Poetry and purgatory: Dante’s inferno for Brazil

Football is poetic at times. It can reflect life’s cruelty and has its heart-warming moments, but always it is soaked with meaning on the World Cup stage. Dante’s Inferno, the first part of poet Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic, Divine Comedy, describes the first leg of Dante’s journey through hell – not the third person action adventure video game some might have us believe.

The poem describes the nine circles of hell with all its supposed nastiness. A place strategically positioned to punish those who refuse to acknowledge sin, or at the very least, ignore God’s rules. Dante paints a picture of human suffering, plague and rivers filled with corpses. 

Let’s be real for a second: when you call your son Dante in this day and age, you’re setting him up for failure. Be happy that he has the talent to play football for the great Brazil, but naming him after a literary genius and the father of the Italian language was not your smartest move. 

The Brazilian Dante, who ironically plies his trade in Germany, was the defender chosen to replace “inspirational” captain Thiago Silva in the Brazil defence on Tuesday night. The Bayern Munich player journeyed through his own personal hell on a wretched Belo Horizonte evening. Granted he was not the only one at fault, and fellow defenders Marcelo and stand-in captain David Luiz will also shoulder the blame. 

Forgive me for being overly dramatic, but in just under 29 minutes of football Germany had scored five goals to Brazil’s none. The hosts were being humiliated physically and psychologically to the point where some of us prayed for the South Americans to be euthanised. A seismic shift in world football was taking place before our very eyes. How much more dramatic could it get?


Sure, it has nothing to do with real life, except that here was a host nation of which a significant amount of the population did not want the World Cup in the first place. They protested, and put their lives on the line to stare down riot police and tear gas. Some died for this cause. And don’t be hoodwinked into believing that this is a new phenomenon. Brazilians have been unhappy for decades, and have made their feelings known for more than 20 years now. 

No World Cup stadiums have been invaded yet so we are made to assume that all is well and that after three weeks of football, the nation slowly believed again. It’s a stretch because surely the fight for equality and basic rights goes beyond a goddamned football tournament? It’s a fantastic stage though and the symbolism of a nation brought to its knees by a mightier power is, well, poetic. If you don’t believe me then maybe the number 13 on Dante’s jersey will convince you. 

Somehow, between Fifa’s miraculous powers of influence and a Brics government’s willingness to please, full stadiums of beer-swilling fans believed that Brazil, on the back of Neymar, could peer beyond the tear gas and emerge united – and wealthy. Sound familiar?

The anti-World Cup protests, though noble and just, couldn’t stop the juggernaut that is corporation Fifa. Matches were played, money was made and the people cheered as if that money were coming their way. Imagine.

The massacre at Belo Horizonte was a devastating affair, filled with drama and human suffering and that man Dante as its central character. He journeyed through seven circles of hell with each German goal. Try as he might, he just could not cope with a marauding German machine manned by, among others, Thomas Mueller and Toni Kroos.

The nuances of the developing world versus the developed world, Brics versus G8, were a sideshow to the macabre display on the main stage. To be tortured by the thing you love the most, to suffer your biggest defeat in history on the brightest of stages, must rate as the worst form of cruelty. Or maybe we give too much credit to a football match? Tell that to the citizens of El Salvador and Honduras, who in 1969 fought the “100-hour war”; or the supporters of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1990, who were involved in a mass riot that was seen symbolically as the first act of the Croatian War of Independence. Football imitates life, scar tissue and all.

How damaged must the Brazilian psyche be at this juncture in its history? Six years of preparation dissolved in just under 29 minutes of footballing purgatory. For a people who live and breathe the game, what unfolded was a national tragedy – and its boy hero Neymar lay broken on the sidelines, unable to inspire resistance. The samba was silenced, the carnival deferred. No matter. In four years’ time we’ll do it all again, this time in the backyard of that other Brics alumni and bastion of personal freedoms and civil liberties – Russia.

Life will go on in Brazil. Fifa and its sponsors were never going to find solutions to the country’s education and health problems. Shame on all those who believed it would. Dante will return to training at Bayern Munich in a few weeks’ time, his head bowed having served his time in inferno. 

The poetry of football is such that it offers hope of redemption – or further damnation, spiralling deeper towards purgatory. Dante will stand at that precipice.

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Adrian Ephraim
Adrian Ephraim is a journalist and editor who has worked in print, radio and digital over the past 20 years – for The Star newspaper, IOL, Mail & Guardian and Eyewitness News. He has covered sport since 2005, when he won the SAB Newcomer of the Year Award. His work has focused on human interest stories in news and sport, and the triumph of hard work and determination over adversity.

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