On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, the German football team thrashed the Brazilian squad on their own turf, netting seven goals to the hometown favorites’ one, that last of which was almost a conciliatory gesture. It was devastating to both team and country and escorted every fan into a dizzying stupor. German fans were giddy and shocked that their team had so mercilessly destroyed a giant; soccer fans in general were thrilled to see such an aggressive, high-scoring game during a semi-final; Brazilians meanwhile were left disoriented, depressed and desperate for answers or a culprit.
Of course, what I also remembered from the ordeal was the cult-like ceremonies that took place before the game even started. Before Müller’s opening goal and the relentless onslaught that followed, Brazil were still very much a team vying for the World Cup title, and going into the game, the hopes and prayers of an entire nation were behind them.
In previous games, especially during their penalty shootout against Chile, cameras loved framing the shot over players kneeling on the pitch, hands pressed firmly against each other, offering penitent orisons to god in hopes of courting his favor in the game to come. For Brazil, that gambit seemed to work in that game, where they barely squeezed through with their lives. They once again prayed and beat Colombia in a very aggressive game most remembered for star-player Neymar’s last-minute departure with a back injury.
Leading into their match against Germany, passion and hunger had reached feverish levels and this time, even more prayers and contrite pleas were being offered skywards. Neymar’s jersey was brought onto the pitch, as if in remembrance of a dead player or a national tragedy. Fans wept openly for their fallen leader, giving the national anthem a sort of funereal quality. Meanwhile, the Germans stared coldly at their opponents.
And then destroyed them.
My question, which few in the religious community want to ask is, what happened to that enormous influx of prayer? And why didn’t it work? In a 2012 Global Index of Religiosity, Brazil ranked among the top nations whose populations are inclined to consider themselves religious, just above Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly, they ranked almost dead last in the 2012 Global Atheism Index. Meanwhile, Germany, a country with about 40% of Brazil’s population, considers itself significantly less religious and ranks 6th in the Atheism Index above the Netherlands.
All this is to suggest that Brazil has significantly more religious people both in percentage of population and raw numbers. That kind of overwhelming communal voice, all pleading vigorously to the heavens for the exact same result would surely drown out the smaller, less vocal German contingency of prayers. Even if every single German prayed and only the religious Brazilians did, Brazil would still outnumber their European opponents by a hefty margin. So where did all those voices go?
My answer should be obvious: nowhere.
But let’s entertain the notion of prayer for a bit. Even if I were to believe in god, I would venture to guess that he doesn’t care about sports. If he really did bother with the trials and tribulations of man, then a recreational activity should factor very low in his priorities. We might argue that he should be dealing with life-threatening illnesses, global pandemics, the destruction of the environment, famine and other disasters. But instead of praying that he fix the Fukushima reactor or bring rainwater to parched areas or eradicate harlequin ichthyosis, we’re asking that he guide a ball into the other guys’ net. It sounds very petty, doesn’t it?
Secondly, let’s say that god did listen and was watching the game unfold in Belo Horizonte. Some might argue that he had decided to teach Brazil a lesson – he wasn’t happy with the aggressive, dirty game they had played throughout the tournament, so this was a kind of retribution. So rather than listen to the hundreds of millions of hourly prayers being sent to him by his devout flock, he chose the other guys, whose followers are much less likely to go to church, allowed them to mercilessly rampage through the Brazilian defense, and in turn completely devastate a nation, writing in their history a national tragedy seared in their memories for decades to come.
That’s kind of a dick move, right?
How can all of this not sound completely absurd? If he were to care about sports, then we would venture to guess that the most devout athletes would always win. People like Brazil’s Kaká, American football player Tim Tebow and American hurdler-cum-bobsledder Lolo Jones would always take top prize. But they don’t. Though they have certainly reached the upper echelons of the sport, they don’t win every single match because nobody can carry divine support with them.
Slate’s Ken Early summarizes the Brazilian defeat succinctly by saying:
“On Tuesday night, the land of magical thinking received a bracing communiqué from the reality-based community in the form of seven German goals.”
Hopefully this game has shocked more than one Brazilian (and maybe worldwide fans) into realizing that praying is completely bogus. It does nothing except make the person feel better about having done something about a difficult situation. Brazil lost because they were unfocused, lacked two key players and thought they could cruise on the dreams and hopes of their fervent, electrified nation.
They couldn’t. And when it came time to beg for help, no one was listening.