I have been waiting a long time to quote Red Smith, the incomparable American sports writer, but I think finally the time has come. In 1951 the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth – the shot heard round the world – at the end of a mind-bendingly intense season-long struggle. Smith reported:
“Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
Brazil’s complete and unambiguous humiliation by Germany completed a narrative arc that, had it been scripted beforehand, would have been laughed out of the room as impossibly contrived. Of course, many had wondered whether the great disaster of the 1950 World Cup – the Maracanazo – might be repeated; that Brazil might be defeated again in the final game of the tournament. But nobody thought their departure from the competition would lay bare so forensically the myths and illusions of Brazilian football.
The coach, the team, the crowd and the Brazilian media and public have all played their parts. Scolari has picked a team and mandated a style of play that has made the paucity of talent and invention, let alone fantasy and creativity in Brazilian football, transparent. After all, this is the man that pioneered futebol força with his incredibly cynical and ugly Grêmio and Palmeiras teams of the 1990s. The sliver of elan that Neymar’s talent offered the team was taken away as a direct consequence of this kind of roughhouse tactics. Someone was going to get injured in Brazil’s appalling game with Colombia; it just turned out to be Neymar.
Carlos Alberto Parreira announced the end of Brazilian football before he led the team to their excruciating victory at the 1994 World Cup, saying: “magic and dreams in football are dead”. Yet off the pitch the myth has lived on. Now the coup de grace had been applied by Scolari’s team, and Parreira himself as one of Scolari’s support staff, has been there to see the job finished.
One is loath to pick out individual players who contributed to the debacle. In the aftermath of 1950 the Brazilian media and public turned on the teams three black players, particularly the goalkeeper Barbosa in an act of unambiguous collective racism and spite. Given the barrage of racist insults on social media that came the way of the Colombian player Juan Zúñiga whose challenge had broken Neymar’s vertebra, one fears for the hapless Fernandinho and the calamitously bad Marcelo.
But like 1950 the team’s emotional pitch was not of their own making. Last time around they were subject to a week of delusional hubris by Rio’s political class who acclaimed them winners before the game as they grandstanded and made speeches in the dressing room and team hotel. This time the team was prey to the collective emotional delusions of most of the country; that they would, somehow, carried on a wave of emotion, go all the way. David Luiz’s absurd fist-pumping was not the body language of the calm defensive coordinator that the team so desperately required, particularly in the absence of the captain Thiago Silva, but the herald of an evening of chaotically bad play.
Of course there have been tears, a lot of tears, but there has also been a smattering of humour and good grace. Reports from both stadium and the bars of São Paulo tell of Brazilians laughing at the comic farce, shouting olé as the Germans dominated possession and standing to applaud the final goal. This at least salvages something of the reputation of the Brazilian crowd in the stadium which has insulted their own president, booed the Chilean national anthem, petulantly demanded better football when neutrals, and despite its overwrought patriotism remained somnolent for long periods of many games.
After the 1998 World Cup final, when France swept aside Brazil and the catatonic Ronaldo, there was eventually sufficient political pressure to force the creation of congressional inquiries into the CBF (the Brazilian football federation) and its relationship with Nike, as well as the wider pathologies of the Brazilian game. Those reports, long moldering on the ministry of sports website revealed that Brazilian football is, despite very stiff global competition, amongst the most dysfunctional, badly organized and corrupt system around. More than that, both reports, published in 2001, recommended the criminal investigation and prosecution of a large swathe of Brazil’s football establishment. Brazil’s victory in the World Cup in 2002 ensured that not a single investigation or prosecution would be pursued.
I suspect that a victory in 2014 would have resulted in a similar absolution of the people and institutions that have run this World Cup. That the broken promises to the poor, the squandered opportunities for progressive urban redevelopment, the widespread and shameless stealing that has characterized the seven years since the tournament was awarded to Brazil, would all be, if not forgotten rendered utterly marginal. That is going to be a much harder act to pull off. But as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the mid-century Brazilian poet and football chronicler, wrote in 1982 after the famous defeat to Italy – it’s time for Brazil to wipe its tears, roll up its sleeves and get back to the serious business of political reform.
But Germany’s victory has not only changed the long-term resonance of the tournament in Brazil but showed us something about football itself. We can be grateful that the world’s press has not chosen to describe the game in terms of blitzkrieg, but offered the lesser clichés of the clinical, efficient Teutonic machine. It is extraordinary how words can blind us to what is going in front of our eyes: Germany were not clinical or efficient, they were dazzling.
This is what the very best of modern football looks like – in fact Germany looked like a top-level Champions League team to me. They were brilliantly organized but instantly flexible, individually accomplished but telepathically networked, technically superior to the Brazilians in touch, positioning and anticipation in every single position on the field. Schürrle’s exquisite control of the ball in the Brazilian box and the swiveling shot that followed for the sixth goal was emblematic of this.
Germany would have beaten Brazil 1970 and run them into the ground, let alone Brazil 2014. This is surely the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic. But it has happened. This is the beautiful game and it is made in Germany.