Brazil ’14: The meaning behind a meaningless game

Was it worth it, Brazil?

I found this question – which first surfaced following the host nation’s humbling implosion against Germany – especially captivating, as it measures the underwhelming performance of a group of stars representing a football-crazed nation next to the extraordinary efforts and resources it took to provide that nation with a stage to kick a ball around on in front of a supportive audience.

When I first saw it asked around Twitter, my first thought was that the question came with an unfair implication: the only way to have made the disproportionate spending and subsequent unrest “worth it” was for the Brazilians to have claimed first place in the tournament.

How was the nation’s government supposed to know the team would fall short of expectations? And more importantly, since when does the performance of a sports team impact the morality of a government’s behavior?

Whether it was “worth it” should have nothing to do with how well the Brazilian side played.

But the more I thought about this rhetorical query as it floated around the social network courthouse, I tried to embrace the point of view of the people asking the question, and I began to wonder if maybe there was some responsibility among the Brazilian players to meet the high standards their government set by investing such a large sum into hosting the tournament.

I mean, when the team that embodied all the hype leading up to the biggest sporting event in the world loses by six goals in the semifinals, as neutral fans, we feel cheated. We watched all those exuberant ads portraying Brazil as a football haven. We read all those articles about the cherished nature of the sport in Brazil, and how many of its citizens were willing to look past the government’s liberal budget for the tournament just to see their team finish victorious.

And even had Tuesday’s game against Germany ended differently, we still would be disappointed with anything other than the home team winning the final.

I continued to think about this topic as Brazil faced the Netherlands on Saturday in the consolation match. The consolation match is, as it sounds, essentially meaningless; many commentators have suggested getting rid of the extra game, as the players are worn out and looking to escape the embarrassment from not having qualified for the final.

David Luiz

David Luiz

Yet, after being given a tutorial of how to correctly play the game by Joachim Löw’s German side, Brazil had a chance to at least take the first steps on the path to redemption in this third place game. And to, perhaps – for the people who say the team’s disappointment has somehow worsened the decision-making of the Brazilian leadership – help redeem the government as well. This would be the last game we’d see Brazil step on the field for in this World Cup. Heck, maybe they’d beat the Dutch 7-1 and the home fans could take some pride in finishing third.

That was never close to happening.

Despite the return of captain Thiago Silva, Brazil’s defense looked no more prepared than it had against Germany; Arjen Robben glided past the unaware David Luiz before he drew a penalty call to give the Dutch the very early lead. Additionally, Brazil’s midfield was no better this game at falling back during opposing attacks. And while Scolari’s side has bounced back through its offense before, Brazil was just as lethargic on that side of the field, as it failed to keep possession and continued to use an inept striker with a spot which might’ve been better used with a fifth defender.

The Netherlands, a team having just gone the full 120 minutes with Argentina and with one less day to rest than the hosts, dominated in a fashion that one would expect in a friendly against an MLS squad.

As the home fans booed their team off the field for the second consecutive match, the question resurfaced: was it worth it? This team looked so stagnant, so fragile, so stubborn. And Brazilian politics fell in a shambles for the sake of giving this team a home audience. How could it have been worth it?

In the long-term picture, the World Cup may not have been worth it; while I’ve greatly enjoyed watching and writing about these games, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the importance of hosting a series of football games outweighed that of pursuing financial support for the country’s lower and middle classes according to the scales of the Brazilian government. This was not just a conflict for the government, but it was something for each citizen to consider as well: does one fight for what is more beneficial to more people, or does one relent and support their nation’s pride in their country’s pastime?

The funny thing is, I wouldn’t be shocked if many Brazilians saw the high chance of their team winning as a reason to skip out on the protests. Maybe I’m being cynical, but sports bring out the hypocrisy in the best of us. Being irrational as a sports fan is a lot easier than non-sports fans might think. To the rational person, the idea that Brazil winning the World Cup would make its domestic struggles worthwhile is absurd; morality in such major issues simply can’t be affected by the outcome of a sporting event. With that said, I’m still convinced so many would have traded financial security for a chance to see, in person, Brazil win the biggest tournament on Earth.

Would those same people have made the same trade for a third place finish? Likely a lot less. Yet still I think some would have, which renders the consolation game some significance; seeing one’s idols covered in glory, even third place glory, with the world watching would be an unforgettable memento, no matter the political circumstances.

That’s the thing about sports. It makes us rationalize in crazy ways and it makes us ask silly questions.