Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

World Cup Unifies Brazil in Joy, Despair

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In 1945, the Brazilian football clubs Remo and Paysandu took the pitch here in Belém, gateway to the Amazon in the northeastern state of Pará. One of many face-offs of their famous century-old rivalry, the match became significant for more than just the 7-0 drubbing that Paysandu inflicted. It would leave a deep scar on Remo’s psyche. 

The score still haunts Remo supporters such as Fabrico Bessa, even though his team has since bested Paysandu many times, including this year in the annual Clássico Rei da Amazônia (King of the Amazon Classic). 

“We won the local championship this year, but anytime I try to talk about it to someone from Paysandu they just look at me and say ‘7-0’,” said Bessa, a 34-year-old optometrist with a practice here. “We will always have to swallow that, because we don’t know how to explain how we lost 7-0.” 

In a small way, Bessa told me, that’s how this entire nation feels after the World Cup host lost 7-1 to Germany in the semifinal of the planet’s most-watched sporting event. Local newspapers reflected the agony on their front pages: “Massacre,” “Humiliation,” “An embarrassment for eternity.” Brazil had been the runaway favorite to win it all, with pre-tournament analytical models giving the seleção at least a 50 percent chance of claiming the trophy.

“It’s too sad to be real,” Bessa said. 

Brazil is now in mourning. But in that is something to be noted: Brazil is also unified.

While traveling across the Amazon the past month by ferry along the Amazon River and its tributaries, I have watched the national mood shift from anger over the event’s high price tag, to guarded optimism over the surprisingly smooth-running event, to full-on jubilance, to despair. From the northwestern border state of Acre, to the isolated jungle capital of Manaus, to the northeastern coastal port of Belém, I have seen Brazilians resoundingly enthusiastic to watch the matches and cheer on the seleção as the team advanced into the semifinals. 

All had seemed to be going well for a government that had previously suffered withering attacks for World Cup misspending, most notably during the massive nationwide demonstrations that erupted a year ago during the Confederations Cup. But after the World Cup kicked off, polls began to show a brightening outlook for the economy and rising popularity for President Dilma Rousseff as Brazilians rallied inside stadiums and around televisions. 

Now, that same unity that brought Brazil together has etched the numbers 7-1 onto the national psyche and threatened the government of Rousseff as she fights for re-election in October.

Germany scored five goals in an 18-minute span of the first half, and three of them in a mere 76 seconds. In downtown Belém at the riverside plaza Estação das Docas, I watched the roiling sea of yellow Brazil jerseys and blaring blow-horns become silenced, then stunned, then delirious as Brazilians began cheering on Germany. The match was quickly dubbed the Mineiraço—“the Mineirão blow,” a reference to the stadium in Belo Horizonte as well as to another tragedy from 64 years ago. In the 1950 World Cup, Brazil’s loss to Uruguay became known as the Maracanaço, after the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro where the final took place.

It’s hard to describe what such a loss means to Brazil without mentioning how previous wins meant so much. In Rio Branco, capital of the state of Acre, where I watched Brazil’s first two matches, streets bloomed with soccer streamers, cars donned national flags, and monuments displayed yellow-and-green banners. A national holiday was declared during every Brazil match—malls closed, taxis parked, GDP plummeted as economic activity ground to a halt during the mid-day matches. One quiet street of quaint cinderblock homes, Rua Delmar Pismel, turned into a veritable carnival with bright yellow sidewalks and houses painted with soccer images. Brazilians are justifiably embittered over the World Cup costs, local Joaquin Cavalcante told me, but those feelings would fade “once the ball starts rolling.” 

He was right. 

Later, when Brazil played Colombia in the quarterfinal on July 4, I was one of some 300 boat passengers crowded around a small television. The screen would turn to static as our slow ferry wound around bends in the Amazon River, sending a Brazilian rushing to adjust the antenna by turning a small metal knob hanging from the ceiling. The tension and excitement in the stuffy room was enough to short-circuit the boat. At the helm, a crackling radio gave regular match updates to the captain—though he could just as easily hear our cheering, which literally echoed over the dense Amazon jungle. 

“I’ve never seen a game on a boat before,” passenger Denilson Sousa Santana told me afterward as we relaxed on our hammocks. “I was with all types of people—Americans, indigenous people, Venezuelans, Colombians.”

“It was very emotional to watch,” he added. “Sometimes the TV signal would go out—it made everything electrifying.” 

I said I was surprised to see such unified enthusiasm, given that a pre-tournament survey by the Pew Research Center found more that more than 61 percent of Brazilians believed the World Cup was bad for the country because it took money away from schools, healthcare, and other services. 

“We love football,” responded Santana’s wife, Vera Lucia. “There should be more investment in education, hospitals. But we still like the World Cup.” 

As the tournament unified Brazilians around the national team, the stakes also rose for Rousseff. But the World Cup’s high cost—estimated up to $20 billion—could only be justified to many Brazilians by winning the sixth tournament title. Brazil’s coach had declared this their “the minimum requirement.” 

“If Brazil wins, Dilma will win re-election,” Vera Lucia said. “If Brazil loses, she will lose—with certainty.” 

There is no historical correlation between the World Cup and presidential elections in Brazil (which always fall in the same year), as studies have shown. In 2002, Brazil’s ruling party lost power despite national team winning the World Cup, while in 1998, incumbent President Fernando Henrique Cardoso won re-election despite Brazil’s losing the final to France. But then, those tournaments were not held in Brazil, nor did the national team fail so spectacularly. Brazil now shares a title with Mexico as the only nations to lose the World Cup twice on home territory. 

In Belém, which bid to be a World Cup host but was rejected in favor of Manaus, locals are bitter that the tournament only pumped money into certain cities and sponsors such as Budweiser, which was allowed to sell beer in stadiums despite an 11-year-old national law banning alcohol sales at all matches. Brazil’s humiliation Tuesday brought all those frustrations back to mind for Bessa, the optometrist. He stood beside his wife Renata and their friends Lucas and Fernanda Guerra, who also said they felt in a state of shock. 

“I feel the way Remo does about losing 7-0,” Fernanda said. 

But she and Bessa were also forgetting a big detail. Eighteen years before Paysandu devastated Remo, Remo had also beat Paysandu 7-0. The difference was that Paysandu rose from defeat and became stronger, while Remo allowed itself to become defined by the tragic loss. 

Which direction will Brazil take? And how will it impact Rousseff? A first test of whether the seleção can pull itself from this Jobian pit of despair will come Saturday, when Brazil takes the pitch in Brasília against the Netherlands in a contest for third place.

The following day, Germany and Argentina will take the pitch in Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup championship. Anti-government protests are already being planned. 

Tags: Brazil World Cup, Dilma Rousseff, World Cup 2014
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