World Cup ghosts, transgenerational themes are inescapable in Brazil
Brazil began this World Cup dreaming of banishing the ghosts of the Maracanazo, the defeat to Uruguay in 1950 that cost it the World Cup. It ended it with a defeat that might prove even more traumatic, an extraordinary 7-1 humbling against Germany in Belo Horizonte, the Mineirazo. Brazil will probably not change the color of its national shirts as it did in 1950, but in a nation that remains extremely superstitious, it would be a major surprise if it played any games in Belo Horizonte when it hosts the Copa America in 2019.
This has been a World Cup of ghosts. Numerous teams have seemed haunted by the past, while absent players have cast their shadows, none more so than Luis Suarez. World Cups are judged in part by the quality of the football, in part by the drama they produce and in part by their storylines, and, in a tournament of great narratives, Suarez provided the greatest.
His bite and subsequent ban created a storm that only really died away when Brazil's disintegration replaced it. It's hard to imagine the build-up to any World Cup game has ever been so dominated by a player who wouldn't be playing as the Colombia vs. Uruguay last 16 tie was by Suarez. Into that void stepped James Rodriguez with two stunning goals.
Colombia itself seemed to handle the absence of Falcao comfortably enough, but they too were confronted by their past, with the 20th anniversary of the murder of Andres Escobar after his own-goal against the USA in the 1994 World Cup. Reaching the quarterfinal for the first time couldn't redeem the memories of that tournament and its subsequent horror, but to go so far with such a bright young team at least hinted at a happier future.
Argentina has also been haunted. Every step that Lionel Messi has taken has been made with Diego Maradona on his shoulder. All tournament the question has been asked of whether this could be his 1986, when Maradona dragged an essentially average Argentina team to glory. Actually, his path has more closely followed that of Maradona in 1990. For him, it's been a tournament of long periods of quietude, punctured by moments of genius.
The pass with which he set up Angel di Maria for the winner against Switzerland was very reminiscent of Maradona's pass to Claudio Caniggia in the last 16 in 1990 as defenders converged in a panic, leaving the No. 10 to slide a ball outside him with impeccable calibration. The question now is whether Messi can improve on Argentina's 1990 -- a final loss to West Germany -- and win the tournament.
Louis van Gaal has done much in this tournament to allay his residual disappointment from 2002 when his Netherlands side missed out on qualification to Ireland. He drew a series of tactically inspired performances from an inexperienced Dutch team, the opening victory over Spain being particularly satisfying, not just because of the way his side shredded the defending champions, but because Spain plays a style the foundations of which Van Gaal was partly responsible for laying during his time as Barcelona manager.
England, as ever, played with the weight of historical failure oppressing it. A tough draw, and two reasonable performances that ended in narrow defeat couldn't be dismissed, as Roy Hodgson attempted to dismiss them, with the line "sometimes things happen in football." No defeat now, no matter the circumstances, is ever anything other than proof of England's terminal abjection, a prophecy that becomes self-fulfilling.
But nobody was more haunted than Brazil. It was a nation that seemed to have convinced itself that it was pre-ordained that it would put right what went wrong in 1950. Those who got in the way were jeered, treated almost as heretics, something that reached its apogee in the ludicrously over-the-top reaction to Juan Camilo Zuniga's challenge on Neymar that left the unfortunate forward with a broken vertebra.
The chosen one was abruptly stripped of his predetermined role and Brazil was lunged into hysteria. Neymar, himself, it should be noted, reacted with a video message and then a press conference in which he was admirably reasonable, even inspirational. Yet his absence was a key presence at the Mineirao, something symbolized by the way David Luiz and Julio Cesar held his shirt aloft before kickoff while nobody made any acknowledgement of the deaths of either the two people killed by a collapsing overpass in the city the previous week or the passing of Alfredo Di Stefano a day earlier.
A brainless, over-emotional performance followed, the dangers of investing in theories of destiny exposed. Echoes of the past are perhaps inevitable in World Cups. Not all are meaningful, but for Brazil, you suspect defeat in Belo Horizonte will reverberate for a long time yet.
What was envisaged as the great exorcism ended up simply inviting more ghosts to the party.