Argument

Bye-Bye, Brazil

Brazil’s stunning exit from the World Cup brings its other problems back into focus.

Jamie McDonald / Getty Images Sport
Jamie McDonald / Getty Images Sport

And just like that, they’re gone. This World Cup was always going to be defined by Brazil. Now that they’re no longer in the tournament, it will be defined by their absence. The primary question of World Cup 2014 was whether the hosts would let anyone else win it. The loss now raises another question, one that will remain long after the tournament is over: What’s next?

Let’s start with the soccer part, because it’s a lot simpler. This particular Brazilian squad was constructed with a win-at-all-costs ethos. It’s a team focused on positional discipline in the middle of the field, tough tackling, and tactical fouling. Flair is shunted out to the wings. There are no teenage players here to get experience or older veterans trotted out for one last sentimental showing. There are no ancillary benefits or secondary goals. For this group of players, the sole purpose is to win the 2014 World Cup. That’s all that matters. And that’s why, at 2-0 down to Germany, the house collapsed so astonishingly quickly.

Brazil’s was a particularly dangerous approach given how fickle a short soccer tournament can be — just ask Neymar’s back. But it’s also hard to criticize Brazil, given the relative disarray of their soccer program over the last four years. Many members of Brazil’s next generation of talent haven’t quite panned out. The careers of Alexandre Pato, Ganso, and Leandro Damiao, among others, are stuck in neutral. And while Brazil’s youngsters won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in London, their loss in the finals to Mexico was considered an enormously significant defeat.

Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari was brought in late in 2012 with a mandate to steady the ship, and he did just that. Part of that steadying process meant emphasizing the solid at the expense of the spectacular. The team became a collection of functional parts meant primarily to provide Neymar with a platform to shine. It’s a solid approach, and one that Brazil has used frequently over the years, somewhat belying the tendency — among both Brazilians and the world at large — to attribute a carefree free-wheeling style to the entire team.

It didn’t work, though, so yet another complete rework is certainly in the cards. Nobody doubts the Brazilian talent pool. What will be re-examined is the way they are utilized. Scolari built his squad with players like Luis Gustavo, Paulinho, Ramires — players whose tasks involved more running, defending, and fouling than creating or retaining the ball. At their expense he left out talented attack-minded players like Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Moura. When Brazil last lost in 2010, the immediate remedy was clear: bring in Neymar. Now the solution might be to surround Neymar with more creative talent, to elevate what he can do, instead of defensive talent to cover for what he can’t.

Will this actually make them better? That’s harder to say. Despite not winning the World Cup, Brazil was still a very good team. They might have been the best team. In a short tournament, things happen. It’s quite possible that a complete change in direction might actually see Brazil move further away from a trophy than closer to it.

Then again, with four years to figure it out, you could see them change direction several times before Russia 2018. That’s what happened after Brazil’s 2010 defeat, when the defensively inclined Dunga was let go in favor of Mano Menezes, who was tasked with bringing back joga bonito — the beautiful game. But this approach merely led to Scolari and the return of practicality as a priority. Brazil could well be in for a similarly tortuous period now.

On the field the options are clear, even if the solution is not. Off the field is another matter entirely. Though a lot was made of civil unrest in Brazil in the days before the World Cup, the political stability of the country has, rather predictably, taken a back seat to the actual event. At risk of stating the obvious, this is in large part because Brazil really loves its soccer.

Indeed, it’s important not to confuse unrest focused on the economic impact of hosting a World Cup with a refutation of soccer. Many Brazilians didn’t want their country to prioritize hosting the tournament over providing health care and housing; that’s not at all incompatible with loving, supporting, and cheering on their team.

But Brazil the team is gone now, and the World Cup remains. So, too, does the specter of a summer Olympics in two years’ time. The underlying causes of unrest, inequality, instability, and corruption still remain. The immediate question is whether Brazil’s exit will serve as a flashpoint for an immediate revival of the previous protests, or in an even uglier scenario, like riots.

The overwhelming police presence makes this unlikely, at least for now. It may not be pretty, it may not be humanitarian, it may not even be legal — but it has been brutally efficient. When the teams and the tourists and the cameras leave again, that’s a different story. There’s every reason to believe the lead-up to Rio 2016 will be similar to what Brazil experienced before the World Cup unless, of course, the government has a super-secret plan to boost the economy, increase employment, and more aggressively address persistent inequality.

Both Brazil the country and Brazil the team are likely in for a turbulent few years. Had the team won the World Cup, they might have avoided that fate with a confirmed soccer philosophy and break from social unrest. But the honeymoon wouldn’t have lasted very long. For Brazil, the problems run a good deal deeper than just losing a soccer match.

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