A fortnight before he died of heart attack at the age of 79, the fall guy of Maracanazo, goalkeeper Moacir Barbosa, wrote a touching epitaph for his life and career: “Under Brazilian law, the maximum sentence is 30 years. But my imprisonment has been for 50 years.”
The pain of the defeat and the condemnation haunted him for the rest of his life so much so that he never played for the country again, his club career instantly plummeted, and there were rumours that he used to steal the goalposts of the Maracana and barbeque them to burn his pain. No other Brazilian footballer may have endured such scornful damnation as Barbosa, nor will anyone in this more forgiving milieu, but few other countries – neither its public nor the players — take defeat as tragically as Brazil, or find a compelling parable with the nation’s morale. The chroniclers would thus connect their latest defeat to the country’s plunging economy, the debilitating recession, their most influential leader in recent times Lula da Silva being in prison, and the looming prospect of Jair Bolsonaro, called the Trump of the Tropics, poised for another presidential stint.
Several years after Barbosa’s unforgiven foibles, when Tele Santana’s bunch of electric artistes failed to win the World Cup, its much maligned striker Serginho carried the can of defeat. Their talismanic leader, Socrates, resumed his heavy drinking and smoking habits. Santana himself took to evangelism and disappeared into the Middle East before being afforded a second chance.
Closer to this century, Ronaldo, who copped the blame for the defeat to France in the 1998 final, battled depression, and four years ago, the entire nation mourned, and still mourns, the Minierazo. And now into their catalogue of national tragedies shall pass the defeat to Belgium at Kazan. As Barbosas and Serginhos are waiting to be framed and condemned. Philippe Coutinho is already tuning up to the eventuality: “I’m sure we will be beaten up by criticism from all sides.”
But to equate the latest defeat — Kazaneiro if you will — to Minierazo or Maracanazo is an exaggeration, but then as the country’s most famous literary figure Gilberto Freyre wrote, “Ours is a country that basks in sunshine and hyperboles, it’s there in the rhythm of our football, their magical dribbles, their dynamic runs, as in the glow of their skin. We lose a slice of reality without the hyperboles that make us.”
The instinct to exaggerate is furthermore evident as the vanquished Brazilian side in Kazan was widely considered the most artistic one since Santana’s batch, before a cloak of gnarled pragmatism wrapped Brazilian football, its famed stylistic flourishes manifesting only sporadically. Tite’s team had something about that old Brazilian charm and romance, though he welded it with tactical rigour and discipline. They didn’t conjure a dreamy brand of football like Santana’s wards, but to see the canary yellow fluttering and flapping its wings was perhaps the remotest sight to evoking romance in this World Cup.
Not that European football, as the World Cup is left with teams from Europe, is less exhilarating, but there is a perceptible de rigueur about them — a brand of football that puts result at the forefront and beauty in the backseat, what in Brazil is derisively called futebol de resultados. Even France, who play with refreshing fluency, are fundamentally based on surgical dissemination of their adversaries than enthralling football. In that sense, the World Cup is a loser in Brazil’s loss.
Even in the defeat to Belgium, blazed the unbridled creativity of Tite’s Brazil — and their defeat arguably imperils the diversity of the World Cup, for the rest of the World Cup shall traipse into an extended version of the Champions League, club-mates suddenly embracing the garbs of their country.
It brooks no argument that Belgium’s tweaked approach frazzled Brazil, to such an unprecedented extent that they were woefully reactive after Belgium seized the lead and then doubled it. Some would be tempted to say they were repeating the fallacies of Socrates’ side, delusional devotion to their philosophic curve and not configuring or neutering their opponents’ tactics.
Superior in second half
But in the second half, Brazil flickered, their silken-footed forwards surging forth, Neymar evoking that rare trick of the feet — the elastico or the illusory dribble, gliding, weaving and bobbling through the thick defensive maze. Willian ratcheting up the pace, Coutinho haring into empty spaces, swivelling shots of such raw fury and deception that Thibault Courtois had to be at his heavenly best, which he was. The finger-tip save off Neymar could one day do the walls of his drawing room. And least of all, Douglas Costa’s probing and pressing and Renato Augusto’s dynamism.
To quell such sustained bursts of attack required tremendous stodge and grit, and the Belgians threw everything at the Brazilians, and on another night Brazil should have beneficiaries to at least a penalty, or eked in a goal or two. But Tite, so reminiscent of Santana after the Tragedy of Sarria, didn’t fall into the familiar trope of grousing misfortune. His grace sparkled as much as his graciousness. “Luck,” he so eloquently put it, “is an educated manner of putting down people’s skills. They were skillful. They finished well. There was no luck. There was Courtois. Was he lucky? No, he did well.” By the end of his rousing press conference, the hearts of the most stringent critic melted that a few rounds of applause peeled in the room. If not Neymar and Co, Tite will be missed.
Amidst the shuddering pangs of defeat, he left the room prophesying a resplendent future. “To those that think Brazilian football is over, these guys will prove it wrong. How can you not be excited when you have talents like Neymar, Jesus, Costa or Coutinho, they are young and I should say they’ll have happier times in a World Cup,” he said, in a measured, studied manner that encapsulates the man himself. There’s Roberto Firmino, Wagner, Casemiro and Danilo, all a few miles from their peak. And there must be hundreds of precocious, unknown talents kicking the ball in the distant favellas of the vast country.
The biggest fear, though in Brazil once the grief extinguishes, would be the return of austere football, like those witnessed after Santana’s days, symbolised by former captain and coach Dunga. They would want Tite to stay, but those intuitive words of Socrates might ring between their ears. “It may have been the last side to represent Brazil in a World Cup that epitomised the country. It was irreverent, joyful, creative, free-flowing. From that point on, the Seleçao became like any other First-World country national side.” Maybe, like all things his words too might seem hyperbolic with time. And Brazil will continue inspiring and instilling romance into the grandest of sporting spectacles.