July 8th, 2014. Brazil took on Germany in the World Cup semi-final, in a already-riveting tournament that they were the hosting. While some fancied the Germans to win, Brazil had gotten through to this stage on a wave of passion and expectation. Football is a huge part of this country, and with each win the shortcomings of the team felt less and less relevant when compared to what looked like destiny. It could not have gone more wrong. What unfolded was without a doubt the most incredible game of football that I have ever seen, certainly of the 21st century, and maybe even in the history of the World Cup. There are some games where everyone remembers where they were when they watched, and Brazil 1-7 Germany is definitely one such example. I happened to be at a bar in the Negev Desert, but that is a whole other story. Truth be told I thought I had heatstroke for what I was seeing, or perhaps that I’d had too much beer. Friends with me who didn’t usually watch football were asking me if this was normal. I simply shook my head, drank my Tuborg, and made sure I didn’t go to the toilet for fear of missing anything.
It’s not like this tournament didn’t have shocks before this match. You had 2010 World Cup winners Spain losing their opening game 5-1, Costa Rica topping Group D… The knock-out stages saw more pragmatic performances from most teams, but the tension was still very much there. And throughout this Brazil just kept on sneaking through, be it on penalties against a classy-looking Chile side, or against Columbia who possessed the player of the tournament in James Rodriguez (sorry Messi). But David Luiz hit that wonderful free kick, Neymar looked to be on top form, and it just had that feeling that despite some mediocre performances, this was their moment. Perhaps it would be even more accurate to say that it felt like it had to be their moment, given the weight of expectation from a nation who was behind them to levels that even the biggest footballing nations couldn’t compete with. Meanwhile, Germany had not quite hit top gear, drawing in the Group Stages to Ghana and getting through the knock-out stages with narrow victories against Algeria and France. Generally speaking it was a tough game to call – Germany had the better team, but Brazil being the home team and having all that passion meant that they entered the game at Belo Horizonte not feeling too much like underdogs at all. And then it happened.
Alarm bells started ringing pretty early when Germany scored with relative ease from a corner after 11 minutes. Not a great start, but still manageable. But what came after that was the most astonishing 6 minutes I have ever seen on a football pitch. In this six-minute period Germany scored 4 more goals, leaving them 5-0 ahead after only 29 minutes. It was brutal, it was merciless, but often it was self-inflicted from Brazil. Their players ran around like they hadn’t ever played football. Toni Kroos got 2 goals in 2 minutes, the second right from the kick off when Fernandinho was almost comically caught in possession. Camera shot after camera shot reverted to Brazilian fans in tears over what was unfolding, and the players themselves didn’t look much better. German players were hugging at half-time like the game was already won, and to be honest it was – they had broken Brazil.
The second half was a mere formality, with Germany adding two more goals before Oscar ran through to score a ‘consolation’ goal (I cannot put enough inverted commas on the word consolation here). The scary thing is that Germany took their foot off the gas, they probably could have scored even more if they wanted to, and scariest of all was that their goalkeeper Manuel Neuer looked angry at having conceded one goal. And with that the game was over, Brazilian players fell to the ground after a match that broke almost as many records as it did hearts.
So how did this happen? Well Brazil were very unlucky to lose their 2 best players in Thiago Silva to suspension and Neymar to injury. Without them they did look a little lacking without Silva’s leadership, and the ability to change a match that a world class player like Neymar has. The impact of Neymar’s absence was particularly emphasised by the starting team holding his shirt in the photos before the game. He was the talisman that the country had gotten behind. But 2 men do not make a team, and there were players with big reputations who started this semi-final. Fred seems to have taken a lot of flak for Brazil’s failures at the World Cup, but in a game where you lose 7-1 the defence surely has a lot more to answer for. To be honest I’m a fan of David Luiz, mostly for his entertainment value, but when he sprinted forward to tackle Mats Hummels, (who had wandered into the Brazilian half completely unopposed) he left his defence completely exposed and Sami Khedira was able to slot in Germany’s fifth of the night with embarrassing ease.
The point I want to make here is that Germany played well yes, but the result came because the Brazil team capitulated to a level that I have never seen on such a large sporting stage before. German players were able to wander into the penalty area without being tracked, and it’s no coincidence that many of the goals were tap-ins. I don’t think there was anything that Júlio César could have done about any of them – I guess Miroslav Klose’s goal for 2-0 was a rebound, but again that had resulted from the German team just walking through the Brazilian defence. The fact is that the Brazilian team choked, the occasion got to them and they came up against a team that wasn’t about to play it safe and rest on a 1-0 or a 2-0 advantage. Germany were clinical, and they just kept on making the Brazilians pay for their schoolboy errors.
As I’ve established, a game like this doesn’t come around every day, so there were consequences. Reputations were forever ruined, people were sacked, and a nation was left to wonder what might have been. It was a truly horrific way to go out, and a further chastening 3-0 defeat in the Third Place play-off to the Netherlands in Brasilia did not help. I would not have liked to be a football fan in Brazil at that time, because there must have been a lot of questions. A first competitive home defeat in 39 years, and it came at a crucial time with an overwhelmingly bad scoreline. Brazil hosting a World Cup was a big deal, so anything less than a win would be seen as a catastrophic failure, but to lose in this manner? Because it was, quite simply, the worst result in Brazilian footballing history. I remember when there were large protests during the 2013 Confederations Cup, a tournament which served as a test drive for the 2014 World Cup, and one that Brazil actually won comfortably against Spain. There was a lot of controversy over the amount of money spent on new stadiums while issues like poverty continued to be a huge problem in the country. Many of the new stadiums have become white elephants since the World Cup, with some serving for children’s birthday parties to raise funds for them, another serving as a car park, and some just plain falling apart. Comedian John Oliver described the stadium in Manaus where England played their opening game as, “the world’s most expensive bird toilet“. And he had a point – Manaus is an isolated city in the middle of the Amazon with no chance of regularly filling a 40,000 seat stadium. Perhaps they will have learned from all this ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics, but any improvement still won’t make up for what was ultimately a disaster. It was a great World Cup for sure, but for Brazil it was both economically and emotionally horrific – and that will never, ever be forgotten.
So when the dust had settled from that semi-final result and Germany had won the World Cup Final against Argentina with a far more conventional 1-0 scoreline, we were left to reflect on what had been an extraordinary World Cup, 7-1 or not. It was a great watch, with many twists and turns along the way. So why do I refer to Brazil vs Germany as the game that broke football? Well besides the shock value and the consequences of it that I have spoken about here, it redefined what we considered possible in football on the biggest stages. We had seen surprise results before, but we had never seen something of this scale, and as a result we were completely unprepared for it. We had never seen anything like it, and I wonder whether we will see anything like it again.
Will a result like this mean that teams become ultra-conservative, more afraid of losing in this manner than winning with style? I hope this will not be the case, and I think that people will make the distinction between being pragmatic and simply not falling apart to the extent that Brazil did. They weren’t doing anything high-risk in an attempt to win – they had ground out victories throughout the tournament, so it wasn’t because they were taking any chances. The pressure got to them on the biggest scale there is, and they capitulated to an extent that we’ve never seen before. The thing to learn from this is not to be more careful, but to be more composed. Fire in the belly and ice in the brain – this is a mantra I’ve heard coaches use before, and it definitely applies to situations like this if teams want to avoid being humiliated as Brazil were. But looking back on it, we should be thankful that it happened, because sport is ultimately about drama and entertainment, and this game provided both in a way that no other match has done in my lifetime. It may be some time before any of us see another game quite like it. But isn’t it great that we did just this once?