Latin America’s obsession with football is unequalled anywhere else in the world, and some commentators have described the Brazilian national side’s 1-7 defeat against Germany in the World Cup semi-final on Tuesday as the worst moment in the country’s history. Those who have no feeling for the game may wonder what all the fuss is about.
When Brazil lost the final match of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay in their own Maracana Stadium, there was a similar outpouring of national anguish; the writer Nelson Rodrigues ascribed the defeat to the country’s “stray-dog complex”. But eight years later they won the first of their five World Cups. The likelihood is that in Russia in four years’ time, when the World Cup finals come round again, the Brazilian team will be much improved. Sporting fortunes rise and fall, largely in ways that have little or nothing to do with the supposed strengths and weaknesses of national character.
Brazil may have one of the world’s fastest growing economies, but the problems it faces – which boil down to poverty and rampant inequality – cannot be solved by anything that happens on the football pitch. The 1980s, after all, is often referred to as Brazil’s “lost decade”, with its turbulence and economic stagnation, but the national side of that time, featuring Socrates and Zico, was widely considered one of the best in the country’s history.
There were widespread protests in the run-up to the World Cup by people who believed that the tournament – which has cost an estimated £7bn – has no place in a country so racked with social problems. Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, has urged her people to bounce back, and for some perspective Brazilians might do well to remember the words of the Swedish footballer and coach Nils Liedholm: “Football is the most important of the less important things in life.” In 2011, Ms Rousseff launched a programme she called “Brazil Without Poverty”; its success or failure will have far greater impact on the lives of the Brazilian people than events on a football pitch could ever have.