On a late April Sunday night in 2001, a scalped ticket placed me among Lazio’s infamous Ultras at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, a derby with city archenemy Roma unfolding below. This particular season, a fixture that is always a referendum on the lifestyle and belief systems of the dueling supporter groups had massive title implications, as well. As injury time drained away, the light blue-scarved supporters were watching their dreams die under a scoreboard that ominously read ROMA 2, LAZIO 1.
Then this happened.
As soon as Argentine defender Lucas Castroman’s laser ripped into the back of the net, the 10,000 or so in our end of the stadium surged forward like a tidal wave. I end up three or four rows of bleachers below where I was seated, in the wild bear-hug embrace of a fan I had never seen during the prior four hours in the stadium. To our right, there was a middle-aged woman openly sobbing and kissing a picture of the Virgin Mary.
This is what is meant by the phrase “soccer is more than just a sport.”
Germany’s stunning, ruthless 7-1 evisceration of Brazil in Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal is defeat of total magnitude that we have never seen before.
Just in strict, on-field sporting terms, it is essentially unmatched. A host nation had never before lost a World Cup match by more than three goals. A semifinalist had never before shipped seven; Brazil had only done so once previously in any match in its history, and that was 94 years ago. No team had ever scored four goals in six minutes in a World Cup match, or led 5-0 inside of 30. There was shock and, in the end, awe — both from a worldwide audience and the Brazil fans who ultimately applauded their conquerors.
But in Brazil, a nation known for samba and soccer, this defeat in this World Cup, where the host team was struggling with its identity as much as its nation continues to struggle with its own, has so much more to it.
How do we put something like this into perspective when there is no full context for it?
My experiences in Italy and England provide a baseline for the raging provincialism and personal identification soccer fans have with their team and its performances. Now add the rampant jingoism inherent in any competition between nations. Throw in some rawness of political discord and the rallies and rioting over the $14 billion spent on this tournament while millions of Brazilians live in disease-wracked favelas. Then realize that Brazil cares more about soccer — on every level — than any other place on Earth. This is a country that still speaks in devastated tones about the 2-1 finals loss to Uruguay in the only other World Cup held there. In 1950.
This defeat was so shocking, the nation’s president took to Twitter afterward to try to lift spirits, expressing sadness but imploring her citizens to “get up, shake the dust off and get over it.” This was perhaps because of speculation that the defeat could cause her to lose re-election in October.
So, whatever level you thought this hurt Brazil, multiply it. By a lot.
In the immediate aftermath, Twitter was straining to come up with any sporting event that had both comparable shock and gravitas. The closest proxy is probably 1980's famous Miracle on Ice, but even with that being a far bigger upset in terms of winner, it falls short on numerous other counts. The hockey game wasn’t in the Soviet Union and it was seen by a fraction of those who witnessed Brazil’s demise, both in person and on worldwide TV (the game was shown on tape delay in the United States). Maybe the 1972 Olympic basketball loss, where the Soviets won the gold on the third attempt at a final-second play, is the U.S. proxy of that era.
But as much as Cold War sporting events mattered significantly, today’s Brazil is nowhere close to the global standing of the United States or Soviet-era Russia. We have a bunch of sports here, and the sporting culture — while pervasive — doesn’t define our nation. The Russians who lost to a bunch of American college kids were shunned upon returning home, but that team was more a reflection of growing Soviet might than a nation’s sole world-class identity. In a truly global sense, soccer is all Brazil rules.
In terms of overall impact on identity, both for a soccer team and a nation at large, a better proxy may be the famous 1953 friendly match between England and Hungary, where the English were humiliated 6-3 by the now-legendary Magical Magyars. The combination of that comprehensive defeat — about which reports claim the English were totally overmatched in both tactics and skill — and the following year’s 7-1 loss in the rematch caused England to completely change its tactical and development approaches at the club and country levels. The birthplace of soccer had been humbled.
Now it’s the Lords of Soccer who must take a lengthy look at what they’re doing. This Brazilian team, by the country’s standards, was totally pedestrian, and it was left helpless by the injury absence of world-class striker Neymar and the yellow-card suspension of center back anchor Thiago Silva. Between questionable roster selection and an even more questionable generation of attacking talent behind Neymar, this version of Brazil was forced to play an extremely cynical and unpleasant style that included lots of tactical fouling in order to maintain control of matches.
They were fortunate to beat Croatia in the opener (thanks, ref and Pletikosa), drew with Mexico, were six inches of crossbar away from losing to Chile in the Round of 16, and scraped past Colombia in a match that featured the most shambolic and lopsided refereeing of the tournament. That Brazil lost to Germany was not a surprise, but the way it happened requires a very long self-inspection of the road that led them here.
Brazil as a team will be back. The talent the nation has mandates it. And if it’s any consolation, the two losses to Hungary are widely credited for leading to England’s lone World Cup title in 1966. As a nation? It may take longer. In the same way 1950's “Maracanazo” remains part of Brazilian frailty, the English still discuss the beatings they took six decades ago.
Tuesday’s capitulation was, somehow, worse than any of that. It was mortifying embarrassment on the grandest scale in the one thing in which Brazil takes the most pride. Brazilians may some day be able to forgive their team for what happened in Belo Horizonte, but they won’t soon forget.