The goals came in quick-fire succession, the first just 11 minutes in, then four more in the 23rd, 24th, 26th and 29th. By the time Brazil had gathered itself, there were two more, in the 69th and 79th. The scoreboard at the top of the Estádio Mineirão read, at that point, Germany 7, Brazil 0.
From his perch in the stadium press box, Galvão Bueno, the most famous of Brazil’s TV broadcasters, called out in despair: “They’re here again!” he yelled as the Germans poured toward Brazilian goalie Júlio César. “And here comes more!” he cried later. “It’s a great side,” he said, exasperated, “against a team of boys.”
For Brazil’s famed national team, winner of five World Cup crowns, the eventual 7-1 defeat in the 2014 World Cup semifinal was the worst loss it had ever suffered. For the journalists who had parachuted into the country, it was easy to see the result as a replica of 1950, when Brazil also lost the World Cup on home soil in devastating fashion, and wonder if the country’s psyche would ever recover.
Four years later, on the eve of its Round of 16 match against Mexico, Brazil is once again among the favorites to win the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Since that awful night in Belo Horizonte, Brazil has won an Olympic gold medal and briefly regained FIFA’s top overall ranking. It has lost just once in the two years that the current manager, Tite, has been in charge. Brazil won two of its first three matches in Russia; now, the Brazilians are just four wins away from an unprecedented sixth World Cup title.
But Sete a Um, Seven to One, has lived on in Brazil — less as a bad memory than as a meme. It’s a bit of slang now, a way to laugh at a misfortune beyond one’s control.
“On the one hand, it was shame. On the other hand, it was a joke,” Juca Kfouri, the famed Brazilian sportswriter and sociologist, told me ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
“The joke eventually prevailed.”
Todo dia um novo 7-1, a Brazilian might say: Every day, a new 7-1. Cada dia um 7-1 diferente, another prefers: Every day, a different 7-1.
It is universal, a way to describe a bad day at the office, a poor experience on public transportation, the decision to stop for a beer after work when you meant to hit the gym. A missed flight, a rude customer, a spilled cup of coffee ― all are good reasons, in Brazil, to shake your head and declare that, “Today, God handed me a 7-1,” or to decide that your misfortune was yet another gol da Alemanha ― a German goal.
“If you search for ‘Every day another 7-1,’ you’ll find national problems, regional problems, personal problems,” Sergio Rangel, a journalist based in Vitória, north of Rio de Janeiro, said.
Brazilian humor is so accustomed to laughing at one’s own misery. There is a comic and self-deprecating tone in the Brazilian way of facing life. Renan Damasceno, journalist
It is a cliche verging on the sort of national essentialism that quadrennially afflicts World Cup coverage to suggest that soccer serves as a metaphor for Brazil as a whole. Sete a Um is not necessarily that. But the country’s self-conception is so wrapped up in its soccer team’s performance that its coping mechanisms after a loss inevitably take on aspects of the prevailing national temper.
The game was invented elsewhere, of course, but futebol began to take its place in Brazilian art, novels and plays late in the 19th century. In 1919, a Brazilian writer posited that “football is as important in Rio de Janeiro today as the theatre is in Paris,” and by the 1960s, it was “a commonplace of Brazilian culture that football was the national ritual,” author David Goldblatt explained in his book Futebol Nation. For a country as vast and diverse as Brazil, soccer could offer something like a lingua franca. When the national side was on the field, Brazil “existed in a more complete way than at any other moment,” Goldblatt wrote.
In the Seleção, as the national team is known, the fancy classes and the smart set tended to see the workings of the national character. When Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay — the Fateful Final — the playwright and novelist Nelson Rodrigues diagnosed a complexo de vira-lata, or “stray dog complex,” by which he meant “the inferiority with which the Brazilian positions himself, voluntarily, in front of the rest of the world.” As Alex Bellos writes in Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Rodrigues’ “phrase is endlessly resuscitated during any national sporting calamity. Brazil’s downfall is its lack of moral fibre. The opposition is irrelevant. Brazil is always playing against itself, against its own demons, against the ghosts of the Maracanã.”
And when Brazil won — in 1958, 1962 and again in 1970 — its success on the pitch was used as a symbol of its potential as a rising nation on the global stage. The 2014 World Cup was likewise to be a showcase for a Brazil ascendant, the country now a maturing democracy in the midst of a decade of explosive economic growth and prosperity.
Instead, the discontent that had been suppressed in the giddy buildup to the World Cup burst into the open. During the 2013 Confederations Cup, which Brazil also hosted, small demonstrations against rising bus fares turned into nationwide protests over, among other issues, the massive amounts of money Brazil was spending on stadiums and other World Cup construction projects to please FIFA, all while its schools, roads, hospitals and transportation networks languished.
Still, on the pitch, the Brazilians were favorites. When the first ball dropped in São Paulo, the country turned its attention to the party. Brazil never quite matched its own high standards for footballing success in its first five matches. Nevertheless, it found itself in the semifinals against Germany, on the cusp of advancing to its record eighth appearance in a World Cup final.
Even without star forward Neymar, who was injured against Colombia in the quarterfinal, “there was great confidence” inside the Estádio Mineirão that the Seleção would topple the Germans, said Renan Damasceno, a reporter who covered the match that night. “I remember a friend and I went up the steps to the [press box] commenting on the strategic possibilities of victory.”
Then it all went to hell.
“It was possible to perceive, throughout the match, how the reaction changed fast,” Damasceno said. First it was disbelief, then shock, then a weird sense of indifference. Finally, humor.
“On the internet,” Damasceno said, “Brazilians did not wait to finish the game to start the jokes.”
But instead of Nelson Rodrigues’ stray dogs limping across the national discourse, the response was a smiling shrug. 7-1. What can you do? As a sporting matter, the loss itself was mostly a fluke, explained away by Neymar’s injury and the suspension of defender Thiago Silva, absences that depleted a squad that was already weaker than the Brazilian norm.
And maybe there was something funny about it all, anyway. The whole event had been a fraud on the country. Most of the supposed legacy infrastructure projects were never completed. The stadiums were expensive white elephants. Brazil had spent $15 billion. And it hadn’t even won. What better way for the World Cup to conclude than with one last ripoff?
Sete a Um. The futebol gods were just another set of indifferent elites in a country too full of them.
“Brazilian humor is so accustomed to laughing at one’s own misery,” Damasceno said. “There is a comic and self-deprecating tone in the Brazilian way of facing life.”
Had that been the end of it, the 7-1 loss might have lived on as a painful reminder of Brazil’s comprehensive World Cup failure but nothing more. It wasn’t.
Sometimes, it feels like the entire country has taken a 7-1.
Brazil erupted in protest again in 2015 and 2016, this time over the deepening corruption crisis known as Operation Car Wash. Demonstrators called for President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment; the national team’s famed yellow shirt even became a symbol of opposition to the leftist president. Rousseff was impeached in 2016, voted out by many politicians who had themselves been implicated in the corruption probes, and replaced by her unpopular vice president, Michel Temer, who promptly faced allegations that he was corrupt but dodged prosecution on multiple occasions.
Allegations of corruption later spread to construction projects related to the World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and to the Brazilian Football Federation. The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 probe into corruption at FIFA eventually landed the federation’s president in an American prison, earned his successor a lifetime ban from international soccer and hit other top Brazilian soccer officials as well.
By the time I had traveled to Brazil for the Olympics in 2016, “7-1” had even crossed over into politics. One night, I was talking to an activist and journalist about Brazil’s myriad problems: Rousseff’s impeachment, the poor economy, police crackdowns on protesters who’d opposed the cost of the Rio Olympics, the corruption scandal. Everything, it seemed, was going wrong.
“Sometimes,” the activist said, “it feels like the entire country has taken a 7-1.”
As Kfouri told me recently: “7-1 transcends the football. Because everything in Brazil went wrong.”
Sete a Um has continued to hang over this national team, even though it has twice beaten Germany since then. That it has become a joke should not be mistaken for healing ― the loss is still a “ghost” that haunts Brazil, Tite, the manager, said before the team played Germany this spring.
That tempered the optimism and bravado that would typically precede a World Cup in which Brazil is among the favorites, but so has the fact that those political issues for which it has become a catchall expression continue to work in the opposite direction too. The Brazilian Football Federation’s refusal to address its corruption problems and lingering resentment on the Brazilian left over Rousseff’s impeachment and former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s imprisonment on a corruption conviction, meanwhile, seems to have dampened enthusiasm in some quarters for the national side.
In fact, in a poll taken a week before the World Cup began, a majority of Brazilians said they were not excited about the tournament. Perhaps they saw in the team too many reminders of the endless turmoil that has scandalized and exasperated the country as a whole.
But four more wins, starting with one against Mexico on Monday, and order will be restored. “Winning the World Cup will prove, in football, what the 7-1 was,” Kfouri said. “An accident, a miscarriage of nature, that had never happened before and will never happen again.”
The national team will have regained its credibility. The actual spirit of Sete a Um won’t be exorcised until Brazil’s other institutions do the same.
HuffPost Brazil’s Débora Melo contributed reporting.