How to analyse a collapse so complete, so traumatic that it goes far beyond the normal realms of sport?
How to explain the seemingly inexplicable? How did the World Cup hosts and pre-tournament favourites suffer excruciating embarrassment twice in a week?
We are used to sportsmen and women choking – Greg Norman, Jana Novotna, Allan Donald – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
This was more than a choke. This was a team, almost to a man, buckling in extraordinary and almost unwatchable fashion.
Brazil! Five-times winners and the greatest football nation in history. In the final stages of the World Cup. On home turf.
The matches were two parts of the same tragedy – one that will mark a nation as profoundly as their 1950 failure against Uruguay.
Brazil. At home. Losing 10-1 over two consecutive matches. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen – but it did. Why?
This was not the 1970 Brazil squad. It wasn’t 2002. Nor even 1994. They were a generally able but unexceptional bunch.
A workmanlike midfield was spearheaded by poor Fred, a decent striker but one whose lack of movement and loss of confidence saw him pilloried mercilessly.
Good players were left at home – midfielders Lucas Moura and Roberto Firmino would have added penetration. Centre-back Miranda would have firmed things up.
In fact, there are at least 11 players who might have improved Scolari’s squad.
But this wasn’t really about a substandard team - it’s not like they played well against Germany and lost. They didn’t even play badly and lose.
They barely played at all – shedding all semblance of cohesion and allowing Germany to pretty much walk it in five times in 18 first-half minutes.
The relative unimportance of individuals was shown by Thiago Silva, whose suspension many cited as a key factor against Germany. Two minutes into his return versus the Dutch, he conceded a penalty after letting Arjen Robben race clean through, and it took an outrageous pity call from referee Djamel Haimoudi to keep him on the pitch.
The Brazilian personnel wasn’t great, but this was about more than that.
Scolari gambled on the young forward as the man on whom the nation’s World Cup hopes would live or die. And when Juan Zuniga felled Neymar with a knee to the back that left him with a cracked vertebra, it felt like a death.
Fred’s reaction on being told the news was typical.
Instead of moving on, Brazil wallowed in their grief. Partly because they had nobody to replace him, partly because Scolari must have felt it would inspire the team – but mainly because Neymar really is that big a deal in Brazil.
Out came the #ForçaNeymar hats, out came the creepy facemasks, out came the Neymar shirt during the national anthem.
It felt like Brazil had used up so much energy ‘mourning’ Neymar that when the match kicked off they had none left to play the match.
Of course Brazil missed him on the pitch – but their mawkishly excessive response to his injury ultimately proved far more damaging.
We can only imagine what it is like to head into a World Cup at home with your entire football-mad nation not hoping but demanding that you win the whole thing.
When your own government, seeing the supposed social and economic benefits of hosting the tournament evaporate, pins its hopes on your inevitable triumph.
It can’t be much fun, and it clearly got to a Brazil team who cried their way through national anthems and penalty shootouts before disintegrating in front of a disbelieving world.
Fred, booed off against Germany, declared himself scarred for life by the experience.
Home advantage is meant to give you a crucial edge. For Brazil it proved an intolerable burden.
Speaking after the third place match, Ian Wright described the Brazilian players as “a disgrace to their nation”.
Big talk from a man who apparently measures patriotism by pass completion – and completely misguided.
It’s easy to look at David Luiz’s ill-timed raids down the left wing and conclude he’s not taking the game seriously.
But pressure does strange things to people, and Brazil’s meltdown was so shockingly total it seems clear that this was not a failure of players who cared to little, but who cared too much.
- Sports & Recreation