Like sunshine and happiness or Lennon and McCartney, football and Brazil go together, each making the other better. So the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years is bound to be special.
Having cracked open a new continent four years ago in South Africa, the planet’s most popular sport now returns to its spiritual home, the country which more than any other has put the wow factor into football.
Football and Brazil will both win if the four-week feast of 64 matches fulfills expectations for a samba-fuelled carnival of goals and fun, a showcase for the game’s stars to prove their worth or see their thunder stolen by exciting new talents.
But South America’s largest country and the sport that many of its 200 million people treat as a quasi-religion will emerge as losers with damaged reputations if the 20th World Cup goes wrong, which it could.
Brazil squandered too much precious time in the seven years it was given to prepare. Construction deadlines were repeatedly missed. Many promised transport improvements were scrapped or will not be ready for the June-July influx of fans from around the world. The runaway $3.5 billion spending (triple Brazil’s initial estimates) on 12 stadiums (four more than World Cup organizer FIFA actually needed) infuriated Brazilians.
At the year-to-go mark, during the Confederations Cup tune-up tournament last June, hundreds of thousands of them poured in protest into city streets across the vast country, asking why hospitals, schools and other essential services aren’t as good as the newly built or renovated World Cup arenas.
The pop and hiss of police tear-gas canisters, workers plunging to their deaths at World Cup construction sites, tangles of red tape and other problems during the preparations haven’t been great advertising for the idea of a dynamic and capable Brazil, one of the so-called “BRIC” powerhouse economies of tomorrow, along with Russia, India and China.
If things go awry during the World Cup or if the violent crime problems of Brazilian cities ruin the experience for visiting fans, people will ask whether Brazil is also going to make a fist of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and if it bit off more than it can chew in hosting the biggest mega-events in sports so close together.
So Brazil and FIFA, which earns the vast bulk of its billions of dollars in revenue from the World Cup, need the football to shine. There is every reason to believe that it will, just so long as players deal intelligently with the tropical heat and humidity in some cities and, for some teams, many thousands of kilometers (miles) of travel.
Of the 32 teams, only a few — Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany, to name just the top contenders — will genuinely be expected to win. But plenty of other teams — Uruguay, Italy, Colombia, Belgium, Portugal, France, perhaps the Netherlands, England and a few others — are good enough or have players dazzling enough to produce must-watch games, to upset favored opponents and to rightfully entertain ambitions of going fairly deep into the knockout stages. For half the teams, the adventure will stop after three group-stage matches, with the weakest possibly going home without a single point or even a goal.
But even lopsided encounters should offer insight into whether top teams are purring or misfiring. Argentina and four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi will be expected, for example, to run rings around World Cup newcomer Bosnia-Herzegovina in their opening match on June 15. Messi needs to win the World Cup, as Pele did three times and Diego Maradona did in 1986, to rank alongside those all-time greats.
There’ll be an inquest if Spain doesn’t score freely against Australia on June 23 and top its Group B. The recruitment of Brazilian-born striker Diego Costa gives a new cutting edge to the world champion so capably led by coach Vicente del Bosque, a master at adapting tactics and formations to his team’s strengths.
Planet football will wobble in shock if Spain loses before the semifinals. There, the Barcelona pair of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta could struggle to counter the attacking threat from their club teammate Messi. If, that is, his Argentina side hasn’t fallen first in a possible quarterfinal match-up with Portugal, although it is heavily reliant on the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s arch-rival at Real Madrid.
Some games will be intriguing simply for the novelty of football between nations that so rarely meet or for old rivalries renewed. Honduras against 1998 World Cup champion France on June 15 will be a first. In the airy Estadio das Dunas near the surf-tickled beaches of Natal, the USA will look on June 16 for a first win in its third ever match against Ghana.
June 17, on the other hand, will see the 39th game between Brazil and Mexico. Germany vs. Portugal on June 16 will be their 18th meeting since 1936. If Germany goes on to win its fourth World Cup, that will suggest football’s center of gravity is shifting from Spain, especially with reigning European champion Bayern Munich so dominant in club football on the continent.
Goal-line technology will be used for the first time at a World Cup. High-speed cameras focused on goalmouths should spot when the Brazuca, the official World Cup ball, crosses the line, avoiding a repeat of refereeing errors like the disallowing of Frank Lampard’s clear goal for England against Germany in South Africa.
Astounding goals, match-winning performances or particularly shameful fouls could make players instantly famous or infamous to the global television audience of hundreds of millions of viewers. France’s Paul Pogba, Croatian prodigy Alen Halilovic and William Carvalho for Portugal are some of the fresh talents to watch for. Yaya Toure for the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben and Wayne Rooney with England are some of the world’s best footballers stuck on teams with little likelihood of winning.
The opening game, Brazil-Croatia on June 12, will be a first test of the host’s readiness, mood and confidence both on and off the pitch. The Itaquerao stadium in Sao Paulo suffered some of the most chronic delays and the deaths of three workers in accidents. Plans to finish work there by mid-May are cutting things extremely fine.
As they did at the Confederations Cup, the nearly 70,000 fans will likely throw their support behind the home team with a spine-tingling rendition of the national anthem — “Our hearts will defy death itself!” But as soon as the whistle blows, they and everyone else in Brazil, from the Amazon basin to the teeming mega-cities, will scrutinize Neymar and Co. for how well they are carrying Brazilian expectations and the legacy of Pele and great teams from the past. Brazil is the only country to have played in every World Cup and to have won five.
Winning the July 13 final in Rio’s Maracana — the only stadium used for both the World Cup of 1950 and this one — would be more than just a feat, it would be redemption. In that same stadium in 1950, Brazil lost the World Cup with a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay that struck dumb the 173,850-strong crowd and deeply scarred the national psyche.
With Neymar’s quick feet in attack, midfielder Oscar’s quick thinking and Thiago Silva holding fort in defense, Brazil could bury the ghost of 1950, lift the famous 18-carat gold trophy and $35 million winners’ check, and unleash the mother of all parties.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester