Vergonha, Vexame, Humilhação.
Shame, disgrace, humiliation.
Those were the words that welcomed the Brazilian people on the front page of O Globo, one of the nation’s prominent newspapers, the morning after their national team — the pride of the entire country — faced the ruination of their World Cup dreams. Hours before, the final whistle had finally blown in the semifinal match, the scoreboard blaring a devastating result: Germany 7, Brazil 1.
It was, as another newspaper put it, “the greatest embarrassment in the history” of Brazilian soccer. Across the country, covers and headlines told a similar story.
Seven goals happens. But seven goals doesn’t happen to Brazil, especially not in Brazil, where the Seleção hadn’t lost a competitive soccer match in some 14,000 days. But on this day, seven goals happened, and they happened in such a flurry — first in the 11th minute, then the 23rd, 24th, 26th, and 29th — that well before the sixth and seventh went in later it was already surreal and disorienting. This was the overwhelming favorite to win the World Cup, playing on its own soil, trudging off the field not just in defeat but in spectacular failure.
You can try to put this in perspective, but you will fail, because it is impossible in our context. This is not failure on the level of the Broncos capitulating to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, or like any other sporting failure American fans can rattle off. This is deeper than that. There is nothing in the sporting world like Brazilian football, no sport that so defines, enthralls, and means so much to a population so vast. And there was nothing to the Brazilians as meaningful as this World Cup, their World Cup, in their backyard, in their 60-year-old dreams.
This was almost mythological, from the foreboding injury to Neymar to the suspension of captain Thiago Silva. The result, by some estimates, is the most mathematically improbable finish in the history of the sport. By Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Bob Ley was describing Brazil as a country in need of a hug, its people walking the streets amid a “national wake.”
The waiting for this World Cup began in 1950, the last time Brazil hosted, after the Seleção inexplicably lost 2-1 to Uruguay in a final so scarring to Brazilians that it still has a name: the Maracanazo. Brazil has won five World Cups since then, but the nightmare at the Maracana, such abject failure in their own backyard, has haunted the nation for six decades. It was so bad that Barbosa, the goalkeeper on that team, once mused that while the maximum sentence for any crime in Brazil is 30 years, he served five decades in his own personal prison of shame. Brazil won its chance to finally win a Cup on its home soil in 2007, when FIFA announced that it would return the tournament to South America this year. The chance to vanquish the memories of the Maracanazo added to the excitement.
So Brazil went to work, not just building its national team for this exact moment but building its World Cup to showcase that team and this sport in spectacular fashion too. The World Cup could show the world that Brazil, at the time one of the globe’s fastest-growing economies, had arrived, and nothing could showcase that idea better than the yellow-clad Seleção, which had arrived as a preeminent force decades ago, dominating their opponents on the pitch not in Europe or Africa or another far-flung place but right there at home.
The confidence was palpable. Brazil were overwhelming favorites to win the tournament. Not a single data-produced prediction saw anyone else near them. The last time we had seen Brazil in an international competition — the 2013 Confederations Cup — they so thoroughly dominated the defending World Cup champion Spain that it seemed they, not anyone else, could hang seven goals on whomever they so pleased. This was their game, their World Cup, and they were about to blow the world’s doors off.
The confidence stretched to the government, where amid outcry over the exorbitant cost of the event and many of its other effects — families relocated, favelas raided, protesters pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed — President Dilma Rousseff and her top ministers insisted that once the World Cup began the protests would stop. It would consume us all and Brazilians too, reminding them that this — the Cup to end all Cups — was the reason for all of the strife. Somehow, Dilma and others insisted, it would be worth it.
For awhile it looked like it might be. It started inauspiciously enough, with the opening match boos for Rousseff and the early-minutes own goal off the foot of Marcelo, but Brazil recovered to win and this World Cup found its legs too, turning itself into one of the most thrilling tournaments ever held. The soccer was beautiful, there was an abundance of goals and shocking results. Even if the protests continued every now and then and the Seleção never looked its best, it didn’t matter. Copacabana Beach was full, the national team was alive, and so too was the hope that they would put it together in time to win it all.
Then Germany happened. For Brazil and the world this will remain the defining moment of the World Cup, the match that everyone will remember and talk about for years to come. The players will return to their clubs and earn millions, they might even win a World Cup four years from now. They will not languish as Barbosa did before them. The third-place match might even hold some significance, especially if it is against hated rivals Argentina. But this team may never fully outlive what happened Tuesday in Belo Horizonte.
Perhaps it is not another Maracanazo — multiple reports have said that the severity of the defeat left Brazilians almost too shell-shocked to be totally distraught (the difference between 1950 and now, one fan told an ESPN reporter, is that “this team sucks“) — but it seems hard to believe that Brazil itself will get over this anytime soon. For now, the focus will remain on what the team didn’t do, on who it didn’t bring, on what manager Luiz Felipe Scolari could have done differently and how Brazilian football needs to be reformed. In time, it also might make the larger problems around the Cup more evident again. The papers are already talking about the effect the issues around the World Cup might have on Rousseff’s re-election prospects this fall, and with the Rio Olympics just two years away, questions about stadiums and the effects of these events on the nation and its citizens will continue for at least the near future. The loss might not throw Brazil into chaos as many have predicted, but it could make it easier to remember that those issues still exist and harder for the government to wash them away.
They would have persisted anyway. But had Brazil won the Cup, the overall mood of the tournament might have been relief and celebration if not outright vindication. Brazil would have still sacrificed a bit of its future, but at least they would have won the World Cup and proved to the world that this was, is, and always will be their game. They would have done so while producing, problems be damned, a spectacular Copa that ended the only way it possibly could have on the field. The long-term effects — the new demographics of neighborhoods demolished and relocated, the security policies implemented, the schools and hospitals and roads and bridges still crumbling in the shadows of lavish and unnecessary stadiums — would be there, but so too would that trophy and all the happiness that came with it.
That idea — and that is probably all it ever was — now sits shattered alongside all those Brazilian hearts. Some will view this as a karmic result, the only way the hubris of the belief that a World Cup could assuage a nation’s problems could come crashing down. But this ending is at least a little tragic, because Brazil poured its heart into this World Cup, and all it could claim in return was Vergonha, Vexame, Humilhação, a national nightmare from the way the World Cup was administered to the way it ended on the pitch.