For Brazil, World Cup dreams turn to worst nightmare in semifinal rout

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BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- And so we come to the end. With apologies to the great baseball writer Roger Angell, the laurels are all cut, the year draws in the day, and we’ll go to the Mineirão, or the Castelão, or the Maracanã no more. As ephemeral as phantom outfielders, Brazil’s boys of this remarkable World Cup summer (or southern hemisphere winter) drifted back into the corn this afternoon as an aghast throng poured opprobrium down on their fallen former heroes.

The 7-1 loss to Germany in Tuesday's World Cup semifinal was not a defeat but a massacre, a humiliation on an epic scale. The fans booed the team off the pitch at halftime and back on to it after the break after an opening 45 minutes of spineless capitulation that left a nation reeling. Germany – cool, supremely talented and perfectly organized, scored four goals in six minutes (and five in 18) and after that simply laughed its way past the puny resistance of a side that was in the end, very, very far from good enough.

This Brazil team will be remembered, at least - not for what they have done on the pitch, which has in truth been not very much at all, but for events off it. The host nation’s attempts to deal with the pressure created by 200 million passionate, histrionic fans and the glistening gold of five World Cup trophies glinting metaphorically from the trophy cabinet has made for compelling viewing these last weeks.

There were more tears than in a whole string of Hollywood weepies – Thiago Silva in the tunnel before the opening game against Croatia, Neymar during the anthem against Mexico, Julio Cesar before and after the penalty shootout victory against Chile. There would be plenty more weeping here at the Mineirão, even before the end - when Brazil slunk back onto the field after halftime to a chorus of boos, Marcelo was visibly moist around the eyes.

Then there was a tightening noose of conspiracy theories, as coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and technical director Carlos Alberto Parreira muttered darkly of a plot to stop Brazil winning the hexa (its sixth World Cup). This comprehensive manhandling will surely put a stop to such nonsense.

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Finally came the wounding of Brazil’s boy who would be king, Neymar. In keeping with a novela (the country’s wildly popular soap operas) as improbable as this, no ordinary injury such as a thigh strain or a pulled hamstring here, but something suitably gory and outrageous – a fractured vertebra. Cue TV images of a stricken Neymar being helicoptered to a hospital, waving weakly from his stretcher, as a nation swooned. David Luiz and Cesar even held the youngster’s No. 10 shirt aloft during the anthems.

In the end though all the hyper-emotional drama of Brazil’s campaign counted for nothing. It was a shame that it had to end like this, for from the outset the day had more emotion, more sheer unadulterated queijo (“cheese”) than any expensively ticketed, corporate sponsored modern sporting event had a right to have.

The fans made a fearsome din before kickoff, as David Luiz ran on to the field to warm-up punching the air like a prize fighter, and there was a fusillade of boos for glowering German coach Joachim Low, suitably attired in Bond-villain black. When locally born youngster Bernard took the field the crowd chanted his name loud enough to perhaps even raise Neymar from his bed.

Brazilians wear their hearts on their sleeves – often, at this World Cup, in their mouths – but by the end of the afternoon those yellow and green hearts had tumbled from the Mineirão stands and floated out over the pitch and into the darkening evening sky, shattered into pieces.

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A wonderful occasion then - right up until the game began. Brazil managed a scurrying, energetic start, with Germany hardly touching the ball in the opening exchanges. But the optimism barely lasted 10 minutes, as Germany’s phalanx of fast, powerful midfielders and forwards – Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, who was outstanding in helping his team establish its early dominance, and the inimitable Miroslav Klose, who broke Ronaldo’s World Cup goal-scoring record here – simply poured through an unorganized Brazilian midfield and defense at will.

The Germans were wonderful, though they hardly needed to be. All seven goals – scored by Thomas Muller, Klose, Kroos (2), Khedira and Andre Schurrle (2) - featured examples of bewitchingly intricate passing and movement, often aided and abetted by slapstick Brazilian defending, but special mention must go to Klose’s goal, Germany’s second. The ball moved swiftly and easily between Muller, Philipp Lahm and Kroos before falling to the ultimate goal poacher. His first shot was saved, but he was quick enough to pounce on the rebound and slot the ball past Cesar for a place in the history books.

Brazil’s failings were too many to mention. Scolari had pulled a surprise before kickoff by naming Bernard as Neymar’s replacement instead of Willian, but although the youngster ran all over the big Mineirão pitch, he could make little headway against a German defense that seems to be growing in confidence and solidity as the tournament progresses. Not even Neymar, in all likelihood, would have made much of a difference here.

Elsewhere it was more Keystone Cops than Elite Squad (Jose Padilha’s 2007 film about a ruthless Rio de Janeiro police department) for Brazil. David Luiz’s marking for Muller’s opening goal was described as “infantile” by Brazilian great Ronaldo, now working in the commentary box. Throughout the game Luiz and his fellow defenders were puppets dangling from strings attached to German boots, jerked this way and that at will. Up front Fred looked like what he is – an unremarkable Brazilian league striker – while Oscar, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Hulk were rabbits caught in the cold glare of German headlights. It could, and should, have been more than 7-1.

German coach Joachim Low could afford to be magnanimous after the match. “Brazil couldn’t cope under the pressure. We know how Scolari’s team must have felt – it happened to us against Italy in 2006,” he said, referring to the common bond of enduring a semifinal loss on home soil.

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With the game as good as dead, the reaction of the fans in the stadium, and by extension the millions watching in bars and at barbecues and on sofas across the country took center stage. Everywhere around the Mineirão people were in tears, the thousands of Neymar masks distributed before the game hurled to the ground, and when they were not in tears they were howling with impotent rage at their dumbstruck players.

Fred was the target of most of the boos and more than a few obscene chants. By the time Schurrle’s second goal, Germany’s seventh, flew into the net the fans had turned their backs on their team completely, applauding the opposition and shouting “olé, olé” as the Germans rolled the ball around the pitch.

Aside from the team’s technical limitations, Scolari’s errors – naming only six players with World Cup experience in his squad for this most high pressure of tournaments, and here eschewing the option of fielding three defensive midfielders to stymie Germany’s swarming attack in favor of playing the energetic but lightweight Bernard – arguably proved fatal.

The coach at least was man enough to shoulder the blame. “It’s a catastrophic result, which can be shared with the whole group. But I made the decisions, I decided the lineup and the tactics. The person responsible is me,” he said afterwards. “It’s the worst moment of my career.”

In the end though it was the emotional intensity that has surrounded this team from the start that proved its undoing. Those extended a capella anthems shrieked out by overexcited fans, the tears, the mass hysteria that surrounded the Neymar injury – all kept Brazil oscillating at a ludicrous emotional pitch that simply could not be sustained.

It was as though the squad had stared to believe its own Rocky-style narrative – evidenced by Scolari’s bizarre recent comments that “nobody expected us to get out of the group, nobody expected us to get past Chile, but we did.” When faced with a better organized, more talented and less muddle-headed opposition, Brazil simply had no answer.

It was the great Brazilian playwright and sportswriter Nelson Rodrigues, famous for coining the expression “the mongrel complex” to describe his country’s eternal inferiority complex, who said in reference to another defeat that left scars on the national consciousness, the loss to Uruguay in the final game of the 1950 World Cup at the Maracanã, that "everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat to Uruguay in 1950.”

A tasteless comparison, true, but one that captures the seismic effects of that defeat in Brazil. This modern day Seleção will go away and lick its collective wounds now, and try and make some sense of this fresh calamity. “It’s the worst defeat in our history,” said Scolari, “but life will go on. My life will go on. Everybody’s life will go on.”

After stirring, if slightly chaotic wins over Chile and Colombia, Brazilians had started to believe the romantic hype, and dream that their flawed team could win this World Cup. That dream has gone now, and when they wake up tomorrow they will look out on a duller, colder and emptier país do futebol. The soccer nation is in mourning. 

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