After a surreal defeat, Brazilians go about the business of coping
By Alexander Abnos
[T]he sun shone brightly at 7:38 in the morning of what would become one of Brazil’s darkest days. It cascaded down Avenida Alfonso Pena as I stretched my legs for the first time after a highly uncomfortable all-night bus ride from Rio de Janeiro. Shopkeepers’ gates flew open as I passed. Newsstands carried no news of the day — just an eclectic assortment of hats, scarves, banners, ribbons, glasses, shirts, etc., all in the trademark canary yellow and green of the Seleçao.
Walking headstrong toward the shuttle that would take me to the Estádio Mineirão among standard-issue city sounds, eight bells rang out to break my concentration. I looked up and discovered I stood at the foot of a church, resting on a small hill with immaculate foliage and a long staircase rising to the top. Couples, dressed in yellow, sat on the stairs sharing ice cream. The front doors were wide open. I walked upstairs and peeked inside.
Turned out the side doors were open, too. Stained-glass windows turned to allow uneven polygons of light to enter a grand, immaculately-painted hall. This place (the Igreja São José, I would learn) had incredible natural acoustics. You could tell when a car would pass outside, honking plastic horns from its window as a passenger (or perhaps the driver) shouted something relating to “BRASIL!!!”
In one pew midway down the aisle, an old man sat hunched over, his arms invisible when seen from the back of the room. Approaching from the side, I saw that he was reading the newspaper. The sports section. David Luiz was on the cover, yelling about something. Three rows in front of him, another man sat in a hunch. The same newspaper laid at his side. He counted rosary beads and whispered under his breath.
The gates at the Estádio Mineirao had not yet opened two hours later, yet the area outside the site of Brazil’s semifinal against Germany began to fill up with fans a full five hours before kickoff. They chanted. They sang. They played instruments, drank Brahmas, and ate a variety of meats on sticks. In the middle of the crowd, a group of four gathered in a tight circle, arms on each others’ backs, reciting what looked like a prayer from the outside.
Hours later inside the stadium, David Luiz entered the field like a thunderbolt, pumping his arms to the crowd’s roar. Fans belted out a version of the Brazilian National Anthem loud and forceful enough to make the stadium’s concrete columns shake. A backing track playing on the stadium PA guided the fans for the first verse. No such help was needed for the second.
Pious, festive, emotional and nervous. These people had no idea what was coming. Nobody did.
When an unmarked Thomas Müller opened the scoring in the 11th minute, the constant buzzing that covered the atmosphere like a white noise blanket turned from uplifting to angry, the frequencies shifting in such a way that conveyed an oncoming sense of doom.
So of course that’s when the avalanche struck. Klose in the 23rd. Kroos in the 24th, and again in the 26th. Khedira in the 29th. 5–0 Germany. In a half hour, Brazil’s World Cup dream had all but ended with the fastest five-goal flurry ever in a World Cup. Fans began to head for the exits. In the 30th minute. Of a World Cup semifinal.
Throughout the second half, the concourse buzzed with the same energy and fervor that had initially filled it at halftime. Crowds of people drank and ate there, releasing emotions in that spot just outside the disaster. If they could stand it, some watched the remainder of the Seleção’s worst-ever loss on TV screens there. But few could — once they left the stands, most fans stayed clear of every reminder of the embarrassment taking place inside.
Police on horseback and full-armored riot squads with plastic shields stood at the ready, but the most action they saw was when they were asked for directions.
Instead of watching the game, a man in a blue №10 jersey stared out at the skyline beyond the concourse, inhaling on a solitary cigarette. A couple, both wearing yellow, argued back and forth in whipsnap Portuguese, about who knows what. One man began to unzip his pants and pee on a beer cart. He gave up after failing to undo his fly, and instead started to punch the plastic cart itself. Only the vendor stopped him.
Elsewhere, a group of young men surrounded an older, professorial one wearing red-framed glasses and a purple sweater. The young men antagonize the professor, serenading him with profane anti-Dilma Rouseff chants. It seemed that at one point he responded. Rouseff, Brazil’s much-maligned president, has inspired chanting which has become a fixture at Brazil’s games at this world cup. The older man countered with his own pro-Dilma viewpoint. When I came upon the scene, he could only respond with a sense of bemusement, eating popcorn as the youths surrounded him, waving their arms and yelling while the most important soccer game in the world unfolded just outside. One of the group of young men approaches me as I write down details in my notebook. He glances at my credential and peeks at my scribbles.
“Good,” he says, then turns and orders another Brahma. This was sorrow drinking of the highest order. A few others pick fights, but it never escalates beyond a scuffle, and I never see any hostility directed toward German fans.
Quite the contrary, actually.
“You have to win now!” One Brazilian fan screams into the ear of a German, somewhere around the 60th minute. “No Argentina!”
When Andre Schürrle added Germany’s sixth in the 69th minute, Brazilians actually applauded, though not as loudly as when Fred was substituted in that same instance. When Schürrle added the seventh, they went wild. By the end of the game, completed German passes were greeted with “Ole!”s and the team received a standing ovation once the whistle blew on a 7–1 blowout.
“I wanted to give joy to the people who suffer so much…I just wanted to see people smiling” said a distraught David Luiz post game. That exact thing came to be, but not at all how he meant it. After the final whistle, the drunken rage fueled by embarrassment seemed to have given way to acceptance. There may have been plenty of tears in the stands, but there were few to be found on the street afterward.
As the yellow shirts poured out of the Mineirão, a weirdly large number of them wore smiles. Police on horseback and full-armored riot squads with plastic shields stood at the ready, but the most action they saw was when they were asked for directions.
I passed the Igreja São José again at 1:03 a.m., walking back to the bus station to catch yet another all-nighter, this time to São Paulo for the other semifinal. The gates were closed now, of course, but tomorrow morning I know it will open it’s many doors and windows again. The prayers themselves may be slightly different.
As surely as that will happen, Brazil will play on Saturday for third place, one day before their supposed date with destiny in Rio. The fans due to meet them there will still wear yellow, they will still cheer, and the rage that showed itself in the moments after the Seleção’s capitulation may manifest itself again.
But for now, more than anything, there is acceptance among the Brazilians in Belo Horizonte; control beyond anything showed by their countrymen on the field.