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Psychoanalyzing Brazil’s World Cup Collapse

The worst home-team disaster in World Cup history, a national tragedy in Brazil. With their star forward Neymar sidelined with a broken back, the legendary Selecao lost its semifinal match 7-1 before a stadium full of weeping fans yesterday. In Anfibia, an Argentine sports psychologist suggests that Brazil’s collapse was the result of a rigid, top-down team psychology completely unlike the egalitarian group psychology of teams like Holland and Germany.

But is he blind to his beloved Argentine team’s own shortcomings?

What happened to Brazil is, at first glance, disconcerting and frightening, but more than anything it lays bare the deeper psychological pattern of a team that had clearly not gelled.

Neymar’s injury and subsequent exit from the tournament affected the team more emotionally then it did physically. While the Brazilian national anthem was playing [in the leadup to the game with Germany], two players held up Neymar’s jersey, seeking to make his presence felt, surely out of solidarity and camaraderie. But what the Brazil’s subsequent play demonstrated was a team still in a mourning process they could not control: There were no tears, but these boys were crying.

The phenomenon of a team being totally paralyzed, unable to react, is the outcome of a rigid structure which has broken, a rupture that neither players nor coach can, with limited resources and time, resolve during a game.

Just because a team wins games does not actually mean it is functioning well. With a rigid approach, a team’s performance is like a dam which, at the first crack, opens up and collapses, destroying everything in its path.

This is what happened to Brazil, and it is similar to what happened to Argentina in the last World Cup with Maradona as the coach, coincidentally against the same team, Germany [in the quarterfinals, a game Germany won 4-0]. Germany embodies a different philosophy.

A Clash of Paradigms

Teams with a rigid structure look to one or two leaders, who end up being the protagonists: the team depends on them. Everything comes down to that question then: who is the leader? Knowing who leads simplifies how the game is managed: there is no need to find consensus among all of these players. The leader gives orders and the rest obey. It is a more emotion-directed system and, if we wanted to look for a political analogy, it is closer to authoritarianism: practical, but severe and very dangerous. Because when the leader is gone, or the star around whom the team revolves is gone, the entire system collapses.

Then there are teams with a dynamic structure: they count on eleven leaders on the pitch, and that gives them much greater flexibility and adaptability. It is true that developing a squad like this demands much greater communication from everyone, without a doubt, it is worth the effort. Germany falls into this second paradigm.

The paradigm of the single leader, which perhaps we Latinos are more susceptible to, centers above all around passion and emotions, and worships success. In general, the priority is winning, not so much doing things well. It can work, but over time is unstable and can come apart when faced with an excess of adversity like Brazil faced.

The second paradigm, more Saxon, is based largely on principles, on rules and strategies that everyone respects. Its implementation is usually prioritized over winning.

Germany embodies this way of creating a team so much that it is not satisfied with scoring one goal when it can score ten. And they get mad when [Brazil] makes even one goal, not because of the score but because they haven’t done things well. For them, emotions are a result of having done things in the proper way, which is the base of responsibility, not like in the first paradigm, the one we are calling ‘Latino’, where emotions and what one feels are the causes of everything the team accomplishes.

Cunning or Committment

This can be seen on the pitch and the fans value it. A clear example of this was the reception the Colombian team had in its country. They did not win but their commitment to playing well was evident. These teams have something much greater to offer their fans than winning: dedication, responsibility, strength of spirit, and, let’s repeat, a much deeper commitment.

The first paradigm is more cunning. It looks for an advantage in acting, in bullying, in not respecting the referee’s authority. Any non-sporting advantage counts, because they are not centered around a strategy, even more so when they are outmanned.

The second paradigm of the responsible team is focused on what it has to do, and because of this is not afraid. It has control over everything it does and knows the result is a variable that it cannot control. It does not emphasize the final score, and in this way stays under control.

Brazil revealed itself as a team that falls into the first paradigm. Its rigid structure broke down. Fear, and its sister, paralysis, did the rest. Very few players seemed to want to remain in the game, and most of them would have rather grabbed their things and gone on a trip.

At the end of the match, the sobs of fear we had seen in previous matches gave way to sorrow, and something worse: shame.

And what about Argentina? We have a team

And now for the inevitable question: What is going on with Argentina? There are positive signs in the squad’s development. We saw a team that was winning but did not please people. And that is good: Not only did the team want to win, it wanted to do things well. The fans experienced this, and it was also clear amongst the players. Differences of opinion were made public: The players did not agree with the strategy. They were not comfortable. This could have seemed like a crisis, but really it is the opposite. It is the height of communication: It permits differences of opinion to be expressed. In this way a consensus was reached where everyone started to feel they were major players, or rather they felt more like leaders in their roles on the pitch.

In addition, the appearance of another personality who broke up the structure that had formed around Messi as the only protagonist of the team was very healthy. Not many soccer fans knew where (Ezequiel) Lavezzi came from, but he immediately won over half of Argentina, which is to say the women. This seeming triviality was helpful in that it took the limelight off Messi, made him see that others could also be protagonists. Whether it was his status as a sex symbol, or his off-color jokes, or just his tattoos, Lavezzi’s arrival showed there is room for freedom and self-expression on the team, a starting point for accepting that everyone has something to contribute. This allowed for the rest of the team to slowly improve their performance. At that moment, the Argentine team started to do more than just win. They started to have fun and enjoy other things, and this is key to performance, because only enjoyment allows for the confidence to perform at a maximum potential.

Brazil’s problems were not new: the team had already been boring themselves, and that is directly linked to performance. [As for Argentina], I am sure that like in Colombia, win or lose, everyone is going to be proud of this team.


Rafael Beltran Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard

TAGS:Argentina Brazil psychology World Cup

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