By Brian Winter
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The World Cup was supposed to be Brazil's coming-out party, the soccer superpower finally revealing itself to be an economic and geopolitical one as well.
Visiting fans and TV viewers would witness not only a month of fabulous soccer, but also the torrid economic growth that lifted 35 million Brazilians from poverty last decade.
Images of glimmering stadiums, specially built bullet trains and newly peaceful shantytowns would showcase Brazil's brand of leftist but market-friendly policies, winning new imitators in Latin America, Africa and beyond.
And, of course, the host team would also win for a record sixth time.
As such, Brazil's 7-1 loss to Germany in Tuesday's semi-final was more than just one of the most shocking results in sporting history. It was a huge blow to the nation's confidence, the latest of several dreams that have failed to come true.
Brazil's once-soaring economy has been stagnant and plagued by high inflation for three years now, with no end in sight. Its diplomatic influence has receded, as other Latin American countries witness its troubles and embrace a more aggressively pro-business path of reform.
The Cup itself was plagued by severe overspending on stadiums, unfinished infrastructure projects and the deaths of nearly a dozen people in construction accidents. Just last week, the collapse of an overpass killed two people in Belo Horizonte, the same city where Brazil's soccer team unraveled on Tuesday.
The news hasn't been all bad. The tournament has showcased some of the most memorable games in years, while the Brazilian people have won universal praise as warm, enthusiastic hosts.
Plus, the massive street protests and major logistical problems that many critics feared at stadiums and airports never materialized.
But soccer has never been just a game in Brazil. It is a central part of the national identity and the country's on-field performance has always been seen, rightly or wrongly, as a reflection of off-field strengths and weaknesses.
Therefore, the shocking lopsidedness of Tuesday's loss appears to have dramatically changed the way Brazilians will see this Cup, and the $11 billion the government spent to host it, while playing into a general feeling of national malaise.
"What was the point of this?" fumed Denilson Oliveira, a clerical worker, in downtown Sao Paulo on Wednesday morning. "We didn't win, we didn't solve our other problems. We were promised heaven and we are now in hell."
Wednesday's newspapers also plumbed questions of national character. "The defeat calls into question our culture of improvisation," Estado de S.Paulo said.
"You can't do everything wrong and hope it'll turn out right," wrote Dora Kramer, a political columnist. Antonio Prata, another columnist, wrote: "Let's start believing less in magic and more in hard work."
LET'S NOT GET CARRIED AWAY
The loss reverberated as far away as Wall Street, where analysts issued reports debating whether the darkened national mood could further damage the economy, as well as President Dilma Rousseff's chances for re-election in October.
Cooler heads said the depression would likely pass quickly, as it has following past World Cup defeats, with little risk of lasting damage to Rousseff or a rekindling of the protests that rocked the country last year.
Many were already resorting to humor to digest the loss, poking fun on social media at the national team's performance.
Others found the grousing outright ridiculous.
"People, this was tough ... but damn, it's only a game in which the best team won," Paulo Pepe, a communications executive in Sao Paulo, wrote on Facebook after the defeat. "It's not the country, it's not life, and it's not politics."
"Enough of these idiots who want to attribute the defeat to cultural questions," he said.
Still, politicians can point the finger at themselves for linking the tournament to bigger issues.
When world soccer body FIFA granted Brazil the right to host the World Cup in October 2007, then-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told the crowd in Zurich that more than just a game was at stake.
"At its core, what we're assuming here is a responsibility as a nation, as a government to prove to the world that we're a growing, stable economy, that we're one of the countries that has conquered stability," he said.
"And if everything works out," Lula added, "we'll win, once again, the World Cup."
Prior to leaving office in 2010, Lula also vowed to use the Cup as an excuse to improve Brazil's outdated infrastructure. But half the planned upgrades ended up unfinished, while the Cup's signature project - a bullet train linking Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro - has been shelved indefinitely.
The economy, meanwhile, has sputtered under Lula's chosen successor, Rousseff, and is expected to grow barely 1 percent this year and next.
Polls taken prior to Tuesday's loss indicated that Rousseff remains a favorite to win a second term. But they also showed broad dissatisfaction with the economy, with only 30 percent of Brazilians saying they think it will improve in a poll earlier this month by Datafolha.
Thirty-six percent saw the economy staying the same, while 29 percent of respondents believed it would get worse.
The pessimism could rise even more now that there's little else to focus on, at least in the near term.
"I don't know what to hope for now," said Silvia Wrachel, a teacher. "The Cup was supposed to bring us happiness. I thought about it every day on the bus to work. And now - What?"
(Additional reporting by Silvio Cascione; Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)