A party at the end of the world
"If we win the Cup, then we go to heaven. But if we lose, then we all go to hell."
-- José Maria Marin, Brazilian Football Federation president
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- You could feel it. I swear that you could.
Two whole hours before the most humiliating defeat in World Cup history -- no, all of sports history -- a wind outside the Estadio Mineirao blew cold, ominous. Over the swarmed avenues, from the bars by the Ipiranga gas station to the entrance of the arena, a quilt of grey clouds had rolled in, throwing thousands wearing bright yellow into shadow. The scene throbbed with something like dread.
For a month now, I had watched this continent-sized country behave like a vast organism, its cities roaring and launching fireworks and quaking in harmony with its national heroes. But now Belo Horizonte, Brazil's latest epicenter, seemed claustrophobic with tension. Now the aggression of a pregame carnival seemed newly surrealist, as if imagined by David Lynch. At 3:30 p.m., as two helicopters crossed overhead, I wrote a note to myself on my iPhone: This feels like a party at the end of the world.
There was a prayer circle of some 30 people in No. 10 jerseys, holding hands and kneeling as firecrackers went off in the distance. There were thousands of hard-stock Neymar masks that had been co-opted by German fans within two seconds; painted lines of black, red and yellow sat below the injured superstar's hollow eyes. There were dark palisades of military policemen in black boots and vests, their tall, Plexiglas shields bearing one Portuguese word, in all caps: CHOQUE. Shock.
The Brahma stands -- and by stands, I mean workers standing between red cases of beer piled atop one another, fort-like -- couldn't pour tall boys into clear plastic cups fast enough. A team of hapless women, attempting to control pedestrian traffic to clear space for oncoming traffic, couldn't keep the crowd from pushing forward.
I heard chanting as a group of fans with a four-foot replica of the World Cup trophy scurried past like ants hoisting a leaf. A television personality wearing fake teeth, a red pantsuit, a brown wig and heavy makeup followed. He was trailed by a camera crew and six security guards -- all at least 6-foot-2, all wearing black polo shirts -- just in case.
Even closer to the arena, where external power generators hummed violently, all the sounds blended together. I stood near the stadium entrance before kick-off as firecrackers kept exploding and choppers hovered, and mobs of people continued to chant from behind the same mask. This was the World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Germany. The country felt like it was vibrating, like these were the gates of hell.***
Inside the Estadio Mineirao, bunkered in Row U of the media section, it wasn't until the third German goal that I began to worry. Thomas Muller's unmarked strike off a corner kick in the 11th minute was disappointing; Miroslav Klose's score 12 minutes later, off his own rebound, Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar couldn't do much about. But when Toni Kroos sent one in from just outside the box only a minute after that, the vast organism wailed. A bank of lights above me went out -- just like one had in the opener against Croatia in Sao Paulo, when Brazil began this tournament by scoring its first own goal in tournament history.
But there would be no recovery here, of course. Two minutes after that Kroos scored again, Die Mannschaft's fourth goal in seven shots. By then I wouldn't have blamed any of the Brazilians present for lying down, pressing their eyelids shut for a while and checking that they weren't dreaming. I wouldn't have blamed any of the Germans for doing that, either.
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When Sami Khedira made it 5-0 about 180 seconds later -- this was, mind you, the 29th minute -- I immediately forgot how it even happened. The method didn't really matter, anyway. After all the booing, my notes just read "5:29 p.m. -- 5. Germans not even celebrating."
Four goals had just been scored in six minutes; five goals had been scored in under half an hour. Neither feat had ever been accomplished in World Cup history -- let alone in a game with a trip to the final on the line. A short-handed side that had called upon a psychologist at every step of the knockout stages was falling apart in front of everyone they loved.
Amid the onslaught, yellow jerseys began to head for the exits and a nation that had carried its players in screaming the Hino Nacional Brasileiro, a cappella, mostly stopped yelling. The noise, instead, was that of chatter, of 50,000 people simultaneously turning the World Cup into a town hall meeting. Whether you could understand Portuguese or not, you could see people turn their backs to the field and have the same conversation, everywhere at once: How the hell is this happening? Which should be the first head to roll?
Factions emerged. Transnational skirmishes broke out. In the section to my right, the most die-hard fans forced themselves to cheer; nearby, a German fan with a death wish kept turning around and pointing his camera at the sad people behind him, who consequently had to be restrained.
Down on the field, right before the whistle for halftime, Hulk -- whose nickname, by now, had been worn smooth of every possible joke -- failed to corral a ball that was speeding out of bounds. Philipp Lahm, the unflappable German captain defending him, patted the forward on the back, as if to say that he was sorry. Every Brazilian looked as small as pocket-sized Bernard, the 5-foot-4 striker and hometown kid who'd been flung into this garbage fire as Neymar's replacement.
The rest of the match unfolded swiftly and sarcastically -- a streak of irony broken only by the crowd chanting "Hey Fred, go f--- yourself" at the long-maligned striker. The fans stood up and hate-applauded German forward Andre Schurrle, who subbed in for Klose in the 58th minute and made it 6-0, then 7-0. They hate-applauded Oscar, who finally beat goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to get Brazil on board in the 90th minute. They hate-applauded David Luiz, the captain in Thiago Silva's absence, who fell to his knees when the whistle blew, like those fans who'd been praying in a circle not long before.
"Desculpa," Luiz mouthed to the stands, crying, as the 27-year-old got up and lurched into the tunnel. I'm sorry.
"It was the worst day of my life," manager Luiz Felipe Scolari said at his postmatch news conference in the bowels of the arena. In a country where pride is fused to the team Scolari coaches, he was hardly alone.
Back on the field, I watched the German cheering section, still in their seats, still singing, still celebrating, as various players came out from below to salute them. They would receive an escort from the palisades of Brazilian military police to exit the Estadio Mineirao.***
I had left the stadium before the Germans did. I had gone out into Belo Horizonte, back onto those avenues, to see what chaos this repulsed, soccer-mad country had descended into.
As the goals piled up, we journalists had speculated about riots to come, the hallmark of any true sporting catastrophe, much less the worst in memory. Brazil had suffered to make this World Cup happen, investing so much and trampling over so many citizens and would-be protests to reach what the president of the Brazilian Football Federation had dubbed "heaven." Like those clouds, messages from friends and family had rolled in well before the game was over: Be safe.
But now, out in the streets, there was nothing, somehow. Crowds were sparse. The world remained intact.
A red-eyed Brazilian woman and her boyfriend waved off a lone cameraman who trained his lens directly at them. A man in a fur hat held up white poster board that read WELCOME TO RUSSIA 2018. German fans bought beer from that vendor fort, their flags flying with impunity, and someone beat a drum that said GOOD KRAUTS in black letters on the side. I saw the guys with that four-foot World Cup trophy drag it over asphalt that had grown sticky with gallons of Brahma.
Meanwhile, seven motorcycle cops in riot gear idled under a lamppost, their white helmets dangling off a row of handlebars. An ambulance rolled by with nothing to do. As I made my way through the city, back toward my hotel about 45 minutes away, it looked this way for miles.
On my phone, I'd seen reports of an empty bus on fire in a Sao Paulo garage and muggings in Rio. And I'd absorbed all the context for how historically embarrassing the night had been; how no host country in World Cup history had ever lost by so much. How no one had scored six goals on Brazil in 94 years. How no defeat in a knockout round had been this uneven since 1938. How the Selecao hadn't lost an official game at home since 1975.
Yet here at the epicenter, the city where the humiliation had actually occurred, the biggest postmatch collision I witnessed was an arena worker's golf cart accidentally scraping a metal fence. More than anything, the whole nation -- the whole organism -- seemed exhausted. It seemed too painful to care.
That was the most surreal thing about the way Brazil left this place. There was no hell, after all, and no riots. After a month of this World Cup, what you could feel was a host country just wanting to go home.
A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).