This time, there was no rout, no scoreline to ring through the ages. There were no tears, no eulogies.
In many ways, that is the most damning thing about the quiet death of Brazil’s Copa América hopes: there was none of the shock and awe of the game known simply as “The 7-1”. On this occasion there was barely a whimper of defiance as the Seleção muddled their way to a draw with Paraguay and – for the second time in four years – came up short in a penalty shootout.
The quarter-final performance was entirely of a piece with the rest of Brazil’s campaign. There was no fluency, no pattern to their play. Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho toiled away but produced nothing. In midfield, Elias and Fernandinho seemed content to play sideways passes and let the full-backs provide what little attacking thrust there was. With Neymar absent, there was simply no spark.
There has been significant soul-searching in the days since the elimination, with many drawing links between on-field woes and the growing sense of crisis enveloping the CBF in the wake of José Maria Marin’s arrest and recent allegations about the body’s tangled relationship with Nike.
“There is a lack of leadership in Brazilian football,” wrote Zico, one of the stars of perhaps the last truly great Brazil side. “After the World Cup last year, the CBF tried to find a solution, but the problem is institutional. We need genuine change that brings democracy and transparency to the organisation.”
Tostão, a World Cup winner in 1970 and now a prominent newspaper columnist was even more damning. “Brazilian football has been suffering from a sickness for some time,” he mused in Folha de São Paulo. “To treat it, we need a group of independent specialists who are given time. The first task should be to make the patient face reality, to put an end to the lie that Brazil produces world-class players on every street corner.”
Few hold realistic hopes for the kind of change that is necessary to restore Brazil’s lost lustre. There are too many vested interests, too many parties with too much to lose. In this respect, Brazilian football simply reflects Brazilian life more generally, with power concentrated in the hands of the few – a product, perhaps, of the country’s relatively late embrace of democracy.
There have been minor signs of some improvement since 2014. Then, calls for reform were swiftly swept under the carpet as the CBF brought back Dunga within a fortnight of the end of the World Cup. Now, a committee has been set up to “gather opinions and unite forces” in search of answers. It is hoped that the likes of Mário Zagallo and Paulo Roberto Falcão will be among those involved.
This is a start. But the scope of the revolution must be wider, taking in the outmoded domestic calendar, the chaotic financial dealings of clubs, the prioritisation of physicality over technical skill in youth academies and, of course, the web of sin that is the CBF itself.
The road will be a treacherous one, but Brazil must walk it if they are to stop the rot. If they do not, disappointment will become the norm rather than the exception.