The Brazilian team’s performance in the World Cup opener mirrored the host country’s preparations for the event—moments of brilliance offset by disorganization, self-destructive lunges, farce, corruption, and a dubious result. If this is victory—no thanks.
Back in 2007, when Brazil won its bid to host the 2014 World Cup, most Brazilians were enthusiastic. It was a moment of national pride and exuberance, as steady economic growth, rapid job creation, and targeted social spending buoyed expectations. In 2010, when former President Lula, of the Worker’s Party, passed the reins to his hand-picked protegé, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil was riding high. But growth stalled, salaries failed to keep up with a rising cost of living, and a new wave of corruption scandals tarnished the federal government. Dilma, lacking Lula’s charisma, has been unable to appease her left-wing base, much less placate the resentful opposition. By the eve of the Cup, most Brazilians lamented the commitment to host the event, viewing it as a party for wealthy Brazilians and international tourists to which most citizens were pointedly not invited.
Like many, I began to see the performance of the national team as the crucial wild card. If Brazil plays well and wins, enthusiasm will trump criticism. If Brazil tanks, recriminations will multiply unfettered. But what if Brazil plays poorly and wins anyway, aided by partial refereeing, chicanery, and the intangibles that determine home-field advantage? That is what happened in the first game, Brazil’s unsavory 3-1 victory over Croatia.
In the opening minutes of the game, the Brazilians appeared to be running at cross purposes with one another, lacking any sense of teamwork. It would be reading too much into the game to see this as an inevitable corollary of the delayed construction of stadia and incomplete upgrades to transportation infrastructure. The players are not the government. (Let us not forget 1970, when one of Brazil’s most artistic teams flourished despite the heavy hand of the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time.) In this case, the disorganization was the predictable result of players unaccustomed to one another playing in a new tactical formation.
But it quickly got worse: in the eleventh minute, the ragged defense broke down under pressure of a swift Croatian attack. Brazilian defender Marcelo scored an own goal, knocking the ball into the left corner as keeper Júlio Cesar lunged right. It was hard to avoid the sense that the entire Cup might turn into an own goal on an epic scale.
Oscar saved Brazil, at least temporarily. The fleet and wily Brazilian number 11 reminded fans why we care about soccer and continue to believe, against mounting evidence, that Brazilians bring a special verve to the game. He played with creativity and grace, saving the team from disaster and creating opportunities for Neymar, particularly on the brilliant equalizing goal, a twenty-five-yard left footer that snuck past Croatian keeper Stipe Pletikosa, kissing the left post.
The game stood at 1-1 until midway through the second half, and it probably should have ended that way, with a tepid but honorable tie. Instead, Brazilian striker Fred took a dive in the penalty area, flopping on the turf like an errant salmon. Referee Yuichi Nishimura, perfectly positioned five yards away, should have immediately given Fred a yellow card for diving. Instead, incredibly, he granted the penalty. Neymar blasted the kick through Pletikosa’s hands. 2-1.
Nishimura is Japanese, and presumably had no rooting interest in the game. Was he succumbing to the pressure of the crowd? It seems unlikely. Many of the well-heeled Brazilians on hand distinguished themselves before the start of the game by greeting President Dilma Rousseff with cries of “Hey, Dilma, take it in the a__.” Insulting the chief executive of the host nation is not usually the way to win the referee’s favor. It was also the kind of privileged animosity that creates cognitive dissonance for the scruffier protesters outside the stadium. (If the executive class is cursing the President, the protesters might wonder, what are we supposed to do?)
Regardless of Nishimura’s motives, he delivered the game on a platter. In the closing minutes, Oscar scored on a counterattack. Does this mean Brazil would have won even without Fred’s egregious flop? Of course not: the gift penalty radically tilted the game in Brazil’s favor, forcing Croatia to press. It is no surprise the third goal came more easily. Brazilian celebrations in the aftermath seemed half-hearted, as well they might be.
This does not mean Brazil will continue to limp through the tournament. In 1998, host France played unconvincingly in the early games, needing an extra-time goal against lowly Paraguay to advance to the quarterfinals. Only then did they gel under the leadership of the great Zidane, reaching their potential as a team of stifling defense and beautifully orchestrated attacks. In the process, they overcame political doubts and conflicts, galvanizing a nation.
It remains within the realm of possibility that this Brazilian squad will do the same. Oscar is an inspiration, and Neymar has the same potential. But this first game seemed to bear all the worst characteristics of the acrimonious run-up to the Cup, and is more a hangover to be forgotten than a victory to be savored.
Bryan McCann is an associate professor of Latin American history at Georgetown University. He is the author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, recently published by Duke University Press.