Years of Soccer Rot Key to Brazil’s Downfall

Will Brazil weather this setback better than the country did in 1950?

In the evening, when the game is over, after a long day’s drinking with friends, it is easy to forget. The girls watch the boys go by and the boys watch the girls go by, and sometimes they do not go by but stop and chat and then drift off together in search of life’s easy pleasures. Solace is sought wherever it is available—at the bottom of a glass, in the arms of a loved one or a loving stranger, in simple, numbing sleep.

But in the morning, hours after it has happened, it is time to reflect. To look for answers. To ask what was that, what happened? Where did it all go wrong? What does it all mean?

Where it went wrong, probably, is the easy part. A technically limited team, with only Thiago Silva and Neymar close to a seat at soccer’s top table, is one reason. Most of the other players—Fernandinho, Hulk, Paulinho and others—are decent but unremarkable. Some, like Fred, are not even that. Then there is the coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose last major title (Confederations Cup, Copa do Brasil, and Uzbek League wins notwithstanding) was the 2002 World Cup, 12 years ago, and who in his last job led Palmeiras, one of Brazil’s biggest clubs, into the second division. His tactics this summer never got much beyond amateur league roughhousing.

Most seriously of all—a chronic lack of maturity and cool headedness, at least in part the result of Scolari’s decision to bring only six players with World Cup experience to the tournament. Brazil was under great pressure throughout this competition—born from playing at home in front of 200 million passionate fans and beneath the weight of the country’s glorious soccer history—and Scolari and the squad’s attempts to deal with this pressure were compelling, if ultimately painful, to watch. The players seemed to spend most of the World Cup on the brink of emotional breakdown, and the coaching staff was mired in paranoia, seeing imaginary enemies everywhere. How this team could have used someone like Kaká, even if only as a reserve, to tell the youngsters to take a breath, to take the intensity down a notch or two.

But there are deeper problems at work too. Brazil’s last World Cup win came 12 years ago, which, counting from the country’s first title in 1958, is the longest the Seleção has had to wait for a title since the 24 year drought between 1970 and 1994. After watching Scolari’s prosaic bunch lurch from one unconvincing performance to the next, the jogo bonito now seems like something from another era, as sepia-tinged as a Tropicalia number from the 1960s.

On the surface at least, Brazil still produces many talented players. A bright new generation of youngsters may be emerging at Santos, Neymar’s former club, for example, and the production line of talent to be exported to Europe shows no sign of slowing down. But a closer look reveals the foundations of the game in the country to be riddled with woodworm.

The domestic game is in chaos—average crowds in Serie A of the Brasileirão hover around the 15,000 mark, lower than Major League Soccer, and even the country’s biggest clubs carry spectacular levels of debt. The Brazilian football association, the indolent, incompetent, and morally questionable CBF—described by Romario yesterday as a “gang of corrupt thieves”—is run by cigar smoking, whiskey quaffing relics who are diametrically opposed to change of any kind. The intensity of Brazilian fans means that a win-at-all-costs mentality pervades the game, resulting in an obsession with short term triumphs and a rejection of fripperies such as attractive football and long term development.

The average coaching spell at a club tends to last months (or even weeks) rather than years, stymieing the development of young managers—once the idea of a foreign coach such as Pep Guardiola had been pooh-poohed by the great and good of Brazilian soccer after the departure of Mano Menezes in 2012, Scolari was basically the only option available. His successor following the World Cup is likely to be former Corinthians boss Tite—a solid club coach, but one with little experience outside Brazil, and not known for encouraging expansive soccer. At youth levels, Brazil failed to qualify for last year’s U-20 World Cup and was eliminated from the U-17 tournament in the quarter-finals.

“If the CBF said they would go to hell if Brazil didn’t win the World Cup, then we can only hope that they go there and never come back,” wrote Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil’s leading soccer journalists, in the Folha de São Paulo this morning. “This defeat must serve as a well-deserved lesson, on which we can base a better future, like the Germans did after the 2006 World Cup, cleaning up the finances of the clubs, getting the fans in the stadiums, creating a clean, beautiful game, and punishing the corrupt.”

As for what it all means, the easy answer is probably not all that much. Given the central role that soccer plays in Brazilian history and culture, it is tempting to use the game as a metaphor for the country as a whole, to believe that yesterday’s defeat has plunged an entire nation into the slough of despondency this morning. But Brazilians, obviously enough, are a little more complex than yellow-shirted stuffed toys, happy for months when their team wins, distraught for months when it loses.

After the game, the streets of Savassi, Belo Horizonte’s bar and restaurant district, were heaving with people, most of them young, most of them drunk, all looking extremely happy with life. The thrum of the crowds was deafening, the ground was sticky with spilled beer, and everywhere you looked people seemed to be, ahem, making new friends, most often (but not exclusively) of the opposite sex. I walked through the throng with a group of foreign journalists. “Not exactly a mood of national mourning,” observed one.

Later, from the window of my apartment, I looked up toward the Serra favela, thousands of lights glistening on the hillside. Thousands of lights, thousands of lives. Not all of them, at midnight, thinking about the seven goals that Germany put past their team today. Most of them, probably, thinking about work, school, or even university the next day. Or worrying about money, or an argument with a father, a mother, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a husband, a wife. Lives as humdrum and banal, as happy and as sad, as lives lived anywhere else in the world.

“Football isn’t the most important thing in the world, after all,” said Marcio Andrade, an agricultural engineer, drinking in a Savassi bar after the game. Brazil may feel a little chillier today after its World Cup party came to such an abrupt, humiliating end. And the crisis facing the game in Brazil is grave. With elections looming, the catastrophic nature of the result may even have political repercussions. But as it was always going to, away from expensively built new soccer stadiums, life in Brazil goes on.