A Soccer Fable: The Day the World Found Out Brazil Has No Clothes

Brazil's Júlio César and David LuizThe other day at work someone asked me, “Hey, Joe, who’s it going to be, Brazil or Germany?” The answer came loud and clear: “My head tells me Germany, but my heart says Brazil.” The heart spoke plainly, but I should have listened to my head.

I had committed the same grievous fault that Costa Rican coach Jorge Luis Pinto made in choosing to keep his battered goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, in the penalty round with the formidable Dutch substitute Tim Krul. My problem, as much as it was coach Pinto’s, was to let sentiment get in the way of my better judgment.

Not even Mel Brooks, the celebrated director, humorist, and screenwriter of such comedy classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – yes, THAT Mel Brooks – could have dreamed up a more ludicrous scenario than the semifinal “contest” between host nation Brazil and top-rated Germany.

Can anyone explain what happened to Brazil’s national team on Tuesday, July 8, 2014? The only words that come to mind are shock, awe, dismay, anger, disbelief, betrayal, rage, and any number of choice epithets.

The above date will stand in the collective memory of Brazilian soccer fans as the most disgraceful performance put on by their national team since the World Cup debacle of 1950. Sixty-four years ago, Brazil lost the final match to Uruguay at the newly built Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, designed for the specific purpose of showcasing the country’s prowess in the world’s favorite sport.

The score was tied 1-1 early in the second half. With barely 11 minutes left to play, two hundred thousand incredulous cariocas witnessed a Lilliputian opponent score the winning goal and wrest the coveted title of World Cup champion away from soccer-crazed Brazil.

Time and distance have blurred the reminiscences of this infamous event. But suffice it to say that it took eight years for stunned Brazilians to recover from that disastrous rout before such soccer luminaries as Pelé, Garrincha, Zito, Vavá, Didi, and others stepped up to meet the challenge in Sweden and hoist the first of five World Cup trophies.

Where are their likes today, may I ask? And how long will it take Brazil to wipe this latest catastrophe from their collective memories, and from their hearts?

La Grande Illusion

The fervor with which the crowd greeted the singing of Brazil’s hino nacional (national anthem) at Tuesday’s semifinal match, and in particular the way that goalie Júlio Cesar and captain pro tempore David Luiz held up their fallen comrade Neymar’s number 10 jersey – in the words of one journalist, “as if it were a holy relic” – made it known to the world that the country’s national team would boldly carry on despite his and Thiago Silva’s absence.

After the match was over, I could only commiserate with my fellow Brazil watchers as to the fatal outcome. There was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, no sirree. Instead, we were unwilling witnesses to the bursting of the Brazilian bubble, a grande ilusão do Carnaval (“the great illusion of Carnaval”) in the lyrics to the Tom Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes tune, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”).

The song starts off with this melancholy phrase: “Tristeza não tem fim, felicidade sim” – “Sadness has no end, but happiness does.” Truer words were never spoken!

It’s tempting for disheartened Brazilians, both in the country and abroad, to pile on the loathing for their failed national team. And heaven knows plenty of bile has been spilled on social media, Twitter, and elsewhere over their loss to the German war machine. However, I shall resist the temptation to throw more fuel onto the fire and leave that distasteful task to others.

But the question still remains: how could such a staggering exhibition of ineptitude by a major soccer nation, if not THE major soccer nation, have slipped by unnoticed?

“We Are the Hollow Men”

I’ve been critical of the Brazilian national team’s lackadaisical attitude before in my pieces about the 1998 loss to France, and especially the substandard World Cup run of 2006 (see the following link: http://aw6kxmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/soccer-field-of-fractured-dreams-brazil-2006-world-cup-debacle-part-one/). I stand by what I wrote then, which goes double for the events of today. That year, it was Portugal, a country that shares Brazil’s language and much of its cultural heritage, who took the honors as the Lusitanian upstarts who fought the hardest for king and country… and lost.

Their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or Felipão (Big Phil), was the individual responsible for much of the Portuguese players’ gung-ho attitude. Believe it or not, he’s the same Luiz Felipe Scolari whose national team had just about lost their shirts (and their guts) to the swifter, taller, and unbelievably agile Deutschlanders. What went wrong?

Some say there was a last-minute change in the starting lineup, which led to a breakdown in communication on the field. Others blame the emotion of the moment, i.e., the passion that superseded all practical matters, to the banishment of proper pregame planning.

While we’re on the subject, ESPN commentator Michael Ballack, a veteran of Germany’s 2002 and 2006 World Cup campaigns, posed the theory that Brazil had no Plan B – which is absurd, since in many people’s minds (including my own) there was never a Plan A to begin with.

It could’ve been a whole range of possibilities, from the fact that Brazil, as the host nation, wasn’t required to participate in any of the qualifying matches. Politics may likewise have played a hand in the mess, but that’s not entirely satisfactory. Another ESPN analyst, former midfielder Gilberto Silva, who contributed to Brazil’s 2002 championship effort against their Teutonic rivals, actually praised Germany for having completely reshaped the team into the world-class contenders they are today.

“There needs to be a broader examination of how [Brazil] played,” Silva noted. “The team faced a difficult opponent and they could not cope.” Ballack was more forthright in his evaluation: “They weren’t prepared.”

Alexi Lalas, the third opinion-maker in the commentator’s chair and a former Team USA World Cup participant himself, offered this analysis: “Passion and emotion are not going to take you through, not against someone like Germany. You got to have players.”

From Alexi’s comment, it was evident that Brazil’s alleged proficiency on the pitch had been accomplished through smoke and mirrors – that is, the Mirror of Erised (the word “Desire” spelled backwards). For those who are unaware of its deeper meaning, the term “Mirror of Erised” derives from the Harry Potter series.

According to Albus Dumbledore, the Dean of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it is a mirror that shows the “deepest and most desperate desire of one’s heart,” which, in Brazil’s case, would equate to her wish for a sixth World Cup title.

All the country’s efforts were geared toward the realization of that dream. Commencing in 2007, when Brazil won the right to stage the quadrennial event, a million bags of cement, along with billions upon billions of local dollars, had been poured into building and/or renovating a minor kingdom of soccer stadiums in-and-around the principal sites where group matches were to be held.

Despite the Brazilian government’s lavish spending spree, a large portion of the projects had yet to be completed by the time of the opening whistle in early June 2014, a span of seven years. Brazil’s ignominious 7-1 defeat last Tuesday at the hands of the Germans would be the straw that broke this camel’s back.

According to MY calculations, that’s one goal for every year it took to bring the World Cup to fruition. Nice going, guys!

The Fickle Finger of Fate

You’ll pardon me if I don’t bring up the depressing first-half statistics of that by-now notorious “shooting” spree, where, in a six-minute sequence, four of the half’s five goals were placed into the Brazilian net. While the slaughter was still going on, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was if I were watching back-to-back reruns of The Twilight Zone, with the movie Groundhog Day thrown in as an added inducement, beckoning me to stay tuned for more suffering.

Curious readers can get their fill of the gory details elsewhere, if they are so inclined. As for this writer, I prefer to let this World Cup speak for itself.

From the start, the “Hand of God” moment was all over the 2014 tournament. The heavy smell of divine retribution was in the air, with the Flying Dutchmen of Holland being the first to feel its wrath.

In a portent of things to come, the Netherlands trounced 2010 champion Spain in their one-sided 5-1 win. At best, it was a Pyrrhic victory, for during their quarterfinal match with Costa Rica the Dutch bested the efforts of goalie Navas, by going 4-3 in penalty kicks.

The tables were turned on Holland, however, in their semifinal marathon with Argentina. After two hours of scoreless play in the driving rain, the exhausted Dutch Masters had little fuel left for their shootout with the colossal Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero. You could say they were running on empty.

Ah, but the soccer gods are jealous deities who must constantly be appeased. With a wave of his monstrous arms, Romero pounded his chest à la Mighty Joe Young in a self-congratulatory gesture of approbation for his outstanding skills at stopping the best the Dutch had to offer.

In the same manner in which they had triumphed over Costa Rica, the Netherlands lost to Argentina on penalty kicks, 4-2. And Argentina had the last laugh. Why? Because in 1986, their most famous player, Diego Maradona, scored a miraculous shot into the British goal via the so-called “Hand of God” gesture – more fittingly, the “Fickle Finger of Fate,” or Maradona’s wrist-action motion whereby he flicked the ball over the head of goalie Peter Shilton and into the net, with the accompanying cries of “handball” going unheard.

Not only was God’s unseen hand at work that afternoon, but His ears were deaf to the pleas of supplicants to reverse the referee’s decision. Argentina won the quarterfinal match against England and went on to triumph over Germany for their second World Cup title. And now, Argentina has another chance to meet and beat Germany for a fourth World Cup title. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah! Take that, Netherlands!

The most blatant “Hand of God” moment of this World Cup, however, occurred just the other week when Brazil’s star striker Neymar felt a well-placed Colombian knee to his back in another quarterfinal battle. The result of that encounter: a fractured vertebra that forced Neymar to bow out of Tuesday’s disastrous contest with Deutschland. We should be so lucky.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

As a way of encapsulating the events of Brazil’s 7-1 drubbing at the hands not only of God but of a superior soccer foe, let me conclude this postmortem with a story.

It’s the classic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, handed down by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Readers may recall the plot of this beloved children’s fable, about a vain Emperor whose only ambition in life was to wear the finest clothes that money could buy. He was so vain, in fact, that everywhere he went, whether it was to attend the theater or a meeting of his ministers, he would show off his fancy finery to their fullest.

One day, two swindlers heard of the spendthrift Emperor and decided to make a killing at the monarch’s expense. Posing as a tailor and a weaver, respectively, the two charlatans convinced the gullible Emperor they could spin a set of clothing so uncommonly fine and so magnificent in fabric and color, that only those who were unfit for office, or unusually stupid, would be unable to see the clothes with their naked eyes.

Suitably intrigued, the Emperor immediately gave the two swindlers a vast sum of gold and money, and whatever else their hearts desired, in order to make him a superb set of clothing. Pretending to work the looms, the swindlers went about spinning and weaving and going through the motions, although there was absolutely nothing to look at. The looms remained empty to the eye.

Although several of the Emperor’s ministers were sent to the workroom to report on the swindlers’ progress, none of them admitted to seeing the empty looms. They were convinced, as the Emperor undoubtedly was, that if they failed to notice the rich fabrics the two crooks had woven, then they would be admitting they too were unfit for office, or were unusually stupid. God forbid that were to happen!

Pocketing the Emperor’s fortune as they went about their business, the swindlers were prepared to fleece their dupe for all he was worth. Finally, the day arrived when the Emperor would try on his fabulous new wardrobe. When he entered the workroom, the Emperor was dumbfounded: there was nothing for him to wear. However, there was no way he was going to admit it. “I’m no fool! I’m not unfit for office!” he thought to himself. So the Emperor went along with the gag, as did his ministers and entourage.

“Magnificent! Superb! What excellent craftsmanship!” the Emperor cried out in glee. “I can’t wait to parade my new clothes before the whole town!” On the day of the procession, the two swindlers dressed the Emperor themselves, so convinced were they of their cleverness in hoodwinking the royal fool.

As the procession made its way around town, the cheering populace “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” at the richness of the sovereign’s attire. No one would dare speak the truth for fear of offending the Emperor, or worse, for admitting they were too stupid to notice he hadn’t worn any clothes.

Suddenly, a little child came out of the crowd. With a ringing voice, he shouted to his father, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” The father was stunned at his son’s brashness and tried to explain away his remark. But the boy repeated his comment: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

Soon, everyone was whispering to one another. And the whispers grew louder and more pronounced: “Look! It’s true! Oh, my goodness, the Emperor has no clothes!”

Embarrassed and confused, the Emperor realized that the boy and the rest of the townspeople were correct in their assessment. But he dare not admit it in public, for he had been conned into believing the image the two swindlers had crafted for him. And what was worse, he had given himself over to the illusion created by those two unscrupulous connivers.

There he stood, helpless and alone. And on he marched, as proud as a peacock – and as shamefaced and naked as the day he was born.

The moral to the story: the Emperor represents Brazil and/or her national team. The swindlers are Brazil’s coach and his staff. The townspeople are the fans in the stadium and throughout the televised world.

And the boy? Why, he’s the crying child in the audience, the one who sadly realized the image of invincibility that Brazil’s national team had so carefully crafted over the years was nothing more than an illusion. And why was he crying? Because that day, the boy learned the illusion had vanished forever.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.

© Josmar F. Lopes 2014


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