Through the Looking-Glass

David Runciman

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.


  • 9 July 2014 at 8:29am
    Dave Boyle says:
    It's perfectly understandable, really. A rather poor team has been carried along on a degree of bombast which is in precise opposition to its actual performance. Scolari (and Parriera) are of the 'efficiency' school in Brazilian football, and chose a team which got this far through a fair wind, some appalling decisions, a degree of luck, and, when playing Colombia, thuggery.

    Shorn of Neymar's ability to win freekicks in dangerous places and corners (4 of Brazil's 6 goals against decent opposition were from set pieces) and Silva's ability to make the Brazilian defence look organised, they were left horribly exposed to a reality no myth can transcend. Germany don't fear the yellow shirt like Chile and Colombia (and Mexico).

    David Luiz has been an awful, awful defender made to look good by playing against people who can actually play the position, but his performance last night was possibly the worst I've ever seen from a supposed top-class international; he was at fault for 6 of the 7 goals.

    You could see it when he held up Neymar's shirt at the start - what looked like a gesture of solidarity was in fact a plaintive invocation of desperate superstition: 'by doing this, maybe he will be amongst us!'.

    When Germany scored their second, they mentally collapsed. The pressure bearing down on them for the last 4 weeks (and last 4 years, really) broke through and crushed them to the extent that they became the most horrible shapeless mass of collective panic I've ever seen. Scolari said they tried to talk to the players, but they were in a place language didn't work well.

    I'm just delighted that at last, the curtain of invincible beauty has been pulled back to reveal a hollow, corporatised shell, created by corruption. The commentators under the impression 'we' loved Brazil will find they (again) misread the mood, and the sheer ideology of Brazil that compelled them to tell us how well they had played when the evidence in front of us was that they had not. It was notable that it took a non-insider, Brazil based journalist Tim Vickery to puncture the bombast and call the Colombia performance for what it was.

    All in all, the most satisfying World Cup match for a long, long time (from my own personal perspective, since Nigeria beat Spain 3-2 in France).

    • 9 July 2014 at 10:20am
      Phil Edwards says: @ Dave Boyle
      It’s perfectly understandable, really. A rather poor team has been carried along on a degree of bombast which is in precise opposition to its actual performance.

      When do you pick up your winnings?

    • 9 July 2014 at 11:31am
      Dave Boyle says: @ Phil Edwards
      I (sadly) don't bet, but did say on the twitters that I hoped the Germans would grind the Brazilians into dust, after the Colombia win, and it was said with as much expectation as hope. The difference is, as David Runciman said, that they kept on. Rio Ferdinand said on BBC last night that at times when Man Utd were easily beating a team 4-0, someone like Scholes would tell them all to back off out of respect for fellow professionals, hence scoring more than 6 was a surprise, but not the result, or the fact that it was in the end easy for Germany.

    • 9 July 2014 at 4:26pm
      pjplayer says: @ Dave Boyle
      I've heard Ferguson say similar things about toning it down at 4-0 - I think last time when they tonked Arsenal 6-1, though in that case he was probably taking the piss.

      But I think it's different in the World Cup: all the Germany players were staking their claim for a starting place in the final so they wanted to show what they could do and keep performing right until the end. Schurrle in particular has given Loew something to think about and should probably start ahead of Klose [depends on the system German go with too], but he didn't get in on the action until it was already 4-0. And Ozil would've silenced the doubters more effectively if he had scored his chance towards the end of the game.

    • 9 July 2014 at 6:57pm
      davdevalle says: @ Dave Boyle
      What Rio Ferdinand actually said on BBC1 was : "I remember playing for Manchester United against Liverpool at Old Trafford when they beat us 4-1 a few years ago and I remember Paul Scholes turning round at about 4-0 and saying 'listen, no more goals'. I don't see anyone in this Brazilian team doing that. You need someone to say 'look, we cannot be embarrassed anymore here'."

  • 9 July 2014 at 11:12am
    mototom says:
    Overmatched? What a horrible word.

    This is from today's NYT: "Few would have envisioned the home team, so close to glory, being so thoroughly overmatched as in the 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany." Not exactly poetry.

    • 9 July 2014 at 4:28pm
      pjplayer says: @ mototom
      That's nearly as bad as when they say "Goals Allowed" instead of "Goals Conceded". Though I guess in the context of the Brazil v Germany game, "allowed" does seem more appropriate.

  • 10 July 2014 at 9:04am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    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.

    May I refer Mr Runciman to Manchester City's 6-1 trouncing of Manchester Utd in 2011, Barcelona's 6-2 victory at the Bernabeu in 2009. I'm sure there are others, and to quibble about six not being seven would be petty in the context. Those are horrific home defeats by any standard. Yesterday's result was stunning because it almost never happens in international football, pure and simple, not because it never happens to any big teams - it does.

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