Six minutes. That’s how long it takes a national dream to die.
Brazil fought for this World Cup, quite literally. They warred in the streets for more than a year over it. They spent $11-billion they couldn’t afford on it. They risked their reputation as the spiritual home of the game for it.
The result of that effort is ash.
After a 7-1 semi-final humiliation at the hands of Germany, Brazilian soccer is not dead. But the mythology of it is, for now at least.
It took nearly six decades to construct that canon – a straight line beginning in 1958 with Pele and their first world championship.
Since then it’s been linked every four years by generational talents and epic sides. Vava, Garrincha, Socrates, Zico, Romario, Ronaldo, et al. The best team that ever was in 1970; and the best one that almost was in 1982.
Fifty-six years to raise. Six minutes to ruin.
Over that span – from the 23rd minute to the 29th – Germany put four goals of increasing ease … well, “by” is the wrong word. “Through” is better. Four goals straight through the heart of the Brazilian defence and, more poetically, the Brazilian soul.
In the midst of it, the cameras panned through the crowds. Fans of all ages were openly weeping. Down on the pitch, the Brazilian team stood wide-eyed, stunned. Each of them was already coming to terms with the fact that his name is now permanently connected to a national disaster.
Given the stage and the stakes, this was the most epic collapse in World Cup history. It will take years to rebuild after this.
Brazil arrived at Tuesday’s World Cup semifinal having not lost a competitive match at home since 1975, long before any of the current players were born.
The team was undermanned and out of sync. They’d lost their talisman in Neymar to a broken vertebra. In the space of four days, his absence had taken on religious import. During the anthems, Julio Cesar and David Luiz held his jersey up between them like an empty reliquary.
They ought to have been memorializing their captain, Thiago Silva. He was up in the stands, serving a one-game suspension. Most regard him as the best defender in the world. Without him, Brazil lost all ballast in their stern. His slipshod replacement, Dante, crumpled at the end. He knows that he will wear this game like sackcloth for the rest of his life.
And yet, even without Neymar and Silva, Brazil wasn’t less convinced, but more so. Their collective memory is such that, for every obstacle, there is a countervailing point of hope.
Hadn’t they won in 1962 without Pele, who had also been injured? Wasn’t this just like before? And so, wouldn’t the weight of history propel them through to the end?
That’s the way Brazil has always approached soccer – as both their game and something they can manipulate by force of desire. It defines them in the world. It is more than a beloved pastime. As much as geography or a shared culture, it’s the foundation of their society.
So this was more than a defeat. This was a great unwinding. A team didn’t lose. An idea was shattered.
After a half-hour and five goals, both teams slowed to a deflated jog. Brazil now had 10 men behind the ball, animated entirely by fear. They still looked lost. Whether you care about this team or not, it’s always difficult to watch the lion being bullied by the tamer.
The Germans – a side noted for efficiency, but never cruelty – now laid back. They seemed content to cycle the ball around midfield for the next hour.
One wonders what hurt Brazil’s pride more – German dominance or German pity?
When Brazil came off at the half, the home crowd booed them ruthlessly. When they returned to the pitch, they were booed again.
There are generations of Brazilian players who were weaned, triumphed, feted, retired and then died happily, never having heard that sound in their own house. This was several generations of disappointment pouring out of the stands, going all the way back to 1950 and the Maracanazo. That home defeat in a World Cup still haunts Brazilian soccer. This tournament was supposed to exorcise that ghost. It did, but not in the way they’d hoped. Instead, they’ve replaced one terrible memory with a fresher, more humbling one.
As it ended, more boos. They already seemed weary.
“I just wanted to make my people happy,” Luiz said afterward. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all Brazilians.”
It put you in the mind of another time, and a very different feeling. Of birth rather than a small death. This was the closing of an imperfect circle.
That first, mythic, nation-building victory in 1958 also ended with a crushing defeat of the host nation. Brazil beat Sweden 5-2 in the final.
Pele announced himself to the world that day, scoring two, including a goal of such ridiculous cheek, many still consider it the greatest in the history of this tournament. He was 17 years old. Like Brazilian football, he was so young and full of possibility.
“When Pele scored the fifth goal in the final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding,” Swedish player Sigvard Parling said later.
With good reason, the world’s been applauding Brazil ever since. How odd it must feel after all that time to finally return home, only to be jeered off the stage.