Sports Nut

Why Brazil Lost

Rather than make a real plan, they abandoned themselves to romantic notions of passion and desire.

Brazil vs Germany
The German team could sense Brazil was starting to short-circuit.

Photo by Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil—Most people are terrible singers, and yet football crowds are good at picking out a tune. Crowds are often flat on the high notes and tend to rush the tempo, but generally the combination of thousands of wrongs adds up to one big right.

The Brazilian national anthem last night was different. All around the Mineirão people stood and roared it so loud that their eyes bulged. The words resounded with startling clarity but much too loudly for any music to be heard.

Down on the field David Luiz and Júlio César were holding aloft the shirt of Neymar like a holy relic. The camera picked out a woman holding a placard that read, “Don’t worry—Neymar’s soul is here!” It was as though Neymar had died and was looking down at his former teammates from heaven, rather than watching them on television.

The collective emotional frenzy of the scene was awe-inspiring. For a moment every Brazilian, and many neutrals, succumbed to the same seductive illusion. What force could stand against the combined passion of these 11 Brazilian warriors, the soul of Neymar, the heart of Thiago Silva, and 200 million supporters?

On the field, the men in red and black stood and watched and let the noise wash over them. They too had lost an important teammate to injury, but it would never have occurred to them to create a cult of the fallen Marco Reus. They knew that most of the forces arrayed against them were imaginary. To the Germans, this was a simple matter of 11 against 11.

* * *

Germany’s first blow struck Brazil at their strongest point.

Neymar has been the corporate face of Brazil’s campaign but on the field David Luiz has been the true star, a rampaging, inspirational, all-action superhero. Luiz’s big hair makes him the most obvious player on the pitch, so that his feats of athleticism and bravery never go unnoticed.

He is such an easy player for spectators to pick out that although the penalty area was crowded, everybody could see that it was David Luiz who had arrived too late to stop Thomas Müller from volleying Germany into the lead off a corner in the 11th minute.

Having toppled Brazil’s totem, Germany unveiled their most frightening weapon: telepathy.

The second goal arrived on 23 minutes and the way Germany scored it told Brazil that the game was up.

Fernandinho is a midfield monster for Manchester City, a relentless destroyer who routinely dominates Premier League opponents with his power and tenacity. Twice Fernandinho tried to tackle Toni Kroos, only to bounce off the German midfielder like a bee off a windowpane. Kroos serenely played a gentle pass through the Brazilian line into the path of Müller, who was streaking in from the right. Brazil’s defense reacted to the run of Müller, but not to that of Miroslav Klose in the opposite direction. Müller’s lay-off to Klose wrong-footed the stumbling defenders, affording Klose enough time for not one, but two unopposed shots at the Brazilian goal. As the second shot rolled past the helpless Júlio César, Klose became the top scorer in World Cup history.

At 2–0 Brazil knew they were probably going to lose, but the really scary thing about that goal was the multidimensional coordination of Germany’s movement. The understanding between Kroos, Müller, and Klose had been as smooth and apparently effortless as though they were executing a pre-planned move on a set piece. How could Brazil compete with the sophistication of this team, who attacked from several directions at once, who somehow seemed to know what was going to happen a second and a half before Brazil did?

Brazil’s system was already beginning to short-circuit. Two minutes later, Philipp Lahm aimed a cross toward Müller, and the ball broke to Kroos, who smashed a glorious left-footer past César without breaking stride. The Bayern player celebrated quietly, looking almost embarrassed.

Germany’s next two goals proceeded with the inevitability of a checkmate foreseen several moves in advance. First Kroos pounced on Fernandinho and bulldozed him out of the way, played a one-two with Sami Khedira that smoothly outmaneuvered the wreckage of Brazil’s defense, and scored again.

In the next passage of play David Luiz threw himself forward with desperation, but Mats Hummels beat him to the ball. Hummels’ pass found Khedira, who coolly turned Dante before swapping passes with Mesut Özil and burying the fifth. Germany was like a 10-year-old playing PlayStation against his grandfather.

Barring the few thousand overjoyed Germans there was an atmosphere of stunned, disbelieving horror in that stadium that has possibly never before been experienced in sport. It was as though Germany had gathered 60,000 4-year-olds together and briskly announced that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.

There is no mercy rule in football but at that moment you dearly hoped that Germany would throttle back. The emotional deceleration was too brutal for the host country to handle. It was as though the seven years since Brazil won the right to host the World Cup had been an elaborate joke leading up to this six-minute punchline.

At half time the German players congratulated each other as though the match was already over, which, of course, it was.

* * *

By that point, everyone present already knew that they were watching the most incredible result in the history of the World Cup. How can you explain such a collapse?

Brazil vs Germany
After the seventh goal.

Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images

The only major match of recent years that could compare in any fashion was the 2005 Champions League final, when Liverpool scored three goals in six minutes to recover from 3–0 down against Milan, then won the game on penalties.

The coach of Milan that night, Carlo Ancelotti, wrote in his autobiography that people often ask him what was going through his mind during those minutes.

“The answer is simple: nothing. Zero. My brain was a perfect vacuum, the vacuum of deep space.” It was only during extra time that “my brain began functioning again, and I managed to put together a complete and coherent thought: ‘This is starting to look bad.’ ”

After Tuesday’s match, a Brazilian journalist asked Brazil’s coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, why he had not made tactical changes during that crazy six-minute spell when Germany ran in four goals. Scolari cut him off mid-sentence.

“Let me explain something to you, then you can continue your question. When were the goals scored? 23, 24, 25, 26, 28 minutes? In such a space of time, nobody is going to change anything. It was one after the other. I think everyone blanked out. We were trying to talk to them, to get organized, to stop the goals going in, but it was a spell of pressure when everything worked out for Germany. There was nothing we could do to change it at that point.”

But there were things they could have done to change it. The most obvious solution would have been for one of their players to throw himself to the ground and feign injury for as long as it took for his teammates to get their breath back.

That even an idea this obvious did not occur to Brazil tells you that all their fuses were blown.

It’s tempting to link those blown fuses with the spike of emotional electricity with which Brazil had started the match. Outmatched by coolly masterful opponents, suddenly aware of the appalling abyss that separated the expectations of their people and their own ability to deliver, Brazil gave in to blind panic.

Later, the Germans confirmed that they had sensed the initial Brazilian frenzy masked deep underlying doubts.

“From minute one we had the impression something big was possible,” Kroos said. “We realized that the Brazilians were a bit upset, they were not so clear in their actions. We took advantage of the possibilities and scored one goal after another.”

“It was important to counter their passion and emotions with calmness, patience, and persistence, also with courage and belief in our own strength,” German manager Joachim Löw said. “You realized after the 2–0 that they were confused, that they never recovered their original organization. We were extremely cool and took our chances. We realized they were cracking up and took advantage of it.”

It was emotional judo. Germany reflected the energy of Brazil’s crowd back against their players. They took the lead, then watched the Brazilians melt down in the white heat of their own disgrace.

* * *

Afterward, Löw tried to empathize.

“I remember when we lost against Italy,” he said, referring to the 2006 World Cup semifinal, when host nation Germany went down to two late goals from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro del Piero. “A World Cup in your own country, everyone wants you to go to the final. In the 119th minute we lost the match. We know how Scolari feels, we know how the Brazilian team feels, and we know how the people in Brazil feel now.”

Do they really?

Consider Philipp Lahm’s description of that Italy defeat.

“There is nothing worse than having to remain on the field after losing such an important game,” Lahm wrote in his autobiography. “There is such sadness, such inner coldness, at the consciousness that you will very seldom get an opportunity like this in your life, and now you’ve messed it up. A few moments earlier you were part of a team, you were a piece in a bigger puzzle, but now you’re all alone, and all you want is to go into your shell, to get into the dressing room and stare at the floor until the pain subsides. … In that dressing room, there was deathly silence.”

The Germans had to go to Stuttgart for a match none of them wanted to play, the third-place playoff against Portugal. When they landed at the airport it was pouring rain. The bus that picked them up got stuck in a traffic jam. The players were irritated. What’s the holdup?

The main train station is closed, the bus driver said.

“For fuck’s sake,” the players grumbled. “What’s going on?”

Lahm writes:

“There are 10,000 people at the train station. They’re waiting for you.”

The bus inched through the crowd like Moses through the Red Sea. Thousands of faces smiling, laughing, all because we have come here to Stuttgart to play a completely pointless third-place match, and suddenly I feel a shiver down my spine and I have goose pimples.

Madness. Ten thousand in the rain. Because they want to celebrate their team. Us.

In the bus, the temperature rises. Can this be true, what we’re seeing here?

“Madness,” said one.

“Madness,” said everybody.

As we get to the hotel and dump our bags in the lobby, we hear the “Deutschland, Deutschland” choir. When we sit down to dinner an hour later, I hear from outside such a roar, it’s like we’ve just equalized against the Italians. But it’s just Lukas Podolski, who has gone to stand before the big panoramic window of the dining hall to assure himself that not a single person had left the place.

“They’re still there!” said Poldi.

The crowd was screaming because they had seen Poldi.

Ten thousand people were still there. Ten thousand people standing in the pouring rain to thank us for playing an amazing World Cup, for giving them joy and hope. None of these 10,000 is thinking about the defeat against Italy. If we had beaten the Italians the mood could not have been the slightest bit more joyful, more euphoric, more friendly.

You wonder how the aftermath of what is already being called the Mineirazo—an echo of the Seleção’s 1950 disaster in the World Cup final against Uruguay—will play out in the Brazilian players’ cash-in autobiographies.

At 5–0 on the 30-minute mark, it briefly looked like we would soon be watching the first World Cup semifinal to be played in an almost empty stadium. Hundreds of Brazilian fans could be seen making their way up the corridors to the exits.

But the initial rush subsided. Most of the Brazil fans would remain until the end. They had a few things they wanted to get off their chests.

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.

Read all of Slate’s World Cup 2014 coverage.