The 2014 World Cup will not go down favorably in Brazilian collective memory.  First there were the grumblings about the excessive money being spent to host the event, and how those monies could have been put to better use for infrastructure and education.  Then there was the shattering 7-1 loss to Germany at the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte in the semi-finals on July 8, which triggered something that looked very much like a national trauma.  When the Netherlands defeated Brazil in a 3-0 drubbing yesterday, it seemed like the time had come for some national soul-searching.  It was the first time since 1940 that Brazil had been defeated in consecutive home games.  What rankled even more was the fact that arch-rival Argentina made it to the finals with a respectable showing in all of her matches.  Something had gone seriously wrong.

The statistics mask the scale of the calamity in the Brazilian psyche.  The last time Brazil hosted the World Cup (in 1950), it lost the final to Uruguay by a score of 2-1, with Uruguay scoring its two goals in the last 13 minutes.  That defeat caused Brazilian playwright and journalist Nelson Rodrigues to describe the event as “a national catastrophe… our Hiroshima.”  The analogy is not as hyperbolic as it sounds.  Brazil has long defined itself on its virtuosity on the football field; there was a sense that, despite all of her underachievement in other areas of endeavor, there was at least something that Brazil was the best at.  The sport provided a national narrative, a somewhat effective social glue, and a sense of pride.  According to anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, football gave Brazil “a confidence in ourselves that no other institution has given Brazil to the same extent.”  Seen against this backdrop, the psychological effect of Brazil’s showing in the 2014 World Cup games has been nothing less than devastating.

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Brazil’s glory days in football:  there can be danger in living in the past

To be sure, there is a danger in reading too much into the outcomes of sporting events.  We must not make the mistake of projecting a whole host of wider “societal lessons” onto a misfortune on the field of play.  No sporting team can win all the time, and slumps are natural parts of the competitive cycle. The July 12 print issue of The Economist contains an editorial by a writer named “Bello” which sees Brazil’s defeat as a symptom of a “wider malaise” in Brazil’s economic and political fabric.  Bello claims that the World Cup disaster is likely to rob President Rousseff of a “boost in an election in October” and that “Brazilian football is no longer a source of national confidence.”  Such statements go too far, I believe.  The World Cup soccer field is not a distillation of the Brazilian national experience.

But there is something to be learned here, and something to take away.  This is an opportunity to reflect on the virtues of perseverance, resilience, and willpower.  We can use Brazil’s crushing defeats to make wider points about recovering from major setbacks.  No one can coast through life without experiencing traumas, setbacks, and disasters.  Defeats can come in personal, financial, or emotional forms.  The great god Pain–to use an expression from German writer Ernst Juenger–will place his hand on our heads many times during our lives.  How we deal with the effects of his touch will provide some indication of our worth.

Competition is the essence of life itself.  It is a biological imperative.  Nations and empires are much like individuals, in that they have their own characters and traits.  Some have the capacity to adapt and learn from their defeats, and thereby emerge stronger from calamity; and some are unable to change their ways, eventually becoming buried by the winds and dusts of historical events.  Nations, like individuals, make their own choices whether to learn from their catastrophic defeats.  In my own experience, I have seen some men laid low by defeat, never to recover.  Others have learned from their experiences and gone on to greater achievement, fortified by the gauntlet of hardships.  Defeat is a stimulus for reform for some, and a death-knell for others.

Historical examples abound.  Assyria was one of the most extensive and feared empires of the ancient Near East.  It set a benchmark for military prowess and ruthless cruelty that few predecessors could match.  From Egypt to Babylon, it controlled a domain held together by military force and fear.  One of its great kings, Ashurbanipal, died in 626 B.C.; fourteen years later, a coalition of Scythians, Babylonians, and Medes swept into Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and sacked it.  From this one great blow, Assyria never recovered.  It essentially disappeared from history, never to rise again.  Its society had failed to establish the rehabilitative institutions, and the cultural depth, that might provide some relief from a major calamity.  Hundreds of years later, when the Greek general Xenophon led his army over the broken ruins of Nineveh, he had no idea that it was once the seat of a great and prosperous empire.

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Assyria never recovered from its military defeat

Rome in the Second Punic War provides an illustration of a different result.  At the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C., Rome faced a military disaster of the greatest magnitude.  Some 50,000 of its men—more than half her army—were slaughtered by Hannibal’s battlefield brilliance.  In one day, the cream of the Roman army was ground into the bloody soil of Apulia, among them many senators and members of Rome’s most notable families.  The scope of the calamity is difficult for us to comprehend today, but it registered in Rome as something like a Hiroshima event.  The city lay open, and the public went into a general panic.  For the first time, Rome knew the taste of fear.

But this is where Rome showed that it was not Assyria.  Rome adjusted her tactics, replaced her leaders, and dug in for a long and protracted fight. With grim determination and tenacity, it adopted Fabius Maximus’s policy of outlasting Hannibal.  Deprived of decisive military engagements, Hannibal floundered around Italy for years, losing strength, vainly trying to build a coalition of allies to confront Rome.  Rome meanwhile went on the offensive elsewhere, sending Scipio Africanus to attack Carthaginian strongholds in Hannibal’s rear in Spain.  Slowly but surely, Roman tenacity ground down Carthaginian panache and brilliance.  It was a war of attrition, a battle of willpower to see who could outlast the other.  Hannibal was finally forced to return home, and at Zama he was decisively defeated by Scipio.

It will be illuminating to see how Brazil responds to its soccer-field Cannae.  Will it use this defeat as an impetus to improve and come back stronger?  Or will it collapse as did Assyria?  Those who know Brazil already know the answer to this question.  I am confident that Brazil will emerge stronger, better, and more humble from this experience.  In retrospect, it seems that Brazilians approached the games with too much arrogance, too much hubris, and too much laxity.

It is still too early to know the full story, but I suspect that the Germans made a detailed study of their opponents’ style of play and weaknesses, and planned patiently for their match with Brazil.  This type of meticulous preparation is a hallmark of the German way of doing things.  One is reminded of German boxer Max Schmeling’s 1936 bout with universal favorite Joe Louis.  While everyone predicted Louis would quickly dispose of the upstart German, Schmeling patiently and quietly studied films of Louis’s technique in order to dissect his opponent’s weaknesses.  He found a hole in Louis’s defenses, and exploited it.  I am sure the German World Cup team here did precisely the same thing against their Brazilian opponents.

No one can shield himself from defeat.  It will come whether we want it or not.  How we respond to our defeats is the determinative issue.  For the laurels go not to the man who begins the race, but to the man who finishes it.

Read More:  Let Hard Experience Be Your Teacher