BRASILIA – You don’t need to speak Portuguese to understand the language of worry.
Brazil’s national team escaped with a riveting round-of-16 win on Saturday over Chile, thanks to Julio Cesar’s saves and Neymar’s cold-blooded shootout goal, but do not let the photos of 40,000 fans celebrating on Copacabana beach fool you:
This was as close as it gets to a-soccer-lypse.
The concern was etched on the faces of Brazil fans all day in this capital city: darting glances, tight fists, outstretched arms, palms on foreheads, and of course, shrieks every time a Chile player neared Brazil's net.
One of many telling scenes took place in a mall here, which shut down all of its stores for the afternoon, but allowed fans in to watch the match in the atrium. Right next door, in a packed restaurant, a group of ladies sat around a table and cheered mightily when Brazil took a 1-0 lead. Then, when Chile tied it up, their expressions fell and they looked at each other without a word. The silent message was unmistakable: “Uh oh.”
In the second half, the TV feed in the restaurant went out, leaving black screens all around. A groan reverberated through the place. Half of the women at the table did not show any patience with the glitch, which lasted no longer than two minutes; they got up and left. They didn’t even say goodbye.
It’s hard to imagine any particular sports defeat threatening so much anguish in the United States. Not everyone expects the U.S. hockey team to win a gold medal in any particular Olympics, and not enough people worship basketball to feel completely destroyed if the U.S. basketball team is upset. America is getting fired up about soccer to a new extent, but a loss on Tuesday against Belgium will leave disappointment far more than devastation.
Here? It’s different. A soccer loss is unthinkable. And millions were thinking it on Saturday, whether they admit it or not.
The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup, in 1950, the national team’s run ended with the unthinkable: a championship game loss to Uruguay. It was one of the most significant upsets of all time, in any sport. The final game took place in the Maracana stadium, where this year’s last game will also be held, and the ghosts must be eradicated. Unless and until that happens, the specter of 1950 looms. No matter that few of today’s fans remember that Uruguay game. The memory is collective – passed down through grand tales or wordlessly.
Brazil’s 2014 team is good – very good. They are the favorites. But as talented as they are, there are also flaws. The yellow and green are not unbeatable. They are not impervious. That has been clear from the first match, and it was quite clear on Saturday. Chile, fearless and fast, pushed their foes to the very brink. There is a good chance it will happen again. Colombia, who will face Brazil on July 4, is just as dangerous.
Soccer fans know this is how it is in the knockout round. When the world gathers to compete for one prize in its most popular sport, there is no such thing as the 72-10 Chicago Bulls, cakewalking to glory. There will be nerves for fan bases all over the planet in the coming days, and that certainly includes the Americans, who will be yelling expletives with joy and frustration on Tuesday.
Here in this country, though, the anxiety rises to a singular level. A loss in this tournament will hurt not for hours or days, but for months or years. And if a defeat comes at the hands of a nearby team like Colombia or (gasp) Argentina, the pain will go even deeper.
During Saturday’s match, just like during all of Brazil’s matches, normally busy streets were vacant. The rare noise came from a city bus or a stray dog. Businesses were closed; taxis were hard to find. It was like the middle of the night, except it was the middle of the day.
At just about 4 p.m. local time, the quiet was punctured: Neymar did it; Brazil won. Yet on this memorable day, a day of relief, it was all but impossible not to wonder what it would be like in this country if one of these matches end, and the silence isn’t broken.