Matthew Niederhauser is reporting from Brazil with support from the Pulitzer Center.
It’s after midnight, and Belo Horizonte is not burning. Yes, Brazil just lost its semifinal against Germany in the most humiliating fashion, but angry mobs did not tear the city apart. The locals are still in a state of shock and drinking their sorrow away. Full recognition of what's just happened won’t come until the hangovers settle over the next few days. Everybody might then realize that the pay off for putting up with years of preparations and political malfeasance in order to host the World Cup was this: a decisive six minutes during which Germany rocked Brazil with four unanswered goals. What is clear, though, is that the dream is over.
Everything seemed normal when I approached the Mineirão a few hours before the match. Brazilians were out in force, sporting their team colors and flags worn as capes. Small groups of Germans bedecked in national apparel also made their way up the shore of the Lagoa Pampulha toward the stadium. There was general revelry and a lot of camaraderie. Opposing fans took pictures with each other and shared beers. Neymar masks were being handed out by the thousands to both sides. Everyone seemed set for a classic standoff between two great futebol powers. There was a slightly ominous overcast sky, but nothing to indicate the sheer destructive forces that were about to be unleashed upon Brazil, both the team and the nation.
Unlike my last visit to Belo Horizonte during the group stage, I was not able to use any “lost gringo” tricks to get close to the Mineirão. I then hopped a cab to the FIFA Fan Fest where I was also denied entry. It was packed to capacity. I wanted to be with a large crowd so I headed to another corporate fan fest set up in Praça Juscelino Kubitscheck. I barely got inside the gates when everything started to unravel. The first German goal did not faze the crowd too much. Brazil could definitely get one back. But then the six minutes of fury occurred. It was as if a stun grenade went off. The Brazil fans could not believe it. Mouths dropped. Eyes popped. Some simply got up and left. Brazil was suddenly down by five goals in the same amount of time it took to grab a beer and find your friends again.
How and why Brazil lost control of the game so quickly will be a matter of debate for years to come. The absence of Thiago Silva and Neymar only adds fuel to the pundit fire. Everyone wants to consider what could have been. The real tragedy, though, is that such dialogue only delays the greater need to address the corruption surrounding the World Cup in the first place. As I've traveled from host city to host city over the past few weeks, it’s been an open secret that Brazilians largely chose to ignore the criminal misconduct of corporations and politicians leading up to the tournament. They wanted to focus on the games. The love of futebol reigned supreme. Now reality is about to kick in hard. I could see it in people’s eyes as I walked the streets during halftime. Even the television commentators were at a loss for words.
After the half I decided to head to Savassi, Belo Horizonte’s nightlife destination. It was here that I had hoped to be celebrating the triumph of Brazil over Germany, but instead the match was already over. The crowd was checked out of the action on the field and focusing on drinking and socializing. Some Brazilians even started ironically cheering for Germany when they racked up another two goals. The entire game was such an absurdity that it actually made it easier to disassociate and put off from any deeper introspection. Still, local authorities felt the need to keep a tight grip on the situation. I witnessed another instance of blatant police brutality on the outskirts of the crowd. A drunk fan was berating a group of officers who suddenly set upon him with batons, pepper spray, and flash grenades. They temporarily cleared the entire street for one person. The message was clear: stay in line during the World Cup—democratic rights be damned.
After the final whistle, everyone stuck around for a party that was more like a wake. There were no riots or looting. Brazilians are amazing hosts, and I believe they will keep it together until the end of the World Cup. Protests will certainly be held during the days leading up to the final on Sunday, but there probably won’t be any mass demonstrations until closer to the October elections. President Dilma Rousseff is on her way out. Hopefully Brazil will make time for soul searching before then. Measures need to be be put in place to curb profiteering as Rio de Janeiro prepares to host the Olympics in two years. The responsible parties also need to be held accountable for all the broken promises leading up to the World Cup. The only consolation is that there will be no chance for a Maracanazo repeat. Instead Brazilians must now grapple with the Mineirãzo.