Big defeat must lead to big changes
Somewhere in Russia, Brazilian players enter the pitch and line up for a rendition of the national anthem at their first match in the 2018 World Cup. The media will duly notice there's no friendship ritual like interlocked arms or hands on shoulders. When the first notes ring through the stadium speakers, the look in their faces is focused and determined; no tears or "Braveheart" pre-battle grimaces.
After reaching their lowest point in 100 years of footballing history -- the mother of all drubbings at the hands of Germany four years before, in front of their own fans -- the Selecao look set to put their troubles behind. For the first time in many years they arrived at the tournament without the talks of favoritism or the power of their famed yellow shirt -- and yes, the Mineirao tragedy did not lead to the abandonment of their kit, unlike the ditching of the white shirts after the defeat in the 1950 World Cup final. Brazil have a point to prove.
That's the scene every Brazilian somehow is trying to envisage after the events of Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte. But as we speak, the mood in the country could not be more somber. Nothing comparable to the hysterics from 64 years ago has taken place, but torcedores ("supporters" in Portuguese) are somehow saddened and baffled by a capitulation that represented the end of everything they thought they knew about the Selecao. They learned the hard way that although Brazilian football might still hold a formidable winning record, their bragging rights have been wiped out at the hands of Thomas Muller and his rampaging teammates.
It is easy to fall into drama here and speak of national traumas and cataclysmic scenarios. More sensationalist sectors of the world press will be disappointed to know that Brazilians were still able to go to work on Wednesday. Don't be fooled, though: "Das Drubbing" hurt, and the immense number of self-mocking jokes popping up in the Internet is the typical way that Brazilians handle grief.
Laughter aside, Brazil woke up with the feeling they might have witnessed a historical moment that won't just be remembered in the hall of shame. The country has lost World Cups before, once enduring 24 years of drought. Now, the spell will increase to 16 years since their 2002 triumph, but the biggest worry around is how the most famous footballing nation bounces back from such a humbling evening.
Simply put, there is no magic bullet. For a start, the World Cup has always been a fiercely contested competition; the simple fact is that Brazil, in 1962, were the last side to successfully defend the title. That will have to be taken into account not only by fans but also the people in charge of Brazilian football. Before worrying about competitors, Brazil have to take a good look at themselves. Their home World Cup cannot be considered a horrendous failure when they have finished in the top four. The issue here is how they stumbled into that quartet instead of imposing themselves. Lacking ideas, Brazil were predictable enough to be given a hard time by sides that previously would not have made them bat an eyelid, like Mexico, Croatia and Chile.
In their first match against one of the true title contenders, they couldn't have been more caught out. While some tears were seen in the stands, the reaction most overheard at half-time, when Germany were already 5-0 up, was that the result could at least force a massive rethink in Brazilian football.
That discussion cannot only involve the Selecao. The national team nowadays is the peak of a wobbly pyramid whose balance is compromised by factors as diverse as the chaotic running of clubs and the lack of national initiative for youth academies There's also the bizarre system in which the millions of dollars generated by Brazil's sponsors barely trickle downhill and instead continue to fill the Brazilian Football Confederation's coffers -- their 2013 turnover neared U.S. $200 million.
It would be simplistic to merely pin problems down to money issues, and one can rightfully argue that the development of a national youth policy isn't as vital given that young footballers are still one of the most exported Brazilian "products." Short-term vision at the club level has led to pragmatism ruling most of the sides in a Brazilian league where attendances these days are lower than they are in Major League Soccer. Managerial casualties look like something out of civil wars but the "misters" are also to blame. They are the ones who for years, or maybe decades, have been insular to a frustrating extent, refusing to study what their colleagues abroad were doing.
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Brazil have paid dearly in the past for assuming the rest of the footballing world wouldn't catch up. Their botched 1966 campaign, in which European tactical discipline and fitness undid their double-winning side, stands out alongside their demise in 1974 at the hands of Johan Cruyff's Holland, a team that manager Mario Zagallo would dismiss with mockery before being taught a lesson in the second half of their semifinal that year. The difference now is that the speed of change is even faster, and Brazil have not been properly able to catch up even when blessed with a special crop of players -- think of Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu capitulating in front of Zinedine Zidane's France in 2006.
Nostalgia or pure emulation still seems to guide their recent attempts at evolution. Dunga, captain of the 1994 World Cup-winning side, was appointed for the 2010 cycle as a response to Germany's experiment with Jurgen Klinsmann. Big Phil's return as savior for the class of 2014 had some promising moments, like Brazil's demolition of Spain in the Confederations Cup, but ended up failing thanks to his inability to adapt -- yes, we are talking here about the dogmatic use of a No. 9, a rarer species in Brazil than the jaguars of the Amazon rainforest.
But just as 1950 triggered changes on and off the pitch that would eventually lead to Brazil's maiden title in 1958, the stinging feeling of 2014 could be a blessing in disguise. Having moved on as a nation over the past 64 years, Brazil is likely to avoid the public execration of the Selecao that made unwilling martyrs of Leandro Barbosa's generation. The evidence is there for anybody to see that Brazil have been knocked off their perch. Whether they try to cling to it or climb back with dignity is up to everybody who loves this game in this country.
So what's it gonna be, Brazil?
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.