SAO PAULO, Brazil — In busy Sao Paulo, the signs of Brazil’s quest for a sixth World Cup title are everywhere — giant Brazilian flags painted on the streets, ubiquitous pictures of the national team’s smiling stars and graffiti proclaiming the slogan voiced around the country: “On course for the sixth.”
But those signs now can only serve as a reminder of what might have been. In one of the biggest upsets of the tournament so far, the Netherlands defeated Brazil 2-1 in their quarterfinal match in Cape Town today.
The defeat brought a staggering halt to Brazil’s hopes of lifting the World Cup trophy once again and the devastation was written on the teary-eyed faces of fans in Sao Paulo, who after the final whistle blew, quietly poured out of packed bars and restaurants mostly refusing to comment on their despair.
“I really thought they were going to win,” said Anderson Gunhu, a 30-year old resident of Sao Paulo, barely raising his eyes from the ground. “It’s inexplicable. I feel like the Cup was in our hands, and we lost it.”
Nearly all of Brazil’s 195 million people had been transfixed as the drama unfolded on televisions and radios across the country. Shops were empty and bars were crowded. Even schools were closed so that kids could watch with their families.
Firecrackers exploded and cars blared their horns as Brazil’s ace forward Robinho scored a goal early in the first half. But for the rest of the game, the Brazilian team failed to convert opportunities into goals and was eventually sent home.
When the Dutch goalkeeper dove, barely blocking an on-target shot with his fingertips, 30-year-old Luiz Guilherme Santos, sitting in his apartment thousands of miles away, turned away in disgust.
“They are winning now, but you can never be sure against Holland,” he said nervously, wincing after each missed opportunity. “In 1994 we were beating them 2 - 0, and they scored two goals in the second half. This could be very bad.”
Brazil ended up winning that match, but it was not to be this time around.
With each fumble, the streets and bars of Sao Paulo would erupt again and again in disdain. Disappointed Brazilians cursed out of apartment windows and shouted inside crowded restaurants.
Brazil’s fate was sealed when Felipe Melo was sent off with a red card for violently stomping on Dutch ace Arjen Robben in a display of poor sportsmanship.
His bad judgment triggered an outcry of expletives and threats from many of the almost 100 Brazilians packed into one small restaurant. Others just shook their heads, finished their beers and stared at their empty bottles, unable to regain their composure as their hopes of lifting another World Cup trophy faded into the Sao Paulo smog.
“I think Brazil’s defense was really good this year, but the second half was terrible. They played so badly,” said Aparecida Ribeiro, 50, masking her disappointment with a smile as she walked home after watching her team collapse. “After Holland scored its first goal, our players level of play dropped off really quickly and they went to sleep.”
With the game over, Santos said he felt too sick to comment any further. Outside his window, mechanics sat on the ground of their garage with their tools scattered around them, listening to the radio as the announcer eulogized the team’s deceased aspirations.
The defeat will surely bring up unpleasant memories of their team’s quarter-final exit from the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when the Brazilians were beaten 1-0.
But Ribeiro found reason to hope as she headed home after this year’s disappointing elimination.
“It's okay that Brazil didn't win the Cup this year because I think they are going to win the next one in 2014 here in Brazil,” she said, still looking shaken. “It would be a lot to ask for them to win two in a row. But if we lose in our own country, that would be a tragedy.”