Through the Looking-Glass
Well, it won’t be the Bite for which this World Cup is remembered after all. Something more shocking did happen. The form book turned out to be a useless guide (Brazil were undefeated in twelve games before last night). Home advantage counted for nothing in the end. Goldman Sachs got it wrong. Stephen Hawking got it wrong. I got it wrong. Everyone got it wrong. Sure, there will be people saying that this Brazilian team was there for the taking, that someone was bound to expose its manifold weaknesses. But no one predicted that result. It simply doesn’t happen that big teams concede seven goals at home against major rivals. It doesn’t happen in the Premier League or in La Liga or in Serie A. It’s inconceivable that Chelsea or Barcelona or Juventus would ship seven at home to anyone, no matter how weakened their team or how unlucky the performance. It doesn’t happen in the Champions League or in the European Championships. It’s certainly never happened at the World Cup. Before last night’s match some bookmakers had Germany as the slight favourites to win, but the margin of their victory is perhaps the biggest upset in the history of the sport.
What makes it weirder is what took place between the second goal and the seventh one. The first two were bad defensive mistakes in keeping with this team’s familiar weaknesses: poor marking at a corner, then a shot spilled by the goalkeeper. Schürrle’s seventh was a freakishly perfect volley of the kind that can strike at almost any time, but almost never does. But for goals three, four, five and six it was as though the Brazilians had more or less stopped playing. The Germans moved the ball past them at will, taking as many touches as they liked, even in the penalty area, where no one seemed to want to close them down. Perhaps, at 2-0, and realising they were overmatched, the Brazilians understood that the worst was already upon them. But that doesn’t really make sense.
Had Brazil lost last night’s match 2-0, or even 3-0, it would have been a disaster but not a total disgrace: today’s narrative would have been about the vulnerability of a team stripped of its two most important players coming up against a better organised and more disciplined side. But no one is talking about Neymar now. The incentive structure for this team should have made them try harder at 2-0, because the difference between holding at that point and capitulation is the difference between a reversal that could be explained away and one that will haunt all of these players for the rest of their lives. They will never escape it: this is now the event for which they will always be known. The Germans, meanwhile, had no great incentive to push on once victory was assured, but they kept going as though their lives depended on it. For a while this was a game played through the looking-glass.
What makes it more poignant is thinking of Brazil’s relief at coming through the two previous rounds. No one enjoyed the victory over Chile more than David Luiz, who converted one of the vital penalties. He then scored a wonderful free kick against Colombia in the quarter-finals and produced one of the great goal celebrations afterwards, face contorted, arms pumping, veins bulging, like Marco Tardelli after he scored the goal that secured the trophy for Italy in 1982. But what David Luiz was celebrating led only to his own destruction. How he must now wish he had missed his penalty, or had sent his free kick a few feet over. An early exit for Brazil would have produced an outburst of national fury and a search for scapegoats, but the individual players could have ridden it out and their careers might have recovered. There is no recovering from this. It’s indelible.
Normally when something as dramatic and unexpected as last night’s match takes place there are conspiracy theories on hand to explain it. The players were drugged (that’s what they said about Ronaldo when Brazil lost 3-0 to France in 1998). The match was fixed (that’s the story about Brazil’s exit in 1978). The referee was against them (that’s how Uruguay managed to beat Brazil in 1950). Alternatively, if you don’t want a conspiracy theory, you can simply put it down to bad luck: these things happen every now and then. But the players weren’t drugged last night; the match wasn’t fixed; the referee had nothing to do with it. And these things don’t happen every now and then. It’s that even rarer thing: a complete mystery. Some are saying that it was divine retribution for the Brazilian authorities' decision not to allow a minute’s silence before the game in honour of Alfredo di Stéfano, the great Argentinian player who had died the day before. Maybe not. But it certainly looked like an act of God.