In the melancholy aftermath of Brazil's devastating semifinal defeat to Germany, an old Morrissey song called "Boxers" got stuck in my head. The song is about a young fighter who tries and fails to make the locals proud, and its opening verse should have special resonance for a Brazilian national squad that, on this day at least, might be willing to trade the samba for a little Mancunian misery:
Losing in front of your home crowd,
You wish the ground
Would open up and take you down.
Will time ever pass?
Will time ever pass for us?
Surely, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar would have welcomed the earth swallowing him up, as he lay helplessly on his back after Germany scored its seventh — seventh! — goal. Time did not merely slow for David Luiz and his defenders; the space-time continuum was distorted beyond recognition in the first half, allowing the Germans to score five times as many goals in 20 minutes as they did in 90 against the Americans.
Time also took on a painful, glacial quality for "us," the multitude who looked on with a mixture of amazement and horror as the world's greatest footballing nation suffered a staggering meltdown on its own turf.
Brazilians were not the only ones marked by this catastrophe. Few could wish that disgrace on anyone, even those who, like myself, weren't even rooting for Brazil to win. Like any soccer fan, I have a deep veneration for Brazilian football, and it is depressing to see this wonderful giant brought so brutally to its knees.
Brazil will feel this in a way that will be almost incomprehensible to the rest of us. It will easily go down as the blackest day in the history of the Selecao, surpassing in infamy Brazil's loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, which tellingly was the last time Brazil hosted the tournament. That defeat was placed squarely at the feet of the goalkeeper Barbosa, who for decades afterward was publicly shamed as "the man who made Brazil cry," which is also the title of an excellent mini-documentary by ESPN that should give you an idea of how badly the country was scarred by the event. Imagine what is in store for Julio Cesar, David Luiz, and their teammates.
The blame for this new disaster is already being passed around. Felipe Scolari, the coach, is one possible culprit, for putting together an uninspiring squad that, with the exception of Neymar, was shockingly bereft of attacking options and creativity. Another is Brazil's development system, which has proved adept at pumping out efficient midfielders and fullbacks who can be sold to European clubs for lucrative sums, but has failed to produce the Rivaldos and Ronaldinhos who lit up the sport a mere generation ago. Brazilian soccer is clearly ill, with the flame-out in 2014 forming a pattern with the country's less spectacular World Cup exits in 2006 and 2010.
Still, none of this can explain a 7-1 loss. Brazil still boasted a very strong squad, and even a middling team would have shown more organization, more skill, more grit. Can you imagine the Americans, to name but one example, going out like that? Never. Inconceivable. I can only conclude that Brazil was under far too much pressure to win; after Germany's second goal, the team's mind was broken along with its defensive shape, and it was their misfortune that they happened to be facing a squad of cool-headed, technically proficient Germans. In that sense, the loss was truly a national failure, one that hopefully will result in some mercy for the players.
And this defeat will have sad repercussions beyond Brazil. This World Cup is not over. There is still a semifinal and a final to be played (and, pitilessly, a third-place match that will require the Brazilians to take the field once more). Perhaps this will turn out to be Lionel Messi's tournament, or the redemption of the long-suffering Dutch, or the triumph of a golden generation of German football. But soccer is a sport where defeats tend to ring louder than victories, and there is a distinct possibility that Brazil's loss could prove to be the story of the tournament, and that its players will take their place alongside other hallowed failures: the Dutch in 1974, the Hungarians in 1954, the French in 2006, and, yes, the Brazilians in 1950.
The World Cup is always capable of surprising us. Nobody expected the tournament to start so brightly, with so many goals and such joyful, exuberant play. And nobody could have predicted this either, not just defeat for Brazil, not just tears, but a World Cup shadowed by one of the cruelest humiliations in the history of the sport.
But that is why we watch it so fervently, because it can produce an astonishing range of emotions; because it is impossible to be jaded; because history is always being made in the most dramatic fashion. And there are only more surprises to come.