When Winning Is Everything

Germany Brazil Flags

‘It was utterly unexpected, historic and inexplicable,’ Jeff Z. Klein wrote in the New York Times. ‘Germany,’ he continued, ‘obliterated host Brazil, 7-1.’

Mr. Klein is, of course, commenting on the World Cup first semifinal match Tuesday, July 8, and as the world now knows, Germany — and not Brazil — will be playing in the final on Sunday.

And we learned who Germany will be playing the day after Brazil’s loss to Germany when Argentina, on Wednesday, July 9, defeated the Netherlands in the second semifinal match, 4-2.

Argentina and the Netherlands went scoreless through the 90-minute match and 30 minutes extra time — then Argentina won by scoring on all four of its penalty kicks.

And so it will be Argentina — and not the Netherlands — who will play Germany Sunday for the World Cup.

But back to Germany and Brazil.

What we are focusing on in this report is not who will ultimately win the World Cup. We are, rather, asking this question: How are we to understand the shocking performance — or ‘nonperformance,’ — of the Brazilian team in Tuesday’s semifinal against Germany?

And we are also asking, how are we to understand the devastation Brazil as a country is expressing over the loss of Tuesday’s game to Germany? And are these two questions related?

In thinking about all this, let us return briefly to the comments of sports writer Jeff Klein of the New York Times. We are calling on the New York Times as an authoritative source whose dispassionate opinions on world events can be very welcome where passions sometimes become intense.

And what is Mr. Klein’s comment on Brazil’s defense in Tuesday’s ‘surrendering’ of five goals to Germany in the first 29 minutes of play? ‘Brazil was completely disorganized on defense.’

Granted, Mr. Klein notes, Brazil was playing without Thiago Silva, team captain and the team’s best defender. But five goals in the first half hour?

And what of Brazil’s offensive game? Brazil was also playing without Neymar, who was out with a fractured vertebra from Brazil’s quarterfinal game with Colombia. But this is World Cup soccer, and the semifinals, no less.

Surely, Mr. Klein writes, the absence of these two players alone ‘could not explain the comprehensive failure of the entire team in a defeat that forever changes the world’s perception of Brazilian soccer.’

And the German team?

The core of the German team has played together now in three World Cups, Mr. Klein notes, and the German team both looks good and communicates very well.

And a related New York Times story describes the German team as playing ‘with grace and unity and a raw power that saw them rip open the Brazilian defense as if it were a can of soup. Thomas Müller opened the scoring in the 11th minute, blasting home a corner kick from just six yards out.’

Still, Mr. Klein observes — without taking anything away from Germany — ‘a victory of this magnitude was unimaginable’ in World Cup play.

What’s that, you say? You didn’t see the game?

If you missed Tuesday’s semifinal, here’s a minute-by-minute reconstruction of what we’re talking about, from Daily Record’s online summary:

9:00 pm — Kick off

9:11 pm — Goal Germany

9:23 pm — Goal Germany

9:24 pm — Goal Germany

9:26 pm — Goal Germany

9:29 pm — Goal Germany

9:49 pm — Half time

10:05 pm — Second half

10:25 pm — Goal Germany

10:35 pm — Goal Germany

10:46 pm — Goal Brazil

10:50 pm — Full time — Germany 7, Brazil 1

Daily Record’s On-Air Commentary: ‘The final whistle sounds, David Luiz is on his knees praying, as are a few other Brazilians. I get the feeling that won’t help them much tonight. This match has put a full stop on many of their international careers, they have been completely and totally broken. Germany for their part were outstanding, a completely flawless team performance.’

‘Thank you and good night — and, if you’re a Brazil fan — don’t have nightmares. Back with live coverage of the remaining semifinal here at dailyrecord.co.uk tomorrow.’

Minute-by-minute, with commentary is available here.

So how shall we look at the Brazilian team? The Brazilian fans? — We began this report with New York Times sports writer Jeff Z. Klein’s comments:

'The performance of the Brazilian team — the game that took Brazil out of contention for the 2014 World Cup — was, he said, ‘utterly unexpected, historic and inexplicable. Germany obliterated host Brazil 7-1.’

Let us, however, look first at Brazil the country, and observe that Brazil has for decades taken a ‘winning is everything’ point of view on soccer. That would be in contrast to countries where ‘winning is lovely’ — but other things are important as well.

None of this, however, is meant to denigrate Brazil or any of the other countries that give the world this most exciting of sports. But if the people of Brazil regularly convey to their players that ‘winning is everything,’ that places a heavy — a crushing? — burden on their team.

And we wonder if that isn’t the explanation for what happened Tuesday: With two of its most important players out, and perhaps little practice doing introspection, Brazil is hit with an unexpected German goal in the 11th minute.

And we wonder if the shock of that first goal activated a neuron network already in place in Brazil’s individual players, a network in which the neurons fired in a row like falling dominoes in support of the crippling conclusion that ‘this is too hard — we’re not going to win this game.’

These neuron networks can hold people like prisoners. We experience this when we are seized with a sudden anger, a sudden fear. The on-air reporters observed that Brazil’s response to Germany’s first goal was dispirited — almost no response at all. A numbness, as it were.

And that impression became stronger after Germany’s second goal, 12 minutes later. And suddenly Germany scored its third and fourth goals in successive minutes, as Brazil ‘stood and watched.’

We don’t insist on these conclusions — but it may be this simple, that a culture of ‘winning is everything’ carries — if you can bear another cliché — an aspect of ‘all or nothing,’ such that when the tide went against Brazil on the field Tuesday night, it was not possible for the team to dial down to a more moderate expectation — and they were frozen into inaction, scoring only a single goal just moments before the match ended.

Our thanks to the New York Times, always a valuable source and resource.