How Brazil's World Cup loss can change the country

July 10, 2014 

Brazil Soccer WCup Germany

A Brazilian soccer fan cried Tuesday as Germany defeated her team 7-1 in a semi-final World Cup match.

BRUNO MAGALHAES — AP

By Ishaan Tharoor

The Washington Post

It was the most shocking defeat in the history of the World Cup. Brazil's 7-1 semifinal annihilation in Belo Horizonte at the hands of a faultless German side brought the host nation's tournament to a shuddering, horrifying end. After billions of dollars spent on stadiums, after years of preparation, after so much expectation for soccer's most famed national team, no one could have conceived that it would suffer its worst ever World Cup loss. But it did.

The reaction in Brazil has been a mix of anger and despair. The front page of a leading daily on Wednesday, bluntly read, "Shame, Grief, Humiliation." Another headline read "Historic disgrace." The impact of such a monumental blow will likely echo for years to come. Here's how:

■ It buried the Maracanazo. The Brazilian story ahead of the World Cup focused entirely on the trauma of 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the tournament. A surprise 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro in what was basically the final (the tournament followed a different structure then) led to a moment of national reckoning: The team that lost was vilified and shamed.

Brazil was so haunted by that upset that the team did away with its customary white shirt in favor of its now iconic yellow one. Despite winning more World Cup titles than any other nation, the entire build-up to this tournament seemed to be about Brazil burying the ghost of 1950 — the Maracanazo, named after Rio's main stadium. And now the Maracanazo has been replaced by the far more ghoulish Mineiratzen.

■ It could topple Brazil's president. Elections are scheduled for later this year, and President Dilma Rousseff, while still ahead in the polls, may have real cause to lament the loss. The Brazilian government hoped victory in the tournament could boost popular goodwill for the government and quiet the chorus of protesters, angry at wasteful spending and the country's inability to provide much-needed improvements on infrastructure, health care and education. Now, after the horror and shock of the defeat recedes in Brazil, one wonders if it will refocus attention on what ails Brazilian society.

Rouseff's opponents, including some prominent economists, suggest her defeat may be a boon to the country's economy. There have been reports throughout the tournament of anti-Rousseff chants flooding the stadiums, but it's worth noting that most Brazilians who could afford tickets to the matches represent a demographic that is largely opposed to Rousseff's welfare populism.

■ It could change Brazilian soccer. Ultimately, the defeat will have its greatest impact on the sport in Brazil, where, like a religion, it fuels nationalism, provides a badge of identity and is a vessel for popular aspirations. The team's stars, like the waifish (and injured) Neymar, are megarich icons, backed by corporate sponsorship deals. Yet they caved under pressure; Germany's intense, ruthless pressing and passing simply ripped the Brazilian dream apart.

But that Brazilian dream did not really represent the magical "jogo bonito" that made the nation famous on the global stage in the 1960s and 1970s — and it has not done so for decades. Its style and flair had captured the world's imagination. The same just cannot be said of the current team, which under its conservative coach Luis Felipe Scolari, was numbingly pragmatic, perhaps even cynical, in its approach. Ever since losing in 1982, Brazil shifted its ethos to match the physicality and toughness of European opponents, stocking its teams with sturdy, unimaginative defensive midfielders.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, suggest some commentators, and this defeat will present another inflection point like 1982. Many Brazilians will hope that's the case.

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