World Cup 2014: Out of chaos, beauty emerges
The build-up has been marred by fears over Brazil's readiness and the threat of violence on the streets. But will that all be forgotten when the first whistle blows on Thursday?
It may have been the English who codified football but it was the Brazilians who turned it into a form of art and there can no better venue for a World Cup than the home of futebol. Yet, there is trepidation as well as anticipation as the jamboree prepares to kick off in Sao Paulo this week.
Every major sports tournament is beset by worries in the build-up – at most it turns out to be a case of "it'll be all right on the night". Four years ago, the advance publicity suggested the South African World Cup would be blighted by violent crime, but by dint of the venues being flooded with police, and instant, exemplary justice being imposed on the first perpetrators, most visitors were untroubled. However, there are worrying signs that Brazil 2014 could be as big a fiasco as the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, but on a much grander scale and stage.
Following Fifa's prodding, the stadiums appear to be ready... just, albeit some have not been fully tested. However, much of the planned transport infrastructure is delayed, postponed or shelved and there is little doubt that the joy of the tournament will be marred for many spectators by logistical difficulties. In addition, a large proportion of the population, especially in the urban areas in which matches will be staged, are furious at the huge sums of public money which have been lavished on the finals at the expense, they believe, of social programmes.
Whether their protests continue when the matches start (as happened at last summer's Confederations Cup), and how the police deal with them, remains to be seen. The Brazilian government has a difficult line to walk. It needs to ensure the tournament is not disrupted, but will be acutely aware that television pictures of protesters being tear-gassed would do immense damage to the nation's image.
However, this is not the first time the World Cup has been staged against a difficult political and socio-economic backdrop. In 1934, it was a vehicle for Benito Mussolini to promote fascism; in 1978 it was played under a military junta in Argentina that "disappeared" opponents. Nor is it the first with last-minute preparations. Indeed, the last time Brazil hosted it, in 1950, the Maracana Stadium was unfinished when it staged the opening match and capacity was halved.
Usually, when the football starts background problems are forgotten, but only if the host nation performs. This adds further pressure on Luiz Felipe Scolari's Selecao, who are already under a burden of expectation and responsibility unmatched by any team at any previous finals. As well as carrying the hopes and dreams of 200 million people, they have to exorcise a 64-year-old ghost that still haunts the nation.
The 1950 tournament had a group stage rather than a final match but results meant the last game, Brazil v Uruguay, was effectively a final, except a draw would be enough for Brazil to lift their first World Cup. Nearly 200,000 packed into the now-finished Maracana and, such was the confidence, early newspaper editions carried pictures of the team with the headline: "These are the world champions."
Uruguay won 2-1. Pele, then 10 years old, later said there was "a sadness so great, so profound, it seemed like the end of a war with Brazil the loser and many people dead".
In the aftermath, even the colour of Brazil's shirts was blamed. White was abandoned, for good, and replaced by the now-famous canary yellow, chosen after a national competition. As late as 1993 Moacir Barbosa, the goalkeeper that day, was turned away from a Brazilian training camp for fear he brought bad luck. Any England players feeling inhibited by fear of failure – a familiar lament, though so far there is no sign of it under Roy Hodgson – should be acquainted with the pressure Brazil are under.
Can they cope? In Scolari they have the ideal man to bear it. A gaucho from the south, he is a pragmatist rather than a purist, paternalistic towards his players but brooking no dissent, and possessing both a strong mind and a sense of perspective. He is also blessed with some very good players. If he can shelter his squad from the stress, Brazil should at least make the last four.
They can expect to be joined there by neighbours Argentina, who look to have the competition's best attack and will have plenty of travelling support. There is concern, though, about their defence. Fortunately for the Albiceleste, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria et al are capable of outscoring most teams.
The European challenge will be led by holders Spain and perennial contenders Germany. Spain have been there and done it, but key players appear jaded, a condition likely to be exacerbated by the late-season involvement of their leading clubs in the Champions League final and La Liga's showdown. Germany's key players are more rested. As finalists in 2002, semi-finalists in 2006 and 2010, there is a growing belief that they could, and should, win their first tournament since Euro '96.
Joachim Löw's young team have energy, experience and quality but their build-up has been troubled. However, such is their strength in depth they still appear Europe's strongest challengers.
The continent's other major contenders are hard to assess. The French, Dutch and Italians have delivered widely contrasting tournament performances in the past decade; Portugal are over-reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo; England consistently qualify from their group, but reliably lose to the first decent team they meet.
As they have been pitted against Italy and Uruguay, merely escaping the group stage will be an achievement for Hodgson's team, for whom this tournament looks to have come a couple of years too soon. If they do so, the confidence gained should carry them at least to the traditional quarter-final barrier. To get there via a penalty shoot-out victory would be a double success with future events in mind.
For once, England have pace in the team, but it comes with risk. Hodgson was criticised for highlighting Ross Barkley's propensity to give the ball away against Ecuador this week, but since England have a porous central defence and lack a natural midfield holding player, his reservations were understandable.
In England's favour, Italy go into the tournament in terrible form and Uruguay do so with their talisman, Luis Suarez, not match-fit even if he makes it on to the pitch.
The draw can be crucial. France have a favourable one and under Didier Deschamps' sensible leadership could do unexpectedly well although Franck Ribéry's withdrawal is a blow; so do Belgium, the most publicised of dark horses. Adnan Januzaj's sudden decision to play for Marc Wilmots' team could cause internal dissension but such is his long-term potential his inclusion was a gamble worth taking. Belgium, like England, have an eye on France and Euro 2016.
The other dark horses are Chile, impressive this winter against Spain, Brazil, Germany and England. They could cause a shock in Group B, at the expense of the Dutch, or even the Spanish.
The winners can be expected to be South American or European – the long-awaited African challenge looks as far away as ever while Asia and Concacaf remain well off the pace.
In that respect, little has changed since the World Cup was last held in South America, 36 years ago. In another aspect, everything has changed. Argentina, the winners then, were drawn exclusively from the domestic league with the notable exception of Mario Kempes. Players like Osvaldo Ardiles, Daniel Passarella and Leopoldo Luque were largely unknown to European audiences – and, indeed, European coaches.
There is no such mystique now, and not because even Argentinian league matches are broadcast in England. Twenty of Alex Sabella's squad play in Europe – all but the third-choice goalkeeper have done so. The leading players, for Argentina and others, are Champions League regulars.
That is one reason many regard that tournament as football's elite showcase, including, in rare agreement, Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho. "The best football is in the Champions League with the most powerful clubs having all the best players," said Mourinho this week. "Every big player is in the Champions League and sometimes not every best big player is in the World Cup."
Zlatan Ibrahimovic heads the ranks of the absent. It is also a pity that Ribéry is out and other major players, including Ronaldo, Suarez and Robin van Persie are carrying injuries. However, as Mourinho added, the next five weeks still offer something special: "For me the Olympic Games and the World Cup offer a different dimension. From a social point of view, the World Cup is more fantastic."
What Mourinho is getting at it is that only the World Cup persuades entire countries to gather round television sets, be it breakfast time, as England did in 2002, or past midnight, as will happen this time, to cheer on players whom many of those viewing spend the rest of the time criticising for their wealth and perceived behaviour.
It is not perfect, there are justified reservations about the tournament's staging and Fifa's legitimacy, but it is still the global game's biggest party. Enjoy it.
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