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Humiliation and Heartbreak: Brazil Processes the Unthinkable

A Brazil fan cries as she watches the 2014 World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Germany at a fan area in Brasilia, in this July 8, 2014, file photo. Germany scored five goals in 18 astonishing first-half minutes on their way to a 7-1 semi-final mauling of Brazil on Tuesday which shattered the host nation's hopes of winning their sixth World Cup. It was the most shocking result in the tournament's history, Brazil's record World Cup defeat and their first at home in 64 competitive matches since 1975. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/Files (BRAZIL - Tags: SPORT SOCCER WORLD CUP) ATTENTION EDITORS - PICTURE 19 OF 20 FROM GERMANY'S JOURNEY TO THE WORLD CUP FINAL
A Brazil fan cries as she watches the 2014 World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Germany at a fan area in Brasilia.REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil has endured its share of tragedies. But in the aftermath of its 7-1 loss to Germany on Tuesday in the World Cup, the soul-searching and generalized venting of ire suggested that the country was absorbing a shock of historic proportions, comparable to the last time Brazil hosted the tournament in 1950, when it was eliminated in the final by Uruguay.

“Shame, Disgrace, Humiliation,” O Globo declared on its front page. “Go to Hell,” the newspaper O Dia told Luiz Felipe Scolari, coach of the national team. Even Valor, the financial daily normally focused on commodities prices and interest rate fluctuations, went big with the loss. Its headline: “We Deserved the Massacre.”

No doubt, the defeat allowed many Brazilians to indulge in some hyperbole about what went wrong in the stadium in Belo Horizonte. But if the intensity of recriminations is any guide, the rout offers a reminder of how the fortunes of Brazil’s national soccer team remain a mainspring in how Brazilians view their own society even as other traumas recede into history.

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“Soccer has long served as Brazil’s symbol of excellence, an area where Brazil could surpass any country in Europe, any country in the world,” said Roberto da Matta, 77, an anthropologist.

As a boy in 1950, da Matta witnessed Brazil’s only comparable debacle in Maracanã Stadium, the loss to Uruguay called the “Maracanazo.” Brazil offset that loss with five World Cup championships, more than any other nation, but it remained a scar on the national psyche.

“My hope is that we’re finally at the end of a cycle,” da Matta continued, “helping us pay more attention to problems in the country and less to how soccer affects our perception in the world.”

Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup has been politicized from the moment FIFA, the scandal-tarred organization that oversees global soccer, awarded the tournament to Brazil in 2007. Back then, the economy was booming and the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, viewed the Cup as an opportunity to celebrate Brazil’s achievements on the global stage.

Now the economy is in its fourth consecutive year of slow growth. While the feat of lifting millions out of poverty in the past decade remains intact, Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, has grappled with protests over political corruption and spending on lavish stadiums.

The effect of Brazil’s devastating loss on presidential elections this year may be hard to gauge. Rousseff, while less popular than at the start of her term, remains well ahead of rivals in polls. In 1998 Brazil’s national team also stunned the country, losing in the final, but the president then, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, won re-election.

“It may be true that the performance in the Cup hasn’t influenced an election,” said Igor Gielow, director of the Brasília bureau of the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, “but it’s equally correct that we’ve never been so humiliated before, and never on our own soil.”

Indeed, on Wednesday much of the country still seemed to be in shock over the loss. Newspapers carried articles about psychologists advising parents on how to help their children cope.

Flavio Spina, an engineer in São Paulo, gained notoriety after it became known that he had dreamed of a 7-1 loss, posting his nightmare on Facebook before the game.

“Since I drank a little, I even asked a friend, ‘Can this really be happening?’” he told reporters. “Can it be true?”

Brazil, of course, is a far different country from the Brazil at the time of the Maracanazo. Incomes have risen, illiteracy has diminished, democracy is more broadly entrenched, and industrial companies have become giants.

Outside Petrobras, the national oil company based here, Celso Lacerda, 35, an employee, said: “The game was kind of shocking, but I don’t think there’s much else to say. If this had happened in previous eras, there would be a bigger impact on Brazil.”

Others tried putting the defeat into perspective in a country where the national soccer players have traditionally been treated with a reverence far beyond most people’s grasp.

“Personal accomplishments are so hard to come by here, that people are drawn to where they find collective success,” said José Oliveira Tavares, an accountant in São Paulo. “It’s not how things should be, but I understand it.”

Still, for many Brazilians, the humiliation of losing in such a way, especially after waiting 64 years to host the tournament after the fiasco of 1950, continued to sting.

“This feels like a punch in the stomach,” said Gabriel Emiliano, 30, owner of a company renting video equipment in Brasília. “I’m very sad, and very shocked, and also ashamed.”

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