Over the years, your correspondent has been lucky to be present for some of football’s most seismic occasions, games when you knew you were witnessing a story unfolding which would endure far beyond the following morning’s headlines.
Looking on from the press box in mounting astonishment at ‘The Miracle Of Istanbul’ in 2005, when Liverpool came back from the dead to win the Champions League against AC Milan, was one; seeing ZZ blow his top at the World Cup final in the Olympiastadion in Berlin a year later, as France virtually handed the trophy to Italy, was another.
From a more parochial perspective, being present that golden summer’s day in New Jersey when Giants Stadium turned green and Ireland beat Italy at US ’94 counts as another cherished highlight while, for sheer footballing brilliance, probably the best exhibition I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh was at Wembley in 2011 when Barcelona, with Messi, Iniesta and Xavi in their absolute pomp, put Manchester United to the sword.
But even when I’m old and grey (or, rather, older and greyer) I have no doubt that, for sheer jaw-dropping disbelief, one match will continue to stand alone in the memory banks. Because it’s surely inconceivable that, at anywhere close to the top level in the sport, there will ever again be a game to rival the World Cup semi-final in Belo Horizonte on July 4, 2014 — the day that, in the space of just thirty minutes, Germany ran up a five-goal lead on route to a 7-1 thrashing of host nation Brazil.
Short of midfield flair, vulnerable at the back and too often toothless up front, Brazil had been cruising for a bruising right from the very start of the competition. Yet, riding their luck and a wave of national emotion, a combination of collective will power and the individual genius of Neymar had somehow carried the host nation through a series of testing challenges all the way to the penultimate stage.
Chile had been within a width of the crossbar of putting them out in the round of 16 but the Selecao survived a nail-biting penalty shoot-out to advance to a quarter-final meeting with one of the form teams of the tournament, Colombia.
Again, Felipe Scolari’s team prevailed, but only after a ruggedly physical display which was but briefly illuminated by a spectacular David Luiz free kick in a narrow 2-1 win. Victory, however, came at a cost: Juan Zuniga’s notorious challenge put Neymar out for the remainder of the competition while a yellow card meant that Thiago Silva, the team’s captain and best defender – though, in the context, that’s hardly the greatest accolade — would miss the semi-final against the Germans.
‘Superamigos’ blared the headline over a team picture on the front page of the paper I picked up en route from Rio to Belo Horizonte on the morning of the semi, the story beneath talking in inspirational tones about how the players and the people were now united as never before.
Inside the Estadio Mineiro, the vast majority in a crowd of just under 60,000 were wholeheartedly on message, their acapella singing of the national anthem a spine-tingling prelude. But barely half an hour later, the yellow hordes had been stunned into, first, silence, then tears and, finally, undiluted rage.
When David Luiz, hero turned villain, lost Thomas Muller at a corner in the 11th minute, Brazil were suddenly on the back foot. In a mind-boggling five-minute spell, between the 24th and 29th minutes, Mirsoslav Klose, Tony Kroos (twice) and Sami Khedira all breached a virtually non-existent defence to score for Germany, the rapid-fire nature of the goals barely giving broadcasters a chance to show the replays to a stupefied global audience before Julio Cesar was picking the ball out of the back of his net again.
Inside the Estadio Mineiro, the atmosphere was surreal. With fewer than 30 minutes on the clock, a World Cup semi-final had already been decided and a nations’s dream had turned into a waking nightmare. All around us in the stadium, there were people in tears or slumped forward holding their heads or simply staring with hollow eyes at something they could scarcely believe.
By the end, you sensed that even Germany’s ecstatic supporters were feeling twinges of guilt.
It finished 7-1 – Oscar scoring the least consoling consolation goal ever in the 90th minute – but the rout could have easily run to double figures.
Defeat would never have been handled philosophically by a country which prides itself not just on winning – indeed, Brazil had not lost a competitive game on home soil since 1975 – but on having given the world ‘the beautiful game’.
So this was something off the scale entirely: more than an embarrassment or a humiliation – though it was both those things – this felt like a national betrayal.
And so the much-vaunted unity of team and country came apart as quickly and comprehensively as had Brazil’s threadbare defence: after applauding Germany off the pitch, the crowd turned on their ‘superamigos’, booing and whistling when Scolari, in an ill-advised move, urged the players to go back out to salute the supporters after the final whistle.
The media response was predictably ferocious – there was even a call for the manager to step down before the third-place play-off – but the shock to the country was most palpably evident on the streets where the famous yellow shirt, previously ubiquitous, had simply disappeared from view by the following morning.
Scolari – who described the defeat as “the worst day of my life” — hung on for a final outing which did nothing at all to heal the wounds, the Netherlands cruising to a 3-0 win in the third-place play-off. I watched that game in a boteco near my lodgings back in Rio and the few regulars who bothered to pay attention to the game were by now reduced to outright mockery, laughing scornfully at the players.
Brazil had gone into this tournament hoping to exorcise the ghost of ‘Maracanazo’, that apocalyptic day in their football history when they lost the World Cup final to Uruguay in Rio in 1950.
Well, they succeeded after a fashion, but only by replacing it with an uglier stain that not even the most successful football nation of them all will ever be able to erase.