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Opinion

Another view: How Brazil’s World Cup disaster could change the nation

It was the most shocking defeat in the history of the World Cup. Brazil’s 7-1 semifinal annihilation in Belo Horizonte at the hands of a faultless German side brought the host nation’s tournament to a shuddering, horrifying end. After billions of dollars spent on stadiums, after years of build-up and preparation, after so much accrued expectation for soccer’s most famed national team, no one could have conceived that it would suffer its worst ever World Cup loss. But it did.

The reaction in Brazil has been a mix of anger and despair. The impact of such a monumental blow will likely echo for months and years to come. Here’s how:

1. It buried the Maracanazo – The Brazilian story ahead of the World Cup focused entirely on the trauma of 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the tournament. A surprise 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro in what was basically the final (the tournament followed a different structure then) led to a moment of national reckoning: The team that lost was vilified and shamed. Brazil was so haunted by that upset that the team did away with its customary white shirt in favor of its now iconic yellow one. Despite winning more World Cup titles than any other nation, the entire build-up to this tournament seemed to be about Brazil burying the ghost of 1950 – the Maracanazo, named after Rio’s main stadium.

And now the Maracanazo may be forgotten, but only because it has been replaced by something far more ghoulish.

2. It could topple Brazil’s president – Elections are scheduled for later this year, and President Dilma Rousseff, while still ahead in the polls, may have real cause to lament the loss. The Brazilian government hedged its bets with the World Cup, hoping victory in the tournament could boost popular goodwill for the government and quiet the chorus of protesters, angry at wasteful spending and the country’s inability to provide much-needed improvements on infrastructure, health care and education.

There’s a long history of statesmen and autocrats looking to the World Cup to burnish their own image. Now, after the horror and shock of the defeat recedes in Brazil, one wonders if it will refocus attention on what ails Brazilian society.

3. It could change Brazilian soccer – Ultimately, the defeat will have its greatest impact on the sport in Brazil, where, like a religion, it fuels nationalism, provides a badge of identity and is a vessel for popular hopes and aspirations. The team’s stars, like the waifish (and injured) Neymar, are megarich icons, backed by myriad corporate sponsorship deals. Yet they caved under pressure.

But that Brazilian dream did not really represent the magical “jogo bonito” that made the nation famous on the global stage in the 1960s and 1970s – and it has not done so for decades. The current Brazilian team, under its conservative coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, was numbingly pragmatic, perhaps even cynical, in its approach. Ever since losing in 1982, Brazil shifted its ethos to match the physicality and toughness of European opponents, stocking its teams with sturdy, unimaginative defensive midfielders.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in that direction, suggest some commentators, and this defeat will present another inflection point like 1982. Many Brazilians will hope that’s the case.

• Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at Time, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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