It’s a well-known (and oft-paraphrased) quote from the late legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, but it bears repeating. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death,” Shankly said. “I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more than that.”
Now consider that supporters of the national Brazilian side make Liverpool’s do-or-die supporters look like lackadaisical occasional fans, and you’ll get some sense of the raw emotion — the sheer pain — flooding the country right now, in the wake of its 7-1 semifinal crushing by Germany.
A nation of 200 million people just fell to its knees, and we don’t know when it will get up again.
If you were paying attention in the run up to the 2014 World Cup, you likely have heard about the defeat known as the Maracanazo in the Maracana stadium in 1950. The scene of what was, until today, the most ignominious loss in Brazilian sporting history. Here’s how that went down: An overconfident Brazil prematurely celebrated World Cup victory, then lost the final 2-1 to tiny Uruguay. The defeat is still spoken of in hushed tones.
The Brazilian goalkeeper in that game, Moacir Barbosa, was scapegoated, and hounded over two generations. Widely considered a bad-luck charm, he was shunned even from training matches. “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30-years imprisonment,” he said shortly before his death in 2000, “but I have been paying, for something I am not even responsible for, by now, for 50 years.”
This despite the fact that Barbosa was previously lauded for his part in a 7-0 victory in the Copa America final the previous year.
What, then, will Brazil do to its current team? What will it do to its manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari? Will it matter anymore that Scolari led Brazil to its fifth World Cup victory in 2002, when his team beat Germany 2-0 in the final? Or will this more recent German scoreline be the only one that matters?
The scale of this defeat, the utter global humiliation that it represents — and worse, the fact that it was on Brazilian soil — may serve to wipe out all the good Scolari has done over the years.
Already, Brazilians are comparing the collapse they witnessed to the 1950 game, and not favorably. “This is worse than 1950,” one 28-year old fan told Reuters. “It’s one thing to lose a game where you suffered and fought hard, and it’s another to be completely humiliated.”
You can see that humiliation, along with the sheer terror of how this will be remembered, on the face of Brazilian captain David Luiz in this heartbreaking video where he apologizes repeatedly to the nation. No translation necessary; he’s basically saying sorry, over and over.
Of course, Luiz isn’t done. Somehow he has to pull himself and his team together for the third-place match on Saturday, when Brazil will face the might of either Argentina or the Netherlands. It’s a shot at redemption, if anything is capable of redeeming this team.
But maybe it’s also a moment for Brazil to bury all the ghosts of its past. Sooner or later, every soccer power has to contend with a crushing defeat from Germany (take it from this Brit who still remembers England losing 4-1 to Germany in the World Cup round of 16, four years ago). What matters — the measure of a nation — is how you recover.
If Brazil can move on and meet the third-place match with joyness and light, if Brasilia is a samba-style celebration of yellow jerseys, partying on like nothing happened in the semifinal, Brazil will again win the hearts of an adoring world. And maybe, just maybe, the ghost of Moacir Barbosa will look down and smile.