The Mirror Crack’d
Brazil’s 7-1 semi-final defeat will reverberate through history: what went wrong?
About an hour after the Brazilian football national team suffered its greatest ever humiliation, a number of photographers captured the sombre image of the emptying Mineirão stadium with its lights dimming. It is already an iconic image. In the middle of the shadowy background, the imposing electronic score showed what may possibly be the most unlikely result in sports history – let alone in World Cups: Brazil 1 - 7 Germany.
The significance of the result could be seen as little as an hour after the match. Typing “Brazil disaster” into Google returned a huge number of results: match reports, blog posts and the comments of pundits around the world. Brazil would take a few hours more to awake from its self-induced coma.
As soon as the Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez whistled for the end of the match, the hunt for a scapegoat started, mixed with large doses of numbness, frustration and denial. A stunned Luiz Felipe Scolari affirmed during the press conference that he had no idea what had happened, but the entourage of the players was quick to start leaking information to media pointing where the errors had been. ‘Sources close to the issue’ were extremely talkative: virtually all of them had Scolari as the culprit, although some blamed the Brazilian football federation (CBF) and a few looked for less obvious names, such as sponsors, the players themselves and the television network Rede Globo.
Newspapers, magazines, TV stations and journalists were all keen to state that they had seen it coming, that they had predicted the result, but it was a blatant lie. Very few voiced their concerns before the Germany match and virtually none before the dramatic win over Chile. To speak against the Selecão before such an important match would have been terribly unpopular and most of the press was happy to share the enthusiasm of CBF and the advertisers.
It’s impossible to look into the event without taking into consideration three different aspects: historical and political context, and how Scolari and the CBF led the national team towards the disaster.
The first is the issue that very few Brazilians are conscious of: the country’s 64-year-old debt to the past, specifically the Maracanazo, the defeat to Uruguay that cost Brazil the 1950 World Cup. Although most of the population weren’t alive in 1950, the scars left by that match endure.
For almost 50 years after that defeat, Brazil didn’t have a black goalkeeper, something many believe is down to the fact that Moacyr Barbosa, the goalkeeper in 1950 and the man blamed for the defeat, was black. For decades, Barbosa saw pointing fingers in the street as people said, “That’s the man who made Brazil cry.” He himself was depressed about it until his death in 2000. “In Brazil, the penalty for homicide is 30 years in jail, but I was condemned for life for that match,” he said a few years before his death. After the 7-1 defeat, his daughter said she was relieved: “Now we can absolve Barbosa. At least he got to the final.” None of the players in the 1950 team died rich and very few were pardoned for that defeat. Depressed, the reserve goalkeeper Castilho committed suicide in 1987; others died in poverty. Nilton Santos, ‘the Football Encyclopedia’, passed away last year, the last player of the 1950 squad to die.
From the Maracanazo, Brazil had a craving to make amends. Every time Brazil was considered as a potential World Cup host, the collective subconscious hoped to erase that day from history. Once Brazil was chosen officially, in 2006, every player of an age that meant they might conceivably play in 2014 was seized by a feeling greater than for any World Cup. Everyone knew that playing and winning at home would make them heroes for all eternity, but few paid attention to the price a defeat might bring.
There were abundant reasons to be optimistic. Brazil, at the time of the announcement, had the best player in the world (Ronaldinho Gaúcho, then playing for Barcelona). Other than him, the country could look to several world-class names such as Kaká (then at Milan) and Adriano (at Internazionale). The country was the reigning world champion and, just before the tournament played in Germany, the manager Carlos Alberto Parreira asserted that “Brazil would begin a cycle of domination.”
“We are the champions,” he said, with his arrogant-but-polite manner. “If we win here [in Germany], we will play as champions in a nation that will naturally adopt us as their team [South Africa] and then we will play at home.”
In 2014, the weight of the responsibility became more visible as the competition started. Images of Brazilian players crying before and after matches, screaming apoplectically for cameras or giving aggressive interviews became the norm. After Alan Shearer had criticised Fred, the Barcelona full-back Dani Alves called him an “asshole”. Neymar and Fred said their critics had to “shut up” after their goals and Scolari said that if someone didn’t like him they “could go to hell”. The CBF press officer, Rodrigo Paiva, punched the Chile striker Mauricio Pinilla and was banned from the tournament. Scolari even suggested that Fifa would be more pleased with a Brazilian defeat. The ghosts of 1950 stalked Brazil until the very end.
The second aspect to be taken into consideration is the political environment within and outside the CBF. After Brazil was awarded the right to host the World Cup, the then CBF president Ricardo Teixeira capitalised on it. State and city officials literally begged to him to be chosen as one of the 12 host cities. There is no concrete proof so far that he received any bribes, but at least half of the host cities were unfit for the purpose. Manaus, a state capital in the middle of Amazon, built a R$900m (£234m) 42,000 all-seater stadium for three World Cup matches in a city where the average attendance for football matches is around 800. Similar situations occurred in Cuiabá, Brasília and Natal, while cities like Florianópolis (situated between São Paulo and Porto Alegre), were left out, although the city clubs had a rational plan. With or without proof, the accusations mounted and Teixera had to resign the presidency of the CBF.
His legacy remained. His successor, José Maria Marin, is an old-time politician, whose career in the seventies and eighties was inextricably linked to the military regime1. Marin held an honorary position in the CBF and, thanks to a legal formality, was named president. Instead of calling an election immediately, he did the political deals he needed to stay. And even more importantly, he ensured Rede Globo, the biggest broadcaster in the country, was by his side.
Rede Globo is tremendously important. It was founded after the 1964 coup, the company thriving under the military regime, becoming virtually a fourth power in the country. Presidents are not elected without its support and if challenged, Globo can be vicious, as the documentary Beyond Citizen Kane, a 1993 Channel Four production, demonstrated. The documentary, which unveils the web of interests around the company, was banned in Brazil and has never been shown on Brazilian television, thanks to the pressure Globo can apply. No democratic country has a television network with similar influence over the daily lives of its citizens.
The broadcaster holds all rights connected with the national team and its coverage of national squad matters is little more than populist PR, made to please sponsors and advertisers. It’s widely believed that its journalists are not allowed criticise the team (although the network and its journalists deny it), the CBF or the manager, unless Brazil lose matches. Globo’s deals with advertisers demand a ‘positive’ view of the team. Globo only expresses critical views over the national squad if the current manager loses public support or if the privilege Globo enjoys to conduct exclusive interviews (each one of the 23 World Cup players gave an exclusive 10-minute interview to the station) is threatened. If that happens, then it’s war.
Globo also holds the TV rights for the Brazilian league and decides which matches it broadcasts as well as the schedule. On Wednesdays, football matches in Brazil broadcast by Globo start at 10pm, to avoid a clash with the company’s main soap opera (another ads goldmine). Club officials accept it for two reasons: they can pretty much do what they want within the clubs (especially as regards transfer deals worth millions) and because if they challenge the TV station, they are very likely to be destroyed.
This scenario provides the background to all World Cups, including the last one: Globo promoting a tournament positively, with absolutely no criticism, its journalists asking the players gentle PR questions, officials and managerial staff conducting exclusive interviews. Players usually meet Globo journalists in private and, in exchange, they receive positive coverage.
During the 2014 World Cup, the company broadcast part of the main evening show, Jornal Nacional, from the Brazil training camp, where they could get the very latest news. Everything was fine until the match against Chile. As players cried after the dramatic win, the farcical enthusiasm ended. It became impossible to hide the Fluminense striker Fred’s awful performances and the lack of psychological balance of the whole team. Scolari is said to have been flabbergasted with what he saw after the penalty shootout. The manager himself is fundamental to the explanation of the third aspect under consideration: the amateurish management of the Seleção.
Brazil’s failures in 2006 and 2010 led the CBF to initiate changes. In 2006, led by Teixeira, it decided there had been too much freedom for both players and Globo within the training camp and opted for a ‘tough’ new boss, the former Brazil captain and midfielder Dunga, despite his lack of managerial experience. His reign was characterised by a poor relationship with the press, which culminated in heated discussions with journalists. Even Rede Globo lost some of its privileges. The situation deteriorated completely when a Globo journalist, Alex Escobar, clashed with Dunga during the World Cup. After Brazil’s defeat to the Netherlands, Globo took its revenge and savaged Dunga with a series of pieces dissecting all the mistakes he had made.
In the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup, Teixeira dumped Dunga, keen to keep his good relationship with Globo which he particularly needed as he sought to capitalise on hosting the World Cup. Teixeira offered the position of national team manager to Muricy Ramalho, the most obvious choice at the time. Ramalho had been national champion three times in a row between 2006 and 2008 and was widely respected. Surprisingly, Ramalho said he would take over if his club, Fluminense, allowed him to do so, but as Teixeira’s relationship with the club was poor, they refused. Teixeira opted for Mano Menezes, who at that time was Corinthians manager.
Menezes has not had a great career. He’s won two minor national titles, two local trophies and a couple of promotions from the second division. Under his command, Brazil played awfully. Most of his call-ups were intriguing. His fondness for Ukraine-based players raised suspicions about the influence of players’ agents. Even experienced journalists usually happy to paint a positive portrait of the CBF and its teams said they’d never seen so many agents in the lobbies of the hotels where Brazil gathered before friendlies. A poor Copa América performance and the defeat in the Olympic final led to Menezes being sacked in November 2012.
This is where Scolari comes in. The gaúcho boss was a beloved figure in Brazil after he managed Brazil to victory in the 2002 World Cup, but at the time of his return to Brazil he wasn’t at the top of his game. Following his tenure in charge of Portugal, his results declined. After being sacked from Chelsea and his time with the Uzbekistan club Bunyodkor, he went back to Palmeiras in 2010, where he had iconic status having led them to the Copa Libertadores in 1999. His return proved to be a mistake and despite winning a Brazilian Cup, his management drove Palmeiras to the bottom of the Brazilian league table. They were relegated, but Felipão had been dismissed two months before the end of the tournament.
When Marin asked Scolari to take over Brazil again, he eagerly accepted. His appointment was generally well received, mostly because of the pitiful results achieved by Menezes. The main problem was that Scolari was frozen in his winning past.
To understand Scolari, it is necessary to understand his upbringing. A mediocre defender as a player, Scolari comes from a small city in southern Brazil, where football is known to be very physical and ‘macho’. Violent defenders are welcomed and the management culture as a whole is pitched somewhere between a family and a military regime. Scolari protects his players as José Mourinho does and does not tolerate dissent. But where Mourinho is sophisticated, Scolari has a 1970s mindset, unchanged since then.
In his first period in charge of Brazil, in 2001, he did something he has always done: he called on his “trusted men”. His assistant coach, goalkeeping coach and fitness coach were all his friends and confidantes. 10 years later, all of them were back. He also maintained the habit of picking players he already knew – even if better ones were available – and once the group was formed, not even an earthquake could change it.
That explains why so many players who probably should have been in the squad were left out of the final 2014 call-up. The defenders Miranda, Rafinha and Filipe Luís never really had a chance, and neither did the Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho or the PSG winger Lucas Moura, to name a few. Scolari’s decision over the final squad is likely to have been made after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013, so the last European season counted very little in defining the 23 who headed towards the ‘Mineirão Massacre’. This stubbornness wasn’t criticised by fans and press at first, but was one of the reasons behind the downfall.
Scolari considered changing tactics after the display against Chile, running a training session with a three-man defence before the quarter-final against Colombia. The apparent uncertainty didn’t go unnoticed. The media started to wonder if the manager knew what he was doing and players’ concerns grew even more.
Scared by the psychological state of the team after the lucky victory over Chile, Scolari did what he’s always done: relied on his friends. He called six journalists whom he trusted (a Globo one included) and gave them exclusive information asking in exchange (not directly) for stronger support from the media. He also confessed he had never seen a squad so nervous and said that he would ask a psychologist to help. The six journalists left the meeting happy with their exclusive insights, while the rest of the press pack fumed. At that point, the general tone of the coverage began to change and the hell the Seleção would enter after the semi-final began to be created.
In the short-term, the ‘help’ from the chosen journalists worked and before the Colombia match there was still a positive feeling between Brazil, press and the fans. Scolari still had his team intact and despite an awful forward line the defence seemed solid. “Brazil depends on individuals up front, but has a tough defence, hard to open,” said Mourinho. But he gave a warning: “Oscar is being played in a position he does not enjoy; Neymar and Hulk tend to explore the same side and Fred is forced to come back too much – and he shouldn’t, he is a typical number 9.” He then added the obvious: Brazil didn’t have any players capable of creating offensive moves.
Press and supporters had already condemned Fred after the Chile game, but very few noticed that the golden-boy Neymar had also been a ghost, kept out of the play for most of the match. There was evidence of the first real complaints from players directly to the managerial staff, about the lack of tactical training, the lack of playmakers in the team and certain selection issues. The special attention given to Neymar also created some dissent. The Barcelona star, a ubiquitous presence during the competition, could virtually do anything he wanted, from interviews to staying with his girlfriend in a luxurious hotel in Rio followed by an army of journalists, paparazzi and supporters.
The quarter-final seemed to be easing the tension until Colombia’s Juan Camilo Zúñiga made a sloppy but violent tackle on Neymar, ending his participation in the tournament. The country waited anxiously for news of his physical state, but very few highlighted the automatic suspension of Thiago Silva. David Luiz’s great performance against Colombia was in part a reason for that. Just after the match, Mourinho observed, “Neymar’s loss is great, but I’d be more concerned about Thiago’s absence. David Luiz will need to play on the right of the defence to allow Dante to play on the left and this is a difficult challenge.” The prediction would prove to be painfully accurate.
Without Neymar, Brazil – and even Globo, to an extent – accepted that a defeat was possible. There was a consensus that Germany were far better as a team and without Neymar, Brazil were likely to lose. If it happened, it was assumed it would be an honourable defeat, because of the quality of the opponent, because Brazil had lost their skipper and because – mainly – they wouldn’t have Neymar, by then worshipped in Brazil as much as Pelé.
Dante was an obvious choice to replace Thiago Silva, but in attack Scolari opted to bring Bernard in to take Neymar’s place. The Shakhtar Donetsk winger was an odd choice for the call-up in the first place. His success in the domestic leagues earned him a €25 million move to Ukraine, but he failed to impress greatly there. The players would have preferred a more seasoned substitute, like Chelsea’s Ramires or Internazionale’s Hernanes, to strengthen midfield, or the Chelsea winger Willian.
Despite everything, the atmosphere at the Mineirão Stadium was cheerful and the crowd genuinely expected Brazil to win. (Brazilians never – ever – think Brazil will lose immediately before a match.) The arrogant denial only made the fall worse. In the 18 minutes between Thomas Müller’s opening goal and the fifth from Sami Khedira, supporters, press and the country as a whole were all in disbelief. Pundits were barely able to keep commentating, let alone make a precise analysis. Watching the match at his home, Neymar is said to have turned off the television after Khedira’s goal, preferring to play cards with his friends. Long before the end, players were already having to steel themselves not to cry.
The post-match dressing-room felt like the wake of a close family member. Most of the players cried. The former skipper and 2002 World Cup winner Cafu, an obedient CBF servant, tried to reach them to express his support but wasn’t allowed in and left, fuming. Scolari’s press conference was a mixture of confusion and mild aggression. That night, no Brazlian journalist, fan, official, player or former player in the country was able to conceive what had happened. But it would change overnight.
Never in history have Brazil’s newspapers come out simultaneously with such an aggressive and merciless destruction of the national team. A few violent protests took place, but the devastation was so absolute that there was no enthusiasm even to demand changes. Brazil went into a numbness that would last weeks.
Two days after the elimination, Scolari and Parreira gave another interview.
Until that day, the former Brazil manager had argued that all major decisions were made jointly by him and Scolari. Parreira changed his mind then. After the slump, he said Bernard’s picking was “a Scolari call” (leaving Felipão visibly annoyed) and that despite the humiliation, the CBF should retain the managerial staff. “Joachim Löw lost twice and was allowed to stay. This is a winning mentality,” he said. Both were adamant that they wouldn’t resign, leaving fans and press astonished. The defeat to the Netherlands in the third-place play-off didn’t matter, but at least it was enough to make Scolari say he was resigning the following week (Parreira didn’t and it is supposed that he was keen to take over the position).
Other than breaking many records, the defeat started the obvious debate about the state of football in the country. Youth academies, the national league format and management, managers’ and coaches’ formal education, the transfer system, the regulations allowing players to leave the country before their 18th birthday – everything was considered in need of being reset. It was even suggested that a ‘Futebrás’ should be created, a state company to regulate the sport. The truth is that nothing will change, even after what happened.
When the national league resumed on the Wednesday after the World Cup final, the ratings were so low that Rede Globo executives gathered to decide what to do – after all, the Brazilian championship is one of the network’s most valuable assets. Globo is meeting with club officials, arguing that, as the audience falls, the television revenues for the clubs will decrease as well. According to Globo, the best solution is returning from a league format to a knockout system, making decisive matches between great teams likelier – and, more importantly, more interesting to advertisers. None of the officials have accepted the plan so far, but the debt-ridden Brazilian clubs may not resist for long.
The World Cup left several wounds and, ironically, the heaviest ever defeat was the smallest of them. Brazil inherited twelve extremely expensive stadiums – nine of them belonging to the government. Five of the nine will drain public money as the local teams can’t afford to take on the rent, let alone the maintenance. Billions of reais were wasted on the construction of overvalued infrastructure, much of it incomplete. Not one Brazilian official or politician has been found guilty of any misuse of public money and it’s unlikely any will be.
The players involved in the fateful match are yet to feel the weight of history on their shoulders. No matter what they do in their careers, their epitaphs will be “one of the players who lost 7-1 to Germany in 2014”. Scolari, who had already undone all the good work he had done for Palmeiras, destroyed any sympathy Brazil supporters had for him. Back at Grêmio, the club where he gained a national reputation, it seems certain he will have the same fate. Among the players, Fred (who has retired from international football) and David Luiz were chosen as the scapegoats. At this point, Neymar should thank Zúñiga for his injury: his reputation remained unscarred by the tournament.
The future for the Selecão seems as bleak as for the stadiums. To replace Scolari, José Maria Marin selected Dunga, an unlikely solution to any of the problems. The national youth teams were entrusted to a player agent, Gilmar Rinaldi, while Dunga’s former teammates Taffarel and Mauro Silva joined the managerial staff. There is still a grudge to be resolved with Dunga, but Globo will probably overcome it and carry on effectively owning the national team.
What is yet to be seen is how Brazil will recover as a team and as a product. Both were massively overvalued, as the national league was and, probably, Brazilian players as a brand. In 1950, the historic defeat led the country along the road towards the most successful period of any national team in football history. This time, this is very unlikely to happen.