emerge for the team in future competitions, someone who isn’t afraid to yell at his teammates: “Wake the f**k up and start playing!”
Neymar is 22
If the star midfielder had played against Germany and the squad’s crucial center back Thiago Silva hadn’t been suspended, the match would have gone differently. Now, I understand the argument that Germany was so strong that they still would have won. But it is clear that the game would have at least been very different, and I can easily believe that Brazil could have escaped with a 1-0, 2-1 or PK victory. The loss of Neymar in a tough-fought physically and emotionally draining battle with Colombia in the quarterfinals took a toll on the Brazilian team that probably meant more than we will ever know (hence, that documentary!).
To bring back a comparison I already used, when Argentinian star Lionel Messi was 23, his team lost in the quarterfinals to Germany 4-0. Neymar’s Brazil lost only without him playing in the Semis to Germany 7-1, which is a hell of a lot worse than 4-0, but both matches were blowouts and to repeat, Neymar wasn’t even playing in Brazil’s loss. Messi was playing when Argentina got walloped. At the next World Cup in Russia in 2018, Neymar will be…hold on…just pulling out my calculator…carry the one…a chipper 26! and so will his PIC in the midfield, Oscar. Twenty-year old defender Marquinhos, who plays with Silva and, starting next year, Luiz at Paris Saint-Germain should bolster the back line as well.
Of course, the unimaginable did happen to Brazilian soccer in Belo Horizonte a week ago, and I’ve only recently been following the team, so what do I know? Judging from the last week of matches, I know about as much as Pepper Brooks when it comes to this team. Their variability and shocking unpredictability make them intriguing to the neutral fan and so emotionally poignant—euphoric and devastating—to their diehard supporters. The intensity of the emotions surrounding this team and this people at their World Cup is something to celebrate, even if the results on the field could not live up, and I predict that the future will be as bright as the golden sea of uniforms flowing around the country for the past month.
by Jake Montgomery