July 2014: Tempest in a World Cup

It was a fun party.

This was the scene on my Amazon River boat July 4 as Brazil celebrated independence from Great Britain their World Cup win over Colombia and entry into the semifinals. The screen would turn to static as our slow ferry wound around bends in the Amazon River, sending a Brazilian rushing to adjust the TV antenna by turning a small metal knob hanging from the ceiling. The tension and excitement in the stuffy room was enough to short-circuit the boat, as I wrote this week in Americas Quarterly in an attempt to explain what Brazil’s subsequent 7-1 loss to Germany means to the Brazilian psyche.

It’s devastating.

Sure, the sun still rose the next day, people still commuted to work, the Amazon River continued to flow into the Atlantic Ocean. But this is a nation of 200 million people unified around a single object, the football. For Brazil to have suffered such a humiliating defeat is like the US losing the Vietnam War — I don’t think that’s an overstatement. Soccer is Brazil’s strongest form of soft power.

This loss is emasculating.

David Luiz, Neymar, and Fred (painted left to right in this graffiti street art from Rio Branco) will be forever marked by this loss, just as the goalie from the 1950 team died saying: “The maximum punishment in Brazil is 30 years imprisonment, but I’ve been paying for 50 years.”

Brazil is now in mourning. But in that is something to be noted: Brazil is also unified in its despair, and that will have repercussions.

While traveling across the Amazon the past month by ferry along the Amazon River and its tributaries, I have watched the national mood shift from anger over the event’s high price tag, to guarded optimism over the surprisingly smooth-running event, to full-on jubilance (CSM, June 12), to despair (CSM, July 9). From the northwestern border state of Acre, to the isolated jungle capital of Manaus, to the northeastern coastal port of Belém, I have seen Brazilians resoundingly enthusiastic to watch the matches and cheer on the seleção as the team advanced into the semifinals.

For the Monitor I’ve looked into what the World Cup meant for the economic rivalry of Brazil-Mexico (Mexico’s surprising draw against Brazil underlines their growing economic strength) as well as the political tensions between Brazil-USA (they didn’t play each other, an apt symbol for their diplomatic ties, too). I met some crazy people traveling through the Amazon to see matches in Manaus, one of cities where the stadium’s lights turned off just halfway through the tournament – and with no clear idea of when they’ll come back on.

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