Although I played soccer in high school, I am not what you would call a soccer fan. I don't follow any of the professional teams, don't know the names of the players (well, now I know Tim Howard), or anything about the politics of the sport. I have only been to two professional games in my life, one in Amsterdam during the 1960s, another in Rio de Janeiro during a recent trip to Brazil. Nevertheless, during the Summer Olympics, and in World Cup years, I follow the matches. I like the way the competition brings all the people of the world together, focused on a common objective, and sharing the thrills, frustrations and suspense of a football match.
I've watched many of the games played during our current World Cup and, though I'm not given to patriotic fervor, I felt proud of the way the U.S. team performed, especially in its hard fought loss to Belgium. The players can hold their heads high. Tomorrow is another day.
But it was with a sense of unease and foreboding that I turned on the TV Tuesday to watch the match between Brazil and Germany. Brazil had a lot at stake in this game. Perhaps too much. Football in Brazil is a national obsession, a source of national identity and unity. Residents of the drug- and crime-infested favelas find common cause with the country's politicians, bankers, intellectuals, and artists. The entire country is painted green and yellow.
As the tournament progressed and Brazil moved through the group stage and into the semifinals, the people's urgency for victory was building to an ominous fever pitch. Nothing less than winning the Cup would vindicate Brazil in its own eyes and the eyes of the world, silencing the critics who questioned the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to host the event when so many urgent social needs ⎯- for education, for health care, for transportation -⎯ were underfunded. So each game became more than a sporting contest between two national teams. For Brazil, each game was a test of the nation's value as a people. And as each win brought them closer to the Cup, the stakes increased, and the pressure on the team grew. Only total victory would satisfy Brazil's hunger for recognition, for respect. Everyone would wear the laurel wreath.
Then came the disastrous game against Colombia. Silva yellow-carded out of the semifinals. Neymar frighteningly injured by a brutal foul that went unpunished. The cruel arbitrariness of the soccer gods had taken Brazil's best defender and attacker off the pitch as they prepared to face the relentless German machine. Would they be able to adapt?
The answer came quickly. Five German goals in a span of 11 minutes before the game had reached the 30-minute mark. Brazil's players seemed dazed, almost asleep as one after another German strikers rifled shots through the gaping holes in Brazil's defense. Stunned and weeping, Brazil's fans witnessed the greatest athletic meltdown in World Cup history. And the entire world was watching. Global humiliation.
The sense of national shame was pitiful to see. Oscar, who scored Brazil's lone goal minutes before the end, was inconsolable. His teammates huddled around him protectively. The acting captain Ruiz left the field crying uncontrollably and blubbered an apology to the fans into a TV microphone. Announcers in the booth were at a loss to explain Brazil's collapse. What had we just seen?
Clearly, the weight of national expectation had been too great for Brazil's players to bear without the presence on the field of their two leaders to inspire them and hold them together. They were a team that had lost its soul and its heart and had fallen into a paralysis of the will to fight.
But perhaps this outcome can bring the Brazilian people to a more sober and realistic acceptance of the role of football in their national culture. The coach Scolari accepted blame for the debacle and asked the people to forgive the team for so profoundly disappointing them. Forgiveness would be a good step in the direction of recognizing that what really holds a people together is not winning football matches, but sharing and accepting the vicissitudes of life. Love can heal Brazil's wounds.
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