Why Brazil's Futebol Failure Is the Best Thing For The Country
I’m as speechless as any sports fan on this planet. Seven-to-one. That’s how badly Germany defeated – no, demolished – Brazil in the semi-finals of the soccer World Cup on Tuesday.
Granted, Brazil was without two of its best players, team captain Silva and star striker Neymar. But even so: 7-1? The Bloodbath in Belo Horizonte – at a World Cup Brazil is hosting, no less – was the worst humiliation South America’s soccer superpower has ever and probably will ever suffer.
And all I could keep thinking as time ran out was: This is the best thing that could have happened to Brazil.
Not to Brazilian soccer. To Brazil.
Go ahead and throw caipirinhas in my face. But I mean it. Brazil may be the world’s sixth-largest economy today. But if the past year of angry street protests in that country has signaled anything, it’s that Brazil needs to get its priorities sorted out if it’s ever really going to join the club of developed nations.
Brazil’s inordinate obsession with soccer hasn't made that exercise any easier. As one Brazilian here in South Florida recently told me: “We’ve become too accustomed to using soccer to hide things we don’t want the rest of the world to see.”
Just how out-of-whack is Brazil’s mania de futebol? Consider the atmosphere surrounding Brazil’s quarter-final Cup match against Colombia last week.
The weekend before, Brazil had come within a thong bikini’s breadth of being knocked out of the tournament by Chile, supposedly a much lesser team. When a seleção, as the Brazilian team is called, eked out a victory in penalty kicks, its players collapsed on the field sobbing.
It was a collective nervous breakdown. And it caused psychologists the world over to weigh in on whether Brazil’s hysterical expectations were too much for Neymar and his teammates to bear. Heck, for anyone to bear.
It seemed a big reason why a seleção then came out playing like vengeful thugs against Colombia. The game deteriorated into an ugly ruffian fest, with the two teams committing more than 50 fouls, including the red card that kept Silva out of this week’s match with Germany. Many more infractions weren’t even called – like the Colombian knee to Neymar’s back that broke one of his vertebrae.
A seleção beat Colombia, but looked unhinged. And you can attribute that largely to the pressures of playing for a nation that takes a soccer loss harder than it might react to a head of state's assassination.
"Historic Disgrace!" blared the São Paulo daily A Folha in the wake of the Germany disaster. The banner headline was larger and bolder than most newspapers use for terrorist attacks.
The Brazilian wound is probably so absurdly deep that President Dilma Rousseff is likely to have a more difficult time winning re-election in October. But the truth is, Dilma was already facing a tough campaign because of the chronic problems so many fed-up Brazilians are demonstrating against these days.
Like lousy infrastructure. Belo Horizonte saw a far worse catastrophe than a soccer rout last week when a highway overpass collapsed and killed two people.
Or brazen corruption. Lame healthcare and education. Burdensome taxes and living costs. A bloated and dysfunctional government bureaucracy. Rampant violent crime.
And the insult that seemed to spark the protests most: The realization among even soccer-crazed Brazilians that their leaders were spending exorbitant sums on stadiums – Brazil 2014 is the most expensive World Cup ever – while neglecting the nation’s more urgent needs.
In Brazil, politicians have always expected soccer to be their one sure refuge. Had a seleção beaten Germany and gone on to win the Cup this Sunday, Dilma would be riding higher than Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, and all the Cup cost overruns would probably be forgiven. But now, she and Brazilian politicos can’t count on the beautiful game to cover up the nation’s nagging warts. Those blemishes look even bigger, frankly. And maybe they’ll finally have to be addressed.
Brazil is hardly the only place where sport is sacrosanct. Here in the United States, knuckle-dragging jock worship is a coast-to-coast mental disorder. Still, Brazil’s futebol condition is a bigger concern.
And yet, ironically, Brazilians can look to one of their soccer heroes – Neymar – to help them regain perspective.
Before the Cup began, Neymar said he backed the street protesters. It took brass for the 22-year-old phenom to assert that their cause mattered more than soccer.
And the utter downfall of his team this week just might help Brazilians focus on building a better country in the aftermath.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.