For a few minutes, the downtrodden Brazilian players and their despondent fans rallied together.
As they had prior to the opening game against Croatia, the fans and players sang their national anthem with passion. Banished as they were to Brasilia for the third-place game against the Netherlands, their singing carried an undertone of defiance as well as national pride.
Redemption for a 7-1 humiliation by Germany in the semifinals was beyond them, so the hope that some measure of pride could be restored shone on every face and resonated in every word. Crushing pressure had certainly affected the Brazilian players during the tournament and Germany merely increased the stress on those widening fissures to split them asunder. The championship had taken flight so perhaps with that burden lifted there would be energetic play, a resurgence of spirit, and a victory against one of the world’s top teams.
Reality had one more embarrassment to dispatch. Two early goals, one of them questionable, pushed the Dutch in front and stripped away any semblance of Brazilian brio that might have survived the semifinal. The Dutch scored a third goal to claim third place with a 3-0 win, a laudable accomplishment given how uncertain the future looked two years ago in the wake of a first-round fizzle at the 2012 European Championships.
Louis Van Gaal signed off as national team coach and will this week start up his new job at Manchester United. Stalwart veteran Dirk Kuyt completed his international career with 103 caps, and doubtless there will be other changes when another experienced Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, takes over as head coach.
For the Dutch, boosted by their World Cup showing led by veterans Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Ron Vlaar, and well-stocked with younger players who in a year or two or three should be nearing their peaks, the future looks as bright as their traditional orange jerseys. Brazil also favors a colorful shirt but its prospects look much darker than the yellow attire worn by the players and early everyone in the stands at the Estadio Nacional.
Seated on the bench for inspiration, the injured Neymar sang the national anthem as forcefully as did his teammates and countrymen, then as the game unraveled looked just as confused and depressed. Questions about whether he could lead his team to the crown had been answered even before a flying knee in the back from Colombian defender Juan Camilo Zuniga knocked him out of the competition. He might have been good enough to handle the task had his teammates been capable of doing their fair share. Defensively brittle and creatively starved, Brazil in its last two games were rudely exposed.
Thiago Silva’s return to the lineup following his suspension for the Germany game didn’t much shore up the middle. Robben burst through in the second minute of play and Thiago Silva shrewdly grabbed him by the shoulder a yard outside the penalty area, into which Robben fell. However, referee Djamel Haimoudi wasn’t as sharp and pointed to the penalty spot and pulled out a yellow card instead of a red one. The officials and Brazil were off to a bad start and neither really recovered.
Left back Daley Blind -- son of former international and assistant coach Danny Blind who watched from the bench – controlled a poorly headed clearance from David Luiz to score a second goal. The goal stemmed from a cross by Jonathan De Guzman; he was a last-minute replacement for Sneijder, who suffered an injury in the pregame warmup. The Dutch kept its identity despite Sneijder’s absence, which gave Brazil that much more to ponder of what had plagued it during the tournament: chronic ball-watching on defense, terrible transitions especially when falling back to defend, and stilted attacking play. So desperate is the situation that there's talk of hiring a foreign coach to replace Luis Felipe Scolari, whose selections and tactics deserved a share of the blame yet were superseded by poor performances.
The Dutch looked nothing like the flat, cautious bunch who labored through 120 scoreless minutes against Argentina before losing the semifinal on penalties. Once the Netherlands took command, Brazil responded better than it had against Germany but still did little to please its heartbroken fans. Once those fans tired of whistling and booing, they departed in huge numbers.
A very empty and quiet Estadio Nacional heard the final whistle, like that of a train whose journey is grinding to a halt. The Dutch players hugged each other and posed with their medals. Pleasure of a job well done and optimism registered in every gesture and expression.
Brazil is at the opposite pole. Its glorious quest to win a World Cup as host and eradicate the demons of 1950 ended in a sad and forlorn place, which leads to a future path no less foreboding.