Just a month ago, when the bookies were still high on Brazil and not even the most rancorous of compatriots could have foretold the home team's collapse in the World Cup semifinals, a scrim of doubt had already settled over the Brazilian street. The worry dated to 1950, when a talented green and yellow side was defeated at home by Uruguay in the World Cup final, a rout that left Rio de Janeiro's giant Maracana stadium in silence. The "Maracanazo" went down in soccer history as a Brazilian tragedy.
The farce came yesterday. More than a rout, Brazil's 7-1 loss to Germany was an embarrassment -- aggravated by karma. Brazil took the field with verve, alloyed by prayer and the thunder of the 60,000-strong home crowd. The magic lasted 11 minutes, until an unfettered Thomas Mueller converted an artful corner kick into Germany's first goal. Four more followed in the next 20 minutes, sending the yellow shirts to the lockers at halftime to a Bronx aria and a blitzkrieg of Internet memes. For all the tired martial metaphors, the Germans were the team to behold, passing and weaving up the field with levity and grace, tying defenders in knots and finishing with panache. These were once Brazilian virtues. Now "massacre," "humiliation," and "shame" are the new qualifiers for the republic of futebol.
Albert Camus, who was a goalkeeper before he was a writer, once said that everything he knew in life he'd learned on the pitch. So it's no mystery that Brazil's flame-out on the field has been taken as a sign of a deeper dysfunction. Even before the semifinal, much of the sports commentariat had dismissed the struggling Brazilians -- with the highest foul count in the tournament -- as the side that had mortgaged poetry for felony. That was overstated. Brazil wasn't so much aggressive as lost. And perhaps that says it all.
In 1950, Brazil was an aspiring giant, a "land on the move," in the hopeful words of John Dos Passos, and the Maracanazo hurt but never crushed national ambitions. As Brazil morphed from a drowsy farm to a nascent industrial power, the yellow shirts went on to win three of the next five World Cups. Competition tightened as soccer globalized. Still the Brazilians shone, racking up an unmatched five trophies by 2002.
Then came 2014. The return of the World Cup to Brazil was to be the coda to a national lullaby. Even as protestors railed against overspending on the Cup, underfunding of schools and hospitals, and the kleptocrats who pocketed the difference, the Brazilian brass was touting the tournament as "social transformation," an emblem of development and democracy. Before the first goal, Brazil had already won.
Now the meltdown on the field risks turning into a symbol for a country that oversold itself. Like its national side, Latin America's ranking powerhouse bursts with talent, resources and enterprise. Yet the country's political roster has squandered much of the goods. The economy that grew 7.5 percent in 2010 might make the Brazilian backfield look fleet this year. Stagflation is back. In Latin America, President Dilma Rousseff is leading from behind, allowing noisy populists in Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador to seize the initiative on everything from trade to human rights.
It's too soon to say whether protestors will go back to the streets, but Brazil's leaders should take note. Not least Rousseff, who is up for re-election in October and has seen her approval ratings sag to 38 percent, with a majority of Brazilians saying her government is on the wrong path. You can almost hear the political spin men in Brasilia drop their vuvuzelas and grab their copies of Camus.
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