Well, at least that’s one thing settled. It turns out Brazil’s footballers do know how to entertain after all. Watching the action in São Paulo city centre – the term is used loosely: this was not so much action as a formal, structured dance through Brazil’s football team – Germany’s stunning 7-1 semi-final victory passed in a kind of daze. “Cinco o seis? Cinco o sete?” called the yellow-shirted head waiter in a busy Paulista restaurant, curious more than anything else, craning his neck around a pillar to ascertain the exact scoreline in what was already after half an hour the most humiliating World Cup host nation defeat of all time.
In fact it is hard to think of a more eviscerating defeat in any sport, ever. World Cup favourites; hosts at a $12bn home World Cup. Plus of course throw in the preceding bluster, the ludicrous liturgical furore over Neymar’s injury. Even from a notably mawkish and overblown group of footballers, this was a notably mawkish and overblown complete sporting implosion. But then Brazil have always been innovators in football. This is the home of sports science, the bicycle kick, the flying full-back. And now here was a performance that went beyond the standard sporting. Welcome to Brazil, home of the jogo collapso.
Long into the night Brazilian TV continued to analyse the match helplessly, like a broken robot still desperately trying to tidy up after the apocalypse. Well, there’s some space here behind the full-back. And look here how he lets his man run away from him. When you’re doing this for the sixth goal of seven then it is probably time to put away the light pen and the split screen and just sit down and stare at the floor for a bit. Or hum quietly. Or have a quick pray. Actually, no, not that. Not just now, eh?
It is always sensible to resist the urge to extrapolate too much from sport, which most of the time simply mimics the shapes and storylines of real human drama. A complete sporting collapse is not a real collapse. This is mimesis, entertainment, operetta. Not that this will stop people trying, and books will duly be commissioned and cinematic reproductions cast of the Mineiraoazo, the Allemãonacion, the Belo-Blow, the Horror-zonte. How exactly do you lose a World Cup semi-final 7-1?
There is of course no sensible answer to this, as even the scoreline itself is a kind of sporting joke (it is above all a very funny result: in São Paulo the most notable sight was Brazilians laughing and giggling as those second half goals went in). Perhaps a good way to start is to have a stab at what didn’t happen here, to rule out the improbable and the hysterical.
Firstly, the collapse at the Mineirão was not a self-induced punishment, a cosmic moral judgement on Brazil’s “tactical fouling” in the last match against Colombia. This is a classic misguided sporting morality narrative: reverse-intuitive, outcome-specific, hanging by a tangible thread of random events. This moral aspect – the divinely corrective Germano-thrashing – just doesn’t stand up to reasoning. If it were true then the opposite would also be true: if defeat equals moral poverty, then by the same token victory must be evidence of purity, good grace and divine moral standing. Which, of course, has never been the case in sport or life.
Secondly Brazil didn’t lose because its players are hysterical princelings, cowards, pigeon-chested weaklings. It is worth looking at this from a wider perspective. It is impossible to become a successful Brazilian footballer without a degree of struggle. Almost every player in that Brazil team has emerged from hardship, genuine or relative, and some were born into world-class poverty. There is a huge amount of human wastage involved in producing just one top class Brazilian footballer and those who make it have achieved something remarkable. The idea that Germany’s first world college boys, products of the most first world football system ever devised, have exposed the basic mental weakness of these survivors of terrible schooling and inadequate resources – what chance did they have against a tie and a crest? – is clearly a non-starter for many reasons.
Thirdly Brazil didn’t lose 7-1 because it is a nation on the verge of hysterical collapse. Despite the impression given by the TV pictures, Brazil was never going to grind to a halt, or come weeping into the streets. The players were horribly keyed up within their sealed environment. The media were obsessed with the players being horribly keyed up. But Brazil itself? People were drinking and laughing and chatting away in the bars of São Paulo on Tuesday night. It is a patronising myth that Brazilians are dementedly obsessed with football, just as it is a ludicrous simplification to suggest the original Maracanazo created “a scar” on the “national consciousness” (there is, let’s be honest, no such thing as “a national consciousness”). People cry in the stadium when they lose, then go home and stop crying just like anywhere else, and without samba dancing on the way, or weeping about Neymar, or worshipping Pelé. Update: Brazil still not collapsing.
Beyond this Brazil didn’t lose 7-1 because of the various threads of corruption, theft of public money, and abandoned infrastructure that have swirled like a black cloud around this light and shade World Cup, as misleading a connection as the equivalent argument that Argentina won the 1978 World Cup because its military junta was right to suppress its people and concoct a tournament out of misery. Plus of course there are plenty of other Brazilian sins apparently in need of punishment. Chuck in the weeping and praying among players, the racial homogeneity of Brazil’s stadium-filling middle classes. This is all adding up. Frankly, it’s a miracle the team bus wasn’t swallowed up by a tidal wave on its way back from the stadium.
And so back to Earth. It is still necessary to find some kind of explanation in all this. And of course this must contain a pinch of all of the above, a cumulative sense of cuts and nicks and debilitating wrong turns. Throw in a group of mediocre players unimaginatively managed and Brazil were bad: but were they 7-1 bad?
This is where the sense of some more precise and localised group collapse presents itself. Hidden away in their mountain retreat, removed from the perceived hysteria of the country (which was not hysterical), Brazil’s players seem to have fomented a bespoke group hysteria all their own. There was something profoundly unnerving at times about the whole spectacle in Belo Horizonte. Brazil’s players were simply not there. They were an absence, utterly disconnected. No doubt there is a fascinating research study to be made here into self-contained group dysfunction, the way in which external pressure, bouncing off the walls, can magnify until it crowds out everything else. This probably did happen to Brazil’s players, a result of poor management (Scolari looked flustered, wild, angry at times) and the combined pressure of a team that simply wasn’t good enough to win, and also deep down knew it wasn’t good enough to win.
Beyond this the structural problems in Brazil and Brazilian football will continue to exist whatever the score against Germany. It is worth remembering, for what it’s worth, that Brazil is still a country in a state of energetic flux. Things do not just look after themselves here. If something is neglected it will tend to fester, and Brazilian football has been neglected. The domestic league is weak. The academy structures, which must eventually take the place of just allowing poverty to make footballers for you, are – according to those who know – totally inadequate compared to the best European countries.
And in many ways there is an unignorable narrative circularity about a European team coming to Brazil and thrashing its Seleção 7-1. Europe has already flooded in to fill the gaps here. Such has been the lure of European money that almost all of Brazil’s best players have tended to leave at an early age. David Luiz, Marcelo, Hulk and Dani Alves and Willian all played a single year or less in Brazil before moving overseas, while now the best 15- or 16-year-olds already have contracts with European clubs. In a way it is even quite funny that Europe should spend the last two decades finessing its disorientating allure, displacing Brazil’s footballers, staffing its teams with these hardy travellers, then return to Brazil’s own Copa das Copas with the best resourced, most strikingly first world football team in history and annihilate Brazil in a home semi-final. Take that, new world!
So, back to the jogo collapso, and the post-jogo collapso. It is to be hoped that the scale of the loss will lead to a more reasoned, non-hysterical analysis of the wider problems. The complete resignation of the Brazilian FA management tier and their replacement by benign, entirely reasonable experts in sporting administration would be a good start. For now though, this thrilling, baffling, continental-scale World Cup rolls on, now with its own bespoke note of theatrical – not to mention statistical – intrigue.
The holders Spain were also eliminated from this World Cup by a 7-1 scoreline, in that case across their first two matches. Now the hosts have done the same over 90 minutes. As Brazil – calm stoic Brazil – will confirm, this is still only football, and only a World Cup. It may not have cured homelessness, or purged Brazilian society of innate inequality and corruption that goes back to the Napoleonic wars in Europe, and which reflects in a single nation the basic spread of wealth and power across the world, a state of much for the few and little for the many that is the case everywhere. It has at least shone a light into some unexpected corners, as it did again on Tuesday night in another moment of grand but still somehow opaque sporting drama.