So, there’s the shock of that: Brazil out of this World Cup. Beaten in a penalty shootout when, only a bit earlier, it looked like a single goal of sublime skill by Neymar had the sent the team, the tournament favourites, past Croatia and into the semi-finals.
The slick, dancing gods of South American soccer, defeated. The hype deflated. Winter is coming. It’s not the first time that Brazil’s bubble has burst. It’s happened so many times.
Like everyone of a certain age I swooned over Brazil watching the 1970 World Cup, the first to be televised in colour and Brazil’s yellow jerseys seemed to embody the team’s joyous, always-attacking energy. There was Pele, there were feats with the ball that seemed magical. And there was a myth we all bought into.
It hasn’t been the same since then, and that is Brazil’s tragic journey, a pilgrimage toward inevitable defeat by a European team, no matter the talent it has. It’s a burden the Brazilians bear, that repeated pilgrimage toward defeat and being pilloried at home for letting it happen again.
Only in 2002 did Brazil have the strength, mental and physical, and skill to storm through a World Cup and beat Germany 2-0 in the final. Oh, it was so good then, it was supremely arrogant.
I saw Brazil play China in a gorgeous stadium on Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. China’s players looked petrified from the get-go. At one point I watched in amazement as Brazil’s Cafu, carrying the ball forward, approached defender Li Weifeng, who stopped dead, panicky and unsure of what to do. Cafu slowed, glanced at the defender who had neither the courage nor the resources to tackle him, and Cafu made a brisk “come-here” gesture with his hand. He was telling the defender, “Come on, play. Make a game of it. Don’t be afraid.” It was like an adult instructing a child. And the child froze, bewildered. Impatient, Cafu kept going down the wing and crossed to an unmarked Ronaldo, who loitered at the back post. With a graceful stroke at the ball, Ronaldo buried it in the back of the net.
Since then, Brazil’s genius has been chimeric and, strangely, Croatia has often featured in the story of illusory brilliance. At the World Cup in Germany in 2006 I was in the stadium when Brazil defeated Croatia 1-0 in the opening round. It was a win, but what was noted by every team opposing Brazil there is how Croatia restricted Brazil and how vulnerable Brazil looked for long, long periods. It was a very slender victory. Ronaldo, still playing, hung around with a sulky look and distinct lack of interest in doing anything except waiting for the ball. Brazil was beaten by France in the quarter-finals.
In 2014, with Brazil playing host to the World Cup, it opened the tournament in Sao Paolo with a 3-1 victory over Croatia. It was a nervy win, settled by a dubious penalty and Brazil allowed its first own goal at a World Cup. The team looked more frenzied than relaxed, and there was nothing smooth or sublime about it. Famously, Brazil was humiliatingly defeated 7-1 in a semi-final with Germany, allowing four goals in a six-minute stretch. Exposed as witless and disorganized, it became the team to forget. Even nature agreed. Shortly after the game, the heavens opened in Rio de Janeiro and it poured thunderous rain for hours and hours. It wasn’t a symbolic river of tears; it was like the impulse to wash everything away, down the drain.
In Russia in 2018, Brazil lost 2-1 to Belgium in the quarter-finals, having 27 shots to Belgium’s nine. The pattern is persistent: Since beating Germany in the final in 2002, Brazil has been eliminated in each of the past four World Cups by European countries, including three quarter-finals.
On social media there’s talk of a “curse” when Brazil meets European teams. There is no curse. Instead, there’s the Brazil myth. It’s the myth of sublime skills being used to overcome physical and emotional burdens. It’s the myth of dancing, prancing soccer always winning against pedestrian opponents.
It’s a fact that the time spent dancing after scoring might better have been spent studying Croatia and recognizing that Croatia doesn’t know when it is beaten. It’s a fact that studying and practising penalty kicks is good preparation. You can dance later, when you’ve won.
The myth will persist, probably for years to come. The myth is that it’s all fun and games. It is, until the penalty kicks.