Between now and Dec. 25, SoccerGods.com will be looking back at the people, teams and moments that defined the 2014 soccer world. At the summer’s World Cup in Brazil, that world featured one of the most memorable results of our lifetime – a seven-goal performance that redefined how we view one of soccer’s established powers. James Young was in Belo Horizonte for a German performance that ended the host nation’s hopes:
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The press box is not usually the most exciting place to watch a game. Rows of middle aged journalists hunch over their laptops, typing sweatily, only occasionally glancing out at the action on the field. No one sings. No one jumps up when there is a goal. No one smiles.
The press zone at the Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 8 — the day Germany beat Brazil 7-1 — was a little different. A Brazilian journalist stood up from his desk and stared aghast at the pitch, hair askew, eyes red and moist, mouth flapping open and shut like a goldfish. A cerebral English sportswriter, famed for his passion for tactical minutiae, watched wide-eyed, unable to stop his elbows from jerking into the ribs of his neighbors as the German goals flew past Julio César. Other foreign reporters tried in vain to hide their sniggers, although these were not the result of mocking schadenfreude. Instead, the giggles were unconscious, nervous, disbelieving.
It was a similar story in the stands. This was a day when legends were born, and not only among the players. Who can forget the photo of the elderly Brazilian fan with the shaggy walrus moustache, tearily clutching his replica World Cup trophy as a little girl, perhaps his granddaughter, gives him a comforting embrace …
… or the heavyset gentleman (top of the page), gnawing with rage on his Brazil flag as the Seleção descended into a collective gibbering mess?
All around the stadium people were crying, consoling their neighbors, and gaping shell-shocked at the horrors unfolding before their eyes. On and off the field, Brazilian tears would be a leitmotif of this World Cup.
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Hyperbole is the vocabulary of sport. No country for ordinary adjectives, this. Only superlatives — the greatest, the fastest, the strongest, the best — will suffice. Yet most of the time, what we describe in such breathless tones is not really that remarkable at all. After all, even a team of 11 Lionel Messis against a side of Cristiano Ronaldos would still just be 22 men chasing a ball around the field.
But Brazil versus Germany was different. If Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Around The World in 1951, then this was The Shocker Watched Around The World – the Thrilla In Minas (Gerais), rather than Manila. Don De Lillo devoted the lengthy opening chapter of his masterful novel Underworld to the narratives that surrounded Thomson’s homer. He would have needed the book’s entire 832 pages to do justice to the Meltdown at the Mineirão.
On a purely footballing level, Brazil versus Germany does not deserve a place in the pantheon of great sporting moments. It was a terrible game – one side hopelessly outmatching the other; Brazil’s little leaguers against Germany’s Murderers’ Row. It was over after Toni Kroos scored Germany’s fourth goal in the 26th minute, and aside from the three goals that were scored, the second half was a ghoulishly tedious affair, with most attention focusing on the distraught reactions of the fans rather than the game. Surely great matches must not be cakewalks but should hang on a knife edge, feature last minute drama and tightening tension, like two of Brazil’s other World Cup heartbreakers against Italy in 1982 and France in 1986.
And yet we will remember this game long after the final that followed (after most World Cup finals, even) not because of the tension of the match itself but because the emotions on that sultry July afternoon were so heightened, the cultural backdrop to the game so vivid, the match itself so shocking, and the result and subsequent repercussions so extreme. Like Thomson’s homer and Ali’s showdown, Brazil versus Germany has entered the pantheon because it has assumed a cultural and social significance far beyond the game itself.
That significance begins with Brazil. It is funny to look back now and think there was something pre-ordained about that side. The host nation was the great, even Hollywood-would-think-it-too-cheesy, narrative of the World Cup. Between feverish anti-FIFA feelings that bubbled around the previous year’s Confederations Cup and the maddening sloth and chaos of the preparations to be ready to host the event at all, the drama surrounding the team started long before the tournament kicked off.
When the games finally began, there was the mawkish extended a capella version of the national anthem, Neymar’s tears, the hopes and dreams of 200 million fans, David Luiz’s tears, the nerve-wracking wins over Chile and Colombia, Thiago Silva’s tears, Neymar’s back injury, Júlio César’s tears, and the pressure of all those ghosts of World Cups past, from Garrincha to Romário, watching on scornfully. Drained by its own emotional intensity, Brazil lurched through the tournament like a beat-up Millennium Falcon, a loose screw away from disaster throughout.
It was exhausting to watch, which is part of the reason why Brazil versus Germany assumes its greatness. After all the preposterous drama that had come before, this was a suitable final chapter – a fitting end to Brazil’s World Cup dreams. The game was the sporting equivalent of a great screen death, like Jimmy Cagney in White Heat or Cary Grant in North by Northwest. After all that had happened, Brazil could hardly have slunk out of the Copa after a scrappy, mundane 1-0 defeat. The team needed to go down in flames.
In a way, too, Brazil’s humbling was about more than just soccer. In this seemingly perennially cursed país do futuro (“the country of the future” – the kicker being that the future never seems to arrive), the crushing finale of Brazil’s World Cup dreams was a perfect metaphor for the country’s current mood. Despite those Mundial wins of the past, Brazilians, often a surprisingly fatalistic people, are used to disappointment, to seeing their leaders and idols reveal their feet of clay all too quickly. This game fitted that description rather too aptly.
Not long ago, amidst rampant economic growth, the rise of the BRICS and the discovery of massive oil resources off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, the mood in the country was optimistic. Now the economy has stalled, the political climate is toxic, and the country is mired in possibly its biggest ever corruption scandal. Just as Brazilians demanded root and branch reform of the country’s soccer set-up after the humiliation against Germany, so president Dilma Rousseff has said that “Brazil will never be the same again” after the uncovering of the billion dollar Petrobras bribes conspiracy. The underwhelming result of the soccer revolution was a return to Dunga – it can only be hoped that the longed for changes in Brazilian society and politics will have a more inspiring outcome.
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All of which, with deep unfairness, pays no attention whatsoever to the German players and their magnificent performance that afternoon. An almost criminal oversight – for the game was arguably as seismic for the visitors as the hosts. Hindsight is both a powerful and a slippery weapon, and it is easy to forget that Germany had not looked entirely convincing before taking on Brazil. Still, as with all the best teams, Joachim Löw’s side had been getting better as the tournament went on.
But there had been bumps along the way, particularly against fast or physical sides. Ghana had pushed Germany all the way in a group game in Fortaleza, and extra-time had been needed to see off a courageous and enterprising Algeria in the round of 16 clash in Porto Alegre.
Before the game, in fact, the mood among the Brazilian fans outside the Mineirão was buoyant, and in the aforementioned press box, no one seemed to have a particularly strong opinion on which way the match might go. Ninety minutes later, however, and neither Germany nor the 2014 World Cup would ever be the same. It suddenly seemed as though the team’s phalanx of attacking midfielders had been playing this way – an intoxicating mix of endless movement and effortlessly smooth passing – for a decade, and combinations such as Müller to Kroos tripped off the tongue as easily as Xavi to Iniesta. Entry into the pantheon is surely guaranteed once a team becomes a model for the rest to aspire to, as Spain and Barcelona have done. In Brazil, after the World Cup, all the talk was of why the country could no longer produce a team or players like Germany.
Just like Spain and Barcelona, Germany’s success is no fluke, but the result of a lengthy process that began after disappointment at the 2006 World Cup, built around massive, long-term investment in facilities and infrastructure, a clear philosophy on how the game should be played from the youth teams to the senior squad, and joined-up thinking between clubs and country. Tragically Brazil, faced with a similar restructuring challenge this autumn, has instead chosen an uninspiring path called Dunga.
There is just time to recall a few of the sights and sounds of that memorable day: the taxi driver on the way to the ground who said he expected Brazil to lose as the players were “frauds” (a reference to the huge salaries they earn playing for Europe’s biggest clubs, and what he perceived as a lack of quality and/or pride in the canary yellow shirt); the feverish, hysterical atmosphere in the stands before the game; David Luiz, Fernandinho, Marcelo and the rest being jerked around by Muller, Kroos and co. as though, to recall one memorable line, “they were PlayStation players controlled by a four-year-old;” the inexorable beauty of Germany’s passing, cutting the Brazilian defense to ribbons; and the Brazilian players, red-eyed and broken, slumped on the turf at the end.
Finally, after the game, the streets of Belo Horizonte’s bar and restaurant district of Savassi thronged with revelers, the atmosphere carnaval-esque rather than funereal. The general mood of abandon may result in a few 7-1 babies next April.
Life would go on, was the message, and after all, it was only a game of soccer. But what a game of soccer it was. For once, the hyperbole was justified.
More: Remembering 2014