For the first time since the opening match against Croatia in São Paulo, the crowd began to chant against the president, Dilma Rousseff. “Hey! Dilma! Vai tomar no cu!”
Then Fred, the center-forward who once played for this stadium’s home team, Cruzeiro, took a shot from 20 yards that rolled weakly toward the German goal.
The fans behind the goal exploded. The Dilma chant was quickly retooled. “Hey! Fred! Vai tomar no cu!”
From that point Fred was the target of ceaseless, savage abuse. Even after he had been substituted in the aftermath of the team’s 6–0 deficit, the crowd jeered his face appearing on the big screen.
After the 6–0, the Brazilian fans began to cheer the German passes: Ole! Ole! The tone had an unmistakable edge of malice. This had nothing to do with any sportsmanlike desire to acclaim great German play. This was about shaming the losers in the yellow shirts.
The 7–0 was celebrated by large sections of the home fans, for the same reason.
At full-time the Brazilian players gathered in the center circle, the point on the pitch furthest away from the crowd. The players seemed to confer, then turned to the fans behind one of the goals and raised their hands in tentative applause.
The supporters erupted in furious derision, hurling the players’ olive branch back in their faces with pitiless rage. There would be no mercy, no forgiveness. The message was simple: GET OUT OF OUR SIGHT.
* * *
If Löw really wanted to empathize with Brazil he should have chosen a different moment in Germany’s football history.
It didn’t involve humiliation in a home World Cup semifinal. It was the more prosaic failure of Euro 2000, when Germany lost two out of three matches and finished bottom of its group, that changed the future of German football.
Maybe two defeats in three doesn’t sound that bad, but for Germany it was truly shameful. Euro 2000 was perhaps the best ever edition of the European Championships and Germany, the dominant country in the continent’s football, had sent the worst team.
Rather than write it off under the heading of “these things happen,” the Germans decided to act. Clubs in the first and second division were told they had to set up standardized youth academies as part of a broad reorganization of the national football structure. The idea was to make sure that the next generation of German players would be better than the last.
Year by year, the new generations of German footballers were equipped with the technical and cognitive tools that we saw dismantling Brazil at the Mineirão. The coordinated movement that looked like some uncanny telepathy is really just coaching. Over the last five tournaments Germany have reached a semifinal, a final, a semifinal, a semifinal, and now another final, after what might be the World Cup’s greatest ever victory. Germany’s plan is working.
Of course, Germany is the spiritual home of planning in a way that Brazil will never be. But something in Brazil has to change, or the future of the national team—still the proudest institution in a country that doesn’t take pride in many of its institutions—looks bleak.
Historically, Brazil has produced outstanding footballers with the same seeming effortlessness with which it produces mangoes. The Brazilian football industry has been shaped by this plenty to resemble the country’s other exploitative, extractive industries. Footballers are another commodity to be exported. It’s a strictly materialistic system, in which the only guiding principle is success.
This has been how Brazilian football has worked over the decades as it has gradually ceded its vibrant former identity. It didn’t matter that Brazilian football gradually ceased to be loved around the world. Nobody cared that the beautiful game had been overtaken by a hollow cult of victory. The enduring success of the national team covered the flaws. At any given time, Brazil could count on several of the best players in the world, and that was usually enough.
It’s not enough anymore. Brazil’s players are no longer technically any better than the best Europeans. Now the top European countries, led by Spain and followed by Germany, have introduced the super-organization of top-level club football into the international game. In a future where big international teams move with the same complex sophistication as the best club sides, ad hoc collections of talent like the Brazilian national team will struggle to compete.
In hindsight we can see that Brazil knew what they wanted from this World Cup but neglected to figure out how they were going to get it.
Four years ago, they appointed Mano Menezes with a brief to build a team for the World Cup. They lost confidence in Menezes halfway through that process and turned back to Scolari, yesterday’s man.
Rather than make a real plan, they abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion, desire, and native cunning. They hoped that if they screwed their eyes shut and wanted it enough they would prevail. Through a collective effort of will they almost managed to transform forlorn hope into real belief.
On Tuesday night, the land of magical thinking received a bracing communiqué from the reality-based community in the form of seven German goals. A fevered dream isn’t enough. You need a vision.
Brazil should forgive its players. The decay of the national team is not their fault. They were just the men given the impossible job of defending a reputation it wasn’t in their power to defend. The German crowd’s generosity to its team in 2006 inspired those players to return with renewed zeal for the cause.
Scolari was right when he said after the match that some of these players can still carry the colors of Brazilian football into the next World Cup.
But first Brazil needs to rediscover what those colors are supposed to stand for.
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