How Will Their Team’s World Cup Implosion Affect Brazilians Psychologically?

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Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

For those who aren't well versed on the full scope and history of the World Cup, it's hard to put into context just how epochal Brazil's 71 loss to Germany in yesterday's semifinal match was. The Seahawks' 438 demolition of the Broncos in the last Super Bowl is a start, maybe, in the sense that it was another matchup that was supposed to be close but that quickly turned into a blowout, but no mere Super Bowl can capture what a World Cup means to a soccer-crazed nation like Brazil.

So the unbelievable result, not to mention the photos of distraught Brazilians lighting up the internet well before halftime, pose an obvious question — how will this affect Brazilians in the days and months to come?

Lisa A. Williams, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales who studies, among other things, self-esteem in sports, explained that two acronyms explain how most sports fans deal with winning and losing: BIRGing, or basking in reflected glory, and CORFing, or cutting off reflected failure.

BIRGing is simply the "We did it!" glow that accompanies a victory. CORFing, on the other hand, is how fans create some psychological distance between themselves and painful losses. "It’s now a 'they' in 'they lost,'" Williams explained. "CORFing also leads to allocation of blame to the situation (rather than intrinsic faults of the team) — in this case, the Brazilian team was playing without their key striker and without their team captain. Or maybe the refereeing calls during the game were unfair. These blame processes mitigate the negative emotions that might accompany failure that reflects poorly on the self."

It's a defense mechanism, in other words — after a loss, we had nothing to do with the disappointment, because (1) it's they who lost, not us, and (2) they didn't lose, anyway, but rather were tripped up by external factors such as shaky refereeing.

It's unclear, though, to what extent these normal tools can be applied to Brazil's loss yesterday. "CORFing is less likely for the highly identified superfan," she said, since these fans identify more closely with their teams than casual ones. "In the case of Brazilians, playing host to the World Cup this year, one could argue that superfans were more common than not." And not even the most deluded Brazilians are arguing that injuries or refereeing accounted for a six-goal deficit. "My sense is that, given just how tied Brazilian fans' own thoughts and feelings are with the outcome of this game, that they will experience strong negative emotions (e.g., disappointment and anger)," Williams said. That is, without the usual recourse to CORFing, the blow of the loss might land harder than it would have otherwise.

The problem is that soccer dominance is an important part of Brazil's sports identity, and this loss cut to the core of it. As Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, explained in an email, "If you're Brazilian, your identity is based on self-concept that you're always the best soccer team in the world, and you know that everyone else knows it, so you're proud." So the pain of losing isn't, in this case, that of an underdog happy to be there, and for the Brazilians to lose in this manner is to collide violently against all sorts of national expectations and self-conceptions.

"What happens when your pride, self-concept, and identity are suddenly obliterated in front of the entire world?" said Simons. "I don't know. I don't know if anyone does; this is, in sports, something of an unprecedented self-esteem catastrophe. Has anyone that good, with that much expectation, every lost that badly before, with so many people watching?" The answer to that question may be no, which would mean we're in somewhat uncharted sports-trauma territory.

To the extent there's a bright side, it's that, despite how Brazilian fans might feel today, their national team will play in more soccer matches (including a third-place contest against the loser of the Netherlands-Argentina match taking place later today), and, in four long years and barring a soccer catastrophe that would dwarf yesterday's, the next World Cup. And should another Germany-Brazil match be in the works down the road, it could offer a chance to undo some of yesterday's psychic damage. "What the players (and fans) make of those future meetings will depend on the way they construe the event," said Williams. "One option would be to see it as an opportunity to avenge the previous loss, which might result in positive emotion (presuming the team wins the second time around!)."

And if Brazil doesn't win this as-of-now hypothetical rematch? Well, it might be time for fans to consider some serious CORFing.