The 2014 World Cup was supposed to be a celebration of Brazilian football, but it ended in tears for the host nation. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great tournament, with wonderful hosts. Observers suggested Brazil 2014 was the best World Cup since at least France 98, or perhaps even Italia 90. But Brazilian fans might not agree. Many had expected their team to become FIFA World Champions for the sixth time. That didn’t happen. But they did bounce back, from humiliation, disappointment and criticism, and by the end of 2014 Brazil were the UFWC Unofficial Football World Champions. How did they manage that?

Given the hype that surrounded them going into the tournament, there’s no doubt that Brazil flopped at the World Cup. Having battled their way, unspectacularly, to the semi-finals, Brazil were utterly thrashed by eventual-champions Germany in a remarkable 7-1 defeat. They then lost 3-0 to the Netherlands in the third-place match. They had lost captain and talisman Neymar Jr to injury, and manager Felipe Scolari resigned after the tournament. Criticism from some sections of the media bordered on condemnation. It seemed that Brazilian football had plunged to its lowest ebb.

But let’s put the World Cup failure into perspective. The defeat to Germany was a shocker, no doubt, and the subsequent loss to the Netherlands was also bad, although not unexpected given the confidence-sapping thrashing the team had just endured. But those two defeats were the only losses Brazil suffered in the whole of 2014. Over the course of the year, Brazil played 16 games, won 13, drew one, and lost those two World Cup games. Excluding those two big losses, Brazil scored 34 goals and conceded just 3 in 2014. (Of course, they scored just one and conceded ten in the two losses.) On the road to the semi-final, they came back from a goal down to beat Croatia 3-1, drew with Mexico, comfortably beat Cameroon 4-1, held their nerve to beat a very good Chile on penalties, and then beat Colombia 2-1 in the quarter-finals. They hadn’t played spectacularly well, but they’d done enough to reach the last four.

Then it all went wrong in the semi-final. Neymar, scorer of 4 goals in 5 games, had been injured against Colombia. Brazil, as a nation and a team, appeared to go into mourning for their captain. The loss of Neymar seemed to have a profound effect on the mental state of the team. (It was less publicised, but Brazil were also without the suspended Thiago Silva.) The seemed completely devoid of spirit and confidence as Germany easily scored one, then two, three and four, then five goals within the first 30 minutes. Visibly shifting down a couple of gears, Germany only scored another two, and allowed Oscar to net possibly the least-consoling consolation goal in World Cup history. The 7-1 defeat was a result that not even the greatest football betting expert could have predicted. It meant that Brazil were eliminated, although they still had to go through the motions for the third-place game, easily won by the Netherlands.

So what did go wrong? Certainly the absence of Neymar and Thiago Silva didn’t help, but there were other problems – and mistakes. Scolari, labelled “an old jerk, arrogant, repulsive, conceited and ridiculous” by Neymar’s agent Wagner Ribeiro made some strange decisions throughout the tournament, and particularly ahead of the Germany game. Most obvious was his perseverance with much-maligned striker Fred, who contributed just one goal in six games. His decision to try to attack Germany on the wings rather than match them in midfield was baffling, and switching David Luiz to the left-hand side of central defence proved disastrous. Ultimately, though, there may have been too much pressure on the host nation, pressure that – once Neymar was removed – caused the team to collapse.

And then came the comeback, under a new manager – Dunga. The World Cup winner returned for a second spell as national team boss, and began to shuffle a disillusioned squad. Neymar came back from injury, out went Fred, and in came new names like Marco Tardelli, plus recalled faces Kaka and Robinho. Brazil beat Colombia and Ecuador, both 1-0. Then they played Argentina, who were now unofficial champions, having taken the UFWC title from official champions Germany. Inspired by the brilliance of Neymar, and with goals from Diego Tardelli, Brazil beat Argentina 2-0 and became Unofficial Football World Champions. It was Brazil’s 30th UFWC title match win.

Brazil’s resurgence continued with highly impressive back-to-back 4-0 wins over Japan and Turkey, Neymar scored all four against Japan, and two against Turkey, as he really began to live up to his reputation as one of the greatest players in the world. A 2-1 win over Austria followed. Dunga even found room for a seemingly-rehabilitated Fred, as Brazil ended the year as Unofficial Football World Champions.

Put into the context of the year as a whole, the World Cup failure was a blip – albeit one that occurred at the worst possible moment. Officially, Brazil will have to wait until 2018 to put right the wrongs of 2014. Unofficially, though, Brazil are already the UFWC champions, and the best team in the world.

Paul Brown is the author of the Unofficial Football World Champions book.

About Paul Brown

Paul is a freelance journalist and author. He created the UFWC in 2003, and subsequently wrote the Unofficial Football World Champions book. He can be found on Twitter @paulbrownUK.