Of all the places to imperil a World Cup, who could have imagined it might be Brazil? Who could believe that the people who have come virtually to own it, emotionally, artistically and competitively, would ever resent a single centavo spent on the great festival?
It is, after all, the one that every four years has routinely carried even the most wretched favela beyond the stench of open sewers and the desperation of daily life.
Certainly, the possibility that the world’s leading football nation might just turn against its role as next year’s host is beyond the grasp of the ultimate hero Pele.
This week, as rioters spilt into the streets of the major cities in ever-increasing numbers, the great man produced a bromide remarkable even in the detachment he has enjoyed since he emerged as a phenomenal teenager in the Swedish World Cup of 1958.
As the flames rose in the night sky, as the tear gas drifted on the breeze, Pele said, “Let’s support the team – let’s forget all the turmoil.”
Let’s forget, he urged, that a seven per cent rise in bus and subway prices represented an economic crisis for millions of breadline families. Let’s forget that as preparations for the tournament intensify, and costs escalate, a clean hospital bed or classroom remains a fantasy for a vast swathe of the population.
Pele may be the nonpareil of football, the man widely seen as the greatest player of all time, but on this occasion his vast status was no insulation against scorn on the streets of his native city, Sao Paulo, where, ironically enough, he spent an impoverished youth working as a servant in a tea shop.
There, a 28-year-old saleswoman named Gracieta Cacador put down the great hero in one withering phrase. She declared, “They spent billions of dollars building stadiums and nothing on education or health.”
The most optimistic assessment at the presidential palace in Brasilia and at Fifa headquarters is that soon enough the beautiful game of Brazil will reassert itself as the opium of a people still divided hopelessly by the boundaries of wealth and poverty.
President Dilma Rousseff accepts that a warning shot of some consequence has been fired, saying, “The direct message from the streets is for more citizenship, better schools, better hospitals, better health and direct participation.” Brazil’s ambassador in London, Roberto Jaguaribe, agrees that there are challenges to be faced, but points out that a recent survey found that Brazilians are among the world’s happiest people.
Yet if it is true, as the mounting evidence suggests, that the quality of this sanguinity – this carnival mood which was supposed to hit new levels with the joyous impact of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics – has never been quite so strained, the world’s most popular and economically powerful game is facing quite a few questions of its own.
How long, for example, can it tout its wares on the assumption that there will always be some grateful government ready to pick up the bill, however restive a large number of its citizens?
That was an issue in South Africa three years ago when Fifa was accused of profit-plundering in a society where only the smallest minority could afford a match ticket. With the 2018 World Cup going to Moscow, scarcely a financially level playing field for most of its citizens, and then moving on, absurdly, outrageously to the desert enclave of Qatar, the impression of a seamless cherry-picking of the best-heeled bidders seemed pretty much unchallenged.
However, Brazil – for the moment at least – is threatening a massive convulsion.
If the anarchy in the streets develops, if social unrest does indeed place a seriously threatening shadow over the old celebration of the nation’s recurring football brilliance, suddenly the World Cup looks less like a financial bonanza for Fifa and vested interests in the host nation than potentially an unpinned hand grenade slipped into a socio-economic game of pass the parcel.
That certainly is the current nightmare, one which has prompted Fifa president Sepp Blatter to plead that the Brazilian rioters lay off football. Suddenly the man who travels the world bearing gifts is looking a little less like football’s answer to Santa Claus.
That was the role his predecessor Joao Havelange chose for himself on the only occasion a World Cup had to be marked Return to Sender. The Brazilian handed the 1986 tournament to Mexico after Colombia defaulted.
Mexico, despite a powerful bid by a United States group headed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, became the first nation to host the tournament for a second time. The prize was won by Guillermo Caneda, a big man in Mexican football and, more crucially, head of a Mexican television company that commanded elevated European fees by beaming matches at peak viewing times, which of course meant that the action unfolded in the burning sun of the Mexican midday.
When Kissinger was asked, early in his mission, about the prevalence of artificial pitches in the big American stadiums, he replied, “We sent a man to the moon – I think we can manage to put a little grass down.”
Colombian president Misael Pastrana Borrero believed he had made the great coup of his career when he landed the tournament but his economy faltered, unlike that of the drug cartels, and the game was tragically over when 100 people, including 11 judges, died when the army wrested back control of the Palace of Justice from the guerrilla group M-19.
As yet there are no guerrillas on the streets of Rio or Sao Paulo or Brasilia. However, nor is there a breath of enthusiasm for the 2014 World Cup. This, at least for some of the old assumptions about football’s enduring value, is almost as terrifying.
Sexton has what it takes to be a leading Lion
It is an impressive cast of potential heroes who run out for the Lions in Brisbane this morning. So deep, indeed, that it is a bold man who nominates the prime candidate.
The chances are that he will have a Welsh accent when you consider the law of averages and the presence of such men as Sam Warburton, George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies. However, the instinct here is that the difference between victory and defeat could well be a Dublin man.
Jonathan Sexton has already produced in Australia a degree of subtlety and nerve to draw on to the punch the most ferocious defence. Then you consider the back division it is his duty to release and the edge of anticipation can only be redoubled.
Some have questioned the relevance of the Lions as rugby employers make ever increasing demands on their workers. Here, though, is something that should never be endangered by the march of professionalism. It is the still unique challenge, facing a group of players who are required, in a few short weeks, to produce nothing less than the very best that they have. The suspicion must be that they have pulled it off.
Anderson v Dhawan will be a duel to savour
There need be no shortfall in patriotism while identifying the main point of compulsion in tomorrow’s climax of the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston.
It is surely the opening duel between James Anderson, now widely rated as the best swing bowler in the world, and the remarkable Shikhar Dhawan.
Anderson has bowled beautifully in this excellent tournament. Dhawan has batted like a man who has arrived from another planet. There is so much edge this might well be a most significant prize fight.Reuse content