Whatever the result in Sunday’s World Cup final, a heavy shadow will linger over the Maracaná stadium long after the last whistle has sounded.
The revamped arena has already seen some special moments; Chile’s trouncing of holders Spain, and of course, that goal by Colombia’s beguiling heartthrob, James Rodriguez. The seleçâo – Brazil’s national team – however, will not play there this tournament. And in not doing so, a wound has been reopened, writes Thom Walker.
This time, it is not through a fateful match, but rather the absence of one.
Despite an illustrious footballing history, the country’s defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, the Maracanaço, remained an indelible characteristic of the country’s national identity. Playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote that his countrymen suffered from what he dubbed the complexo de vira-latas, or “mutt complex” a phrase he coined following that defeat. It encapsulated “the inferiority in which Brazilians place themselves voluntarily before the rest of the world,” he wrote. “The problem,” he added, “is faith in oneself.”
Read Matt Frei's blog: Will Brazil descend into a kind of catatonic, post traumatic stress?
Yet this World Cup tournament had presented Brazil with a chance to banish these demons of yesteryear; to overcome 64 years of shared torment; to re-write an agonising past. Whatever cliché one might use, few countries can boast a single sporting event as having such a profound impact on its collective psyche. The subsequent pressure on Brazil’s team was immense. Not only were they coping with the albatross of their own history, but that of their parents and grandparents too.
It was not just the burden of football either.
The tired and condescending characterisation of Brazilians as jocular and charming but lacking the necessary focus to organise a successful World Cup, rightfully irritated many people I met there. This was the most globally public forum to redress Charles de Gaulle’s disdainful swipe that Brazil was “not a serious country.”
Overall the tournament has been widely considered a success. Doomsday predictions of unfinished stadia, calamitous transport systems and widespread violent protests did not prove accurate. That said, the deaths of several construction workers before the tournament rightfully stirred anger at apparent government failures to protect the most vulnerable and see the benefits of hosting such an event reach beyond the corporate bigwigs.
Similarly, anger at official overspending remained paramount throughout. In his makeshift tent in a homeless camp less than a mile from Sâo Paulo’s new stadium, 50-year-old Daniel De Souza told me “they invested a lot in the World Cup and the people who need houses were forgotten about.”
Then there was Fifa; world football’s rotten and scandal-plagued governing body remained a dirty word everywhere, but that was hardly restricted to Brazil. Despite such unease, once the tournament began, as many predicted, football took over.
Over the three-and-a-half weeks I spent in Brazil, I was struck by the optimism of so many Brazilians. The words of Rodrigues felt further away than ever before. Everyone I asked said the same thing: It would be tough, sure, but the team would prevail. It seemed the desire for restorative glory was so strong, that many were willing to overlook the obvious: the seleçâo had their weakest team in years.
We watched the opening game at Zé’s bar in the Magueira favela that overlooked the Maracaná. Brazil huffed and puffed, but finally found their way past Croatia after a nervous start. The nation breathed again. “On to the final, this is ours for the taking now!” Thiago Batista told me there as fireworks exploded across the city.
Unsatisfying performances all the way to the quarter final did little to dent hopes of a triumph, but I got the impression, not unlike other countries to be fair, that there was considerable self-delusion at work. But the team’s stuttering progress did not portend the cataclysmic catastrophe of their meeting with Germany. Hyperbole aside, anyone who watched it knew they were watching a bizarre piece of tragic footballing history play out in front of us in real-time.
The country had been prepared for the tourist invasion, unimaginable traffic jams, popular uprisings, even a potentially cancelled match, but not this. Brazil had been desperate to prove itself on every stage and overall, had delivered. Yet on the very platform on which they had never doubted themselves, they had been humiliated.
Newspapers across the country ran headlines that spoke of “shame”, “a massacre”, and “the biggest fiasco in history.” A few days on, and Brazilians remain shell-shocked. Soul-searching and philosophising continues apace in the local press, as everyone attempts to make some sense of it. With time, what will also hurt I suspect, is that despite what happens in the final, the 2014 World Cup will be remembered first and foremost for that game. Within hours, the match – which was held at the Minerâo stadium in Belo Horizonte – had already become known as the Mineiraço.
God knows how much I wanted the whole of Brazil to be happy for the football. David Luiz
Moacir Barbosa was Brazil’s goalkeeper in the 1950 final. Expecting a cross, he had been caught off-guard and allowed the ball to slip past him. Barbosa became a national villain, and he never fully recovered. A year before his death, he told reporters, “Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”
The Seleçâo’s collective failure has meant that a lone scapegoat has not been singled out so far, but it seems hard to imagine that the country will bounce back quickly. Brazil’s stand-in captain David Luiz, was inconsolable after their 7-1 loss.
“All I wanted was to see everyone smiling. God knows how much I wanted the whole of Brazil to be happy for the football”, he said.
Before his death in 2000, Barbosa recalled his most painful moment; 20 years on from that match, he overheard a woman with her child who pointed at him and said: “Look at him, son. He is the man that made all of Brazil cry.” This time at least, most of the seleçâo cried with them.
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