There’s a tendency to focus on the winners in sport. With good reason. Winners bask in the glory and adulation of fans and media. But in sport, there are always two sides. With winners, there are losers. Every team has lost a big game at some point. Sometimes it’s a matter of the opponent being better. But there are some losses that are so painful, they crush the soul of the players, coaches and supporters. This series of articles focuses on the deep pain of sport. Bring tissues if your team is featured.
No country has a more decorated history in the beautiful game than Brazil. Their 5 World Cup titles tops all nations and their revolutionary and enthralling style of play are the envy of their foes. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pain and agony though. In fact, one can make the argument that their most crushing defeats impelled La Selecao to reinvent the sport and themselves. With that in mind, here are Brazil’s 5 most heartbreaking defeats in history. Quick note, all of these matches took place in World Cups.
July 16, 1950: Uruguay 2, Brazil 1.
The 1950 World Cup was supposed to be a coming out party for Brazilian football. And they did not disappoint. Playing with an attacking flair that no one had seen before, Brazil shook the foundations of the game that the once staid rulers took heed. Led by the brilliance of Ademir who led the tournament with 8 goals, Brazil stampeded their way through the competition, scoring decisive wins over Mexico, Yugoslavia, Sweden and Spain. Their last two victories over the Swedes and Spaniards were devastating as they outscored their European counterparts by a combined 13-2 margin. On top of all that, Brazil were playing at home in front of a fevered and rabid fan base who were waiting to party once the home side hoisted the Jules Rimet Cup. (And no country can throw a party like Brazil.)
Uruguay on the other hand were seen as dour and dull. They weren’t flashy but La Celeste were an efficient and controlled side who rarely made mistakes. They also were opportunistic as they loved to pounce on their opponents errors and make them pay dearly. Uruguay destroyed Bolivia and eked out a narrow victory over Sweden to set up a showdown with their South American rivals.
The format of this World Cup was slightly different. Brazil only needed a draw to win the World Cup while Uruguay had to win because they were held to a draw by Spain.
Maracana Stadium in Rio was the site of the final match. The estimated crowd was at 200,000, the largest to ever watch a sporting event. Rio was all set to party. Brazilians were so sure of victory that 22 gold medals with the names of the Brazilian players were made prior to the match.
It looked like a certainty that Brazil would see their wish come to fruition when Sao Paulo striker Friaca opened the scoring just two minutes after halftime. Maracana was shaking to its core as Brazil looked to have control of the match. But a shocking turn took place as Juan Alberto Schiaffino levelled the score at the 66 minute mark. Then at the 79th minute, winger Alcides Ghiggia put Uruguay ahead with a perfectly placed shot that found the bottom corner of the net. Brazil was stunned as Maracana went from deafening noise to eerie silence. The host team desperately tried to even the score in the final 11 minutes but their attempts were fruitless. When the referee blew the final whistle, the expected party turned into a funeral. Instead of joyful cheers, there were plenty of tears. Brazil learned a harsh lesson that day. They would wait 8 years until a teenager named Pele would lead them to the promised land.
July 5, 1982. Italy 3, Brazil 2.
The sport was on the rise in 1982 and the World Cup was growing in stature. Brazil were at the forefront of the movement, led by the charisma and supreme brilliance of Pele. However, a new crop of footballers were hoping to imbed their footprint on the game.
After winning their third World Cup in 1970 in glorious form, Brazil struggled to maintain their place atop of the football world. Disappointing showings in 1974 and 1978 along with a dull style had Brazil supporters up in arms. But a new wave was coming. During qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, Brazil unleashed a beautiful yet deadly style of play and players that are to be remembered. There was the graceful leadership of Socrates, the talismanic genius of Zico, the lightning pace of Falcao and the technical skills of Eder who possessed a thunderbolt of a left foot.
Brazil arrived in Spain for the World Cup as favourites and they didn’t disappoint. After a slow start, Brazil defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 then followed with resounding victories over Scotland and New Zealand. When Brazil easily disposed their bitter South American rivals Argentina by a 3-1 margin, they were hailed as the most exciting team in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Italy came into Spain with low expectations. Italian football was in the midst of a major match fixing scandal involving their star striker, Paolo Rossi. Some had suggested that Rossi be left off the team but Italian coach Enzo Bearzot included the Juventus forward in hopes he would redeem himself.
Italy weren’t in good form to open the tournament as they drew their first three matches against lesser opponents. (Poland, Peru and Cameroon.) However the Azure started to find their stride with a confident 2-1 victory over Argentina, setting up a massive fixture with Brazil.
It would be a clash of styles as Brazil’s free-flowing fashion would contrast with Italy’s stern tactics. But there was a catch. Italy needed to win the match to advance to the semi-final while Brazil were in the same position as in 1950, only needing a draw to go through. Italy had to attack which would play into Brazil’s hands. Or so everyone thought.
Estadio Sarria was packed and teeming with excitement as opening kickoff approached. The tone of the match was set early on as Rossi headed in an Antonio Cabrini cross, to give Italy the lead.
Brazil struck back seven minutes later as Socrates finished an exquisite setup by Zico. The pace was furious as both sides were rampaging down the pitch in search of goals.
Italy retook the lead in the 25th minute as Rossi notched his second, capitalizing on a glaring error from Brazilian defensive midfielder Cerezo. They would onto that lead into halftime.
Brazil roared out of the gate to start the second half, in desperate need of an equalizer. They found it at the 68 minute mark as Falcao’s left-footed laser-beam struck the top corner of the net so hard, it nearly knocked the goal over. It looked like Brazil were going to advance until disaster struck.
Italy won a corner in the 74th minute and it was poorly cleared by the Brazil defence. Rossi was there to pick up the scraps and had no problem finishing his hat-trick to give Italy the victory.
This was one of the greatest games ever played and is much remembered for Brazil’s dynamic panache despite the heartbreaking defeat. That’s a testament to the greatness of this team. Italy won the World Cup. Brazil won the hearts of the people.
June 24, 1990. Argentina 1, Brazil 0.
The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is fierce and that’s putting it mildly. For most Brazilians, their second favourite team after the home country is anybody that beats Argentina. There is no love loss between these two neighbouring nations as fixtures between these two are often bitter, nasty affairs with no quarter given.
The 1990 World Cup is not remembered very fondly by most observers. In this humble writer’s opinion, this is the worst World Cup of all time. Not even Brazil could save this tournament.
La Selecao were in a transition period as the decade began. Gone were the likes of Zico and Falcao along with the ravishing delightful attack. Brazil’s approach was more pragmatic and textured. Memories of 1982 still haunted them and Brazil thought a more even keeled texture would suit them better. While it did generate positive results, (victories over Sweden, Costa Rica and Scotland) they weren’t necessarily winning hearts and minds like they were 8 years earlier.
Argentina were the defending World Cup champions heading into Italia 90 but were a team mired in controversy. Despite having the best player in the world at the time in Diego Maradona, La Albiceleste were feuding with each other prior to the tournament. The tension level rose as Cameroon shocked Argentina 1-0 in the opening match. A bounce back win over the Soviet Union eased the mood slightly but that changed after a murky draw with Romania raised the paranoia to new heights. Argentina were also criticized for playing negative football, relying on defensive tactics and physical action which some called dirty.
The two South American rivals were set to meet in the Round of 16 in Turin. Brazil was thought to have the advantage as they played all of their Group Stage matches at the Stadio delle Alpi while Argentina went back and forth between Milan and Naples for their fixtures. They were travel weary and ornery.
Brazil’s pragmatism held firm as they held a wide advantage in possession and pace but couldn’t find the break through. Argentina were patient and stoic and only needed one chance. With nine minutes remaining, Maradona’s through ball found striker Claudio Caniggia who slipped the ball past a fallen Claudio Taffarel for the only goal of the match.
Brazil and Argentina are bitter enemies when it comes to soccer and this loss hurt. Not because the better team won or lost, it’s because losing to your arch-enemy tears at your soul and leaves it in tatters.
July 12, 1998. France 3, Brazil 0.
The 1998 World Cup was supposed to be the time Ronaldo would ascend the mountaintop as the premier player on the planet. The striker was lighting up scoreboards for his club team Inter Milan at the time, scoring 34 goals in all competitions while leading I Nerazzurri to a UEFA Cup title in 1998.
Ronaldo was being compared (somewhat unfairly) to the likes of Pele and Romario by the Brazilian press. How he performed at France 98 would go a long way to cement his legacy.
Brazil opened up the tournament with a narrow victory over Scotland. They followed it with an impressive 3-0 trouncing of Morocco with Ronaldo opening his World Cup account against the African side. But a seed of doubt was planted in their final Group Stage match when Norway stunned the Brazilians 2-1. It was to be an omen for down the road.
Brazil looked to shake off the upset as they thrashed Chile in the Round of 16 with Ronaldo’s brace being integral. That was followed with a stirring quarterfinal victory over Denmark in one of the best fixtures of the tournament. (The 1998 World Cup is very good and is worth checking out on youtube when matches appear.)
In the semifinal against Holland, Ronaldo delivered the icebreaker early in the second half but the Dutch equalized late forcing the match to be decided on penalties. Ronaldo calmly converted his spot kick while the Dutch folded, sending Brazil to the Final.
France were the host squad and wanted to show that they were ready to be a major player in the sport after missing both the 1994 and 1998 tournaments. Group stage victories over South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Denmark set the tone but nerves nearly got to Les Bleus in the knockout stages.
France needed a golden goal from defender Laurent Blanc to sneak past Paraguay in the Round of 16. The French then had to survive a penalty shootout against Italy in the quarterfinal. Finally, they had overcome a 1-0 deficit against Croatia which they did thanks to two Lilian Thuram goals.
The French weren’t done with adversity however as Blanc was shown a red card in the semifinal, thus the centre back and captain was going to miss the Final.
It looked like everything was in Brazil’s favour but weird stuff started to happen. Ronaldo had reportedly fallen ill and his status for the Final was uncertain. The Brazil dressing room by most accounts was in a state of chaos as they wondered what was wrong with their star striker. There were even stories of Ronaldo throwing a violent temper tantrum prior to the Final but those reports were unsustained and never properly substantiated. No one knows what happened inside the Brazil room before the match, except the Brazil players, coaches and training staff. On the field, billions of people knew what happened.
Instead of Ronaldo asserting his place as the sport’s best, it was French midfielder Zinedine Zidane who rose up from the ashes like a fiery Phoenix and assumed the place as king. Zidane’s brace along with his talismanic presence in the centre of the pitch were vital for France. Brazil had no answer for ZZ. When Emanuel Petit finished off the game in style with a breakaway goal in the 90th minute, it put an exclamation mark on Brazil’s worst nightmare.
Questions remain to this day. What happened to Ronaldo? Was he sick? Was he injured? Was he angry? Did a corporate sponsor get involved? We’ll probably never know but many in Brazil still remember that awful night in Paris.
July 8, 2014. Germany 7, Brazil 1.
The 2014 World Cup was at best an uneasy affair for Brazil. Being the host nation did have perks. Raucous, supportive crowds. Familiar surroundings. But their was unrest as well.
FIFA were adamant about certain conditions that had to be met in order for Brazil to maintain its host status. Those conditions included new and incredibly expensive stadiums that would be rarely used after the tournament. No better example than the isolated city of Manaus where the only way to reach the city is by boat down the treacherous Amazon River. This was detailed brilliantly by John Oliver on his Last Week Tonight show on HBO. Yet FIFA made money while Brazil citizens were footed with a heavy tax bill.
On the pitch, Brazil were relying on a mixture of youth and experience. The youth was spearheaded by Neymar, the next one that was lauded by the hyper intense Brazilian media. Another rising star was Oscar who wasn’t getting the media attention, but was impressing his teammates and coaches with his skill and temperament.
The experience of Fred, Hulk and Thiago Silva was supposed to keep Brazil level-headed, despite the pressure of being the hosts.
Brazil did well enough in the Group Stage, finishing atop of Group A but were shaky in doing so. A slightly nervy victory over Croatia was followed by a dreary goalless draw against Mexico. Brazil looked like they were rounding into form in their final match in the group with a solid 4-1 result against Cameroon, thanks to Neymar’s brace.
The knockout stages were a scary time for Brazil. They needed penalties to squeak past Chile in the Round of 16, which was followed by a costly victory over Colombia. Costly due to Neymar suffering an injury that forced him out of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Germany came into Brazil 2014 as a somewhat overlooked side. There was talent on Die Mannschaft but it didn’t stand out as is typical on most German sides. However, Germany were ready to show what a complete team they were once the tournament began.
An impressive 4-0 thrashing of Portugal set the tone for the Germans. They had a slight slip as they drew Ghana but recovered in time to defeat the Unites States to win Group G.
Germany started the knockout stage with a heart-stopping victory over Algeria in the Round of 16, which was followed by a 1-0 workmanlike result over France in the quarterfinal.
The city of Belo Horizonte was the site of this semifinal clash that would become known in Brazil as the Mineirazo.
Just 11 minutes in, Thomas Muller opened the scoring for Germany which in turn, opened the floodgates. Germany exploded with four goals in a span of six minutes as Brazilian supporters watched in horror. A Toni Kroos brace to go with goals from Miroslav Klose and Sami Khedira gave Germany a 5-0 with only half an hour being played. While Brazil looked scattered and tattered, Germany were composed and precise much to the dismay of the 58,000 in attendance in Belo Horizonte.
Germany added two more goals in the second half, both from Andre Schurrle before Oscar finally put Brazil on the board with a meaningless consolation marker as the full time whistle blew.
The game set records for biggest margin of victory in a semifinal or final, worst loss by a host team, and most goals scored by one team in a semifinal.
The reaction in Brazil was of anger and outrage. The media dubbed it as “The Biggest Shame In History” and a “Historical Humiliation.” Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari resigned after the tournament calling the semifinal “The Worst Day Of My Life.” Brazil players offered apologies after the match while Twitter and other social media outlets were bombarded with musings and rants about the match.
Outside, some fans burned Brazil flags in Sao Paulo while mass robberies became evident in Rio during the match.
It is a day that will live in infamy in Brazil.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973.