What Brazil's Loss Meant, And What It Didn't Mean

When you visit the Museu do Futebol in São Paulo, you are at one point obliged to enter a long, narrow, pitch-black room, in which the increasingly loud pounding of a heartbeat plays heavily over concealed speakers as images of the Maracanazo—Brazil's infamous loss in the final of the 1950 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro—flicker to life on a far wall. As Uruguay score their second goal, the heartbeat stops, the idea being that this was the moment when all Brazil lived and died as one.

From one angle, Brazil's 7-1 loss to Germany Tuesday—the worst defeat in the sport's history before the first half was out—was an extension of everything implied by the existence of that room, with the 64 years stretching between the two matches collapsing down into one point at which the hearts of 200 million people stopped beating as one and on which rain fell like the tears of the gods, etc. ("The gods knew," claimed ESPN's Wright Thompson, opening a dispatch from a rain-battered favela.)

From another angle, it's perhaps a bit much to suggest a direct continuity between two matches separated by a lifetime, or to suggest, in the manner of both sports museums and sports media, that a sporting event is central to the national identity. To do either is to abstract everything interesting out of one of the most interesting games we'll ever see.

The aspect of sports that's never discussed enough is the extent to which they're about repetition and order, which is to say that they're physical endeavors. In theory, tactics are an intellectual exercise involving a manager marking off times with a stopwatch, sketching out positioning on a blackboard, and working out elaborately orchestrated feints and counters, something anyone with a basic knowledge of the game can imagine himself doing. In reality, they're about athletes being in precisely the right place at precisely the right time, which is a matter of doing something over and over and over again until you don't have to think about it at all—a form of conditioning, in the technical sense.

In soccer, where you're moving in concert with 10 other people and especially with smaller subsets of them, this plays out as anticipation. David Luiz can shade to his left against a forward coming off the wing because he knows Thiago Silva will cover the space to his right; he can bomb downfield because he knows that the men behind him will go narrow or wide as required; he can double a man on a set piece because he expects that if someone slips free, Silva will catch it and call a new play, or cover himself. It's all about not having to think, about knowing what will happen in every situation because it's been played through so many times before.

All of this is a way of saying that of course Brazil were always going to have issues with Silva and Neymar out against Germany, not simply because they were the team's two best players, or because they were the team's single best defensive and offensive players, but because they were the two players the rest of the team was conditioned to key off of. If you think of the team as a single reactive organism, this was like severing nerve endings. The problem was less the quality of the replacements than that they weren't as predictable, as able to be anticipated. With Silva and Neymar off the pitch, their teammates had to think that much more.

This is all right there to be seen on the game film. Remember that for 20-plus minutes, there was nothing much out of the ordinary going on; it looked to be a tight game between two essentially even teams that would maybe be decided by who got the calls (the team with the home-field advantage, you'd have figured). The first goal came on a great set piece where the crafty Miroslav Klose essentially set a pick on Luiz, freeing up Thomas Müller for the score. It was a gut punch, but didn't look to be anything Brazil couldn't come back from.

It was the second goal where you started to see the bolts coming loose. Fernandinho was caught out of position and Maicon didn't track Klose; that freed up the striker, so that Müller could lay it off to him. This was bad, but explicable. It was world-class players being slightly off the points where they should have been—off the orbit that Silva would, presumably, have set. "You realized that they were confused," as German manager Joachim Löw put it.

What Brazil's Loss Meant, And What It Didn't Mean

Any idea that these players were breaking under the heavy pressure or the weight of history here is, though, belied by the fact that after this they were still in it. They'd given up one goal on a brilliant play and another on a broken one, but there was no collapse. That only came with the run of three goals in about three minutes, the first of which is the one that did the damage.

With Marcelo a step off, Germany were able to send in a through ball, and get it to Müller at the edge of the box. Six Brazilians collapsed into the box, opening up Toni Kroos at the top of the 18. It's a decent bet that Silva would have called for someone to step forward mark the open man, but as it was no one did, and he was able to make a difficult shot.

At this point, Brazil were down 3-0 on basically mechanical faults, and it was only here that they started to visibly crack. Kroos was able to run straight down the pitch and dispossess Fernandinho—who didn't even really look around as he was getting the ball, the sort of response you'd figure would be so deeply ingrained he couldn't not do it—before passing it in. On the fifth goal, Luiz and Luiz Gustavo froze, allowing Mats Hummels to recover from a bad touch when he should have taken at least one hard challenge and setting up another pass into the net.

What Brazil's Loss Meant, And What It Didn't Mean

It looked, for all the world, like actual, physiological panic. Maybe you've felt it looking around and realizing you don't know where your child is, or losing a job, or due to native anxiety, but you've probably felt it, and you know what it is—a total, if momentary, loss of control. And if you read things this way, what happened to Brazil makes sense. A set piece that could have beaten any team in the world begat bad plays involving players being a step or two off where they should have been, due perhaps to the absence of their center of defensive gravity, and then the world came in on them. It was impossibly unlikely; it was nothing you could have predicted even if you'd rightly figured that the loss of Silva and Neymar would have horrific effects on the way the team moved in space; and it happened because sports are incredibly difficult, and at this level involve the turning of impossibly involved gears that can't tolerate any kind of sand.

Brazilians aren't more intense or passionate about sports than Americans are. That's a romantic myth, the sort expressed by taking too seriously the idea that the country's heart ever beat as one and kept going by the passing on of almost certainly false tales like the one about how Uruguay's second goal inspired fans to leap to their deaths in the Maracanã, or intoning about how a loss to Germany could lead to death. The distinction is that they feel about a national team the way Americans do about local ones, which means that an entire nation, rather than an isolable locality, can be torn up by a historic, all-encompassing loss. This is a difference of degree, not kind, and to read it any other way is at best to surrender to the same basic fallacy that sees a team's loss as the result of something other than identifiable failures and at worst to depict Brazilians as so unsophisticated that they can't tell the difference between sports and life, and so are prone to riot over nothing at all.

You saw this sort of thing all over in the American press yesterday and today. There was no game, no sequence of failed assignments meeting with a German side that played about as well as any anyone has ever seen; there were people trying to express the inexpressible, and coming to the conclusion that instead of failures of placement, there were larger forces at work.

Wright Thompson, who skipped out on the third, fourth, and fifth goals to wander around in a sketchy neighborhood and seemed genuinely surprised to find Brazilians watching soap operas rather than dropping to their knees and rending their garments, invoked the all-knowing gods. The New Republic's Franklin Foer blamed Brazil for essentially having been corrupted by a European ideal and thus not playing the way they did when Pelé was in his prime, which is, among other things, roughly like blaming the Green Bay Packers for not playing like they did under Vince Lombardi. SI's Grant Wahl, a smart writer who knows the game deeply, had Brazil's loss down to failures of the soul. ("It was as if something deep inside them shut down.") The Times's Sam Borden, a generally wonderful and insightful writer, linked the bad sports result to concerns about cities erupting in flames. ESPN's Chris Jones saw the apocalypse.

There have been fears, spoken of surprisingly often and openly, about what terrible things would happen if Brazil failed to win this World Cup — something seen by some here almost as a divine right, a function of pure destiny. Mostly, people had talked about how sideways the world might go if the hosts lost to the hated Argentines in the final. Then every clamp and governor who had been thrown onto this crackling country — most of the pre-tournament anger having subsided once the games began — would be released. In the absence of any reason for unity, a potentially violent division would return.

It turns out a more decisive cataclysm was coming.

There was no decisive cataclysm, of course. Brazil loves A Seleção precisely the same way New York loves the Yankees, or Chicago loves the Bulls, or Tuscaloosa loves the Crimson Tide—more than they should, perhaps, but rationally and, random drunks aside, within bounds. If the absence of chaos was a surprise, it could only have been so to those who weren't paying attention, or didn't understand what they saw.

But our sportswriting always tends to the histrionic. There is a line of thought that elevates those who win as inherently virtuous, possessed of a certain character, and so marks those who lose as deficient in those traits. It writes the sports out of sports, giving the winners nowhere near enough credit for having learned how to be in the right place at the right time so perfectly that they can effortlessly improvise and ascribing the wrong faults to the losers. It's the bane of sportswriters—but not sports fans. Sixty-four years from now, anyone who saw yesterday's match will remember it, but very few will remember it for anything other than what it was: an injury and a ban leading to sequences of bad play that led to three minutes no one would've ever believed. An unreal soccer match between the two best national sides in the world, in other words; nothing more, and certainly nothing at all less.

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