My fifth World Cup could be really special
The British may have invented the world’s most popular sport (and even introduced it to Brazil) but it was Brazilians, with their nonchalant grace and skill, who made football “The Beautiful Game”.
Every football romantic falls under Brazil’s spell at some point (unless you’re Argentinian or Uruguayan perhaps). Whether you were old enough to remember a teenage Pelé driving them to their first world championship in 1958, the near-perfection of the 1970 winning team, the beauty of Zico’s 1982 side (surely one of the best teams never to win a World Cup), or the heroic exploits of Ronaldo and Rivaldo in 2002, there is the expectation — not least among Brazilians themselves — that the five-times world champions play football the way we’d like to see it played: with style, outrageous skill and a joyous freedom of expression.
As a 12-year-old in England, the 1970 Brazilians seemed incredibly exotic to me (not least because it was the first World Cup we had seen on colour TV). With Pelé in his pomp, they lit up the tournament and the 4-1 win over Italy in the final was one of the greatest team performances of all time.
For us romantics, then, the World Cup returning to Brazil for the first time since 1950 is something special, not least because of the country’s all-consuming, almost religious fervour for the game.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Seleção several times at the World Cup. I was in Dallas in 1994 when Branco’s thunderous 25-yard free kick nine minutes from time rescued Brazil in an epic 3-2 quarter-final clash with Holland. On a sweltering Munich afternoon in 2006, I saw them flattered by a 2-0 win against Australia, and then come from behind to see off Japan 4-1 in Dortmund, thanks to two goals from Ronaldo. Four years ago, I was among the 84,000 crowd in Soccer City, Johannesburg, that saw them beat Ivory Coast 3-1.
I also saw Neymar and Co lose to Mexico in the 2012 Olympic final at Wembley. The two will meet again in the group stage in Brazil, but, given how the Mexicans struggled to qualify, and how much Brazil have improved under Luiz Felipe Scolari, I’d be surprised if there’s a repeat of that historic win.
This World Cup — my fifth — will mark a few personal firsts. It will be the first time I have visited South America; my 11-year-old son Toby’s first experience of a World Cup; and the first time I will actually get to see England play in a World Cup finals.
We have tickets for the games against Uruguay on June 19 in São Paulo and against Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on June 24. We will also see Bosnia v Iran on June 25 (that’s the randomness of the Fifa ticket lottery for you!), a round-of-16 game in Salvador on July 1 and the quarter-finals in Rio de Janeiro on July 4 and in Salvador on July 5.
Toby, of course, is beside himself with excitement, not least because as a Liverpool fan he could be watching Luis Suárez, Sebastián Coates, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson all line up in the same match. Mind you, it’s also the first time that he’s prayed that Suárez gets injured!
For me, a World Cup is not just about the big teams. I love watching the smaller nations, for whom that seemingly insignificant group game is their World Cup final and over the years I wouldn’t have missed the bonkers Japanese fans with their outrageous fancy-dress outfits or the soca-swaying Trinidadians for anything. So Bosnia v Iran will be a new experience and — who knows? — with Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko leading their attack, the Bosnians could be one of the surprise teams.
A World Cup is also an opportunity to take in the culture of a country. In South Africa, the townships, Nelson Mandela’s house, the Apartheid Museum, the amazing music, and the beautiful wine country were as much a part of the experience as the football. Brazil promises a similar experience, especially in Salvador, the most African of Brazilian cities and home to some of its best music.
Sadly, like South Africa, this World Cup is also being played against a backdrop of corruption, poverty and violence. Angry at the obscene cost of the event, the country’s poor and struggling working classes have taken to streets across Brazil in ever-increasing numbers to protest at the neglect of social projects and basic services such as water, security and transport.
With the event reportedly costing Brazil more than $11.5?billion — the new stadium in Brasilia alone is three times over budget, costing a staggering $900?million of public money — you can sympathise with their anger. A recent poll in the respected Folha de São Paolo newspaper shockingly showed fewer than 50 per cent of Brazilians now support the World Cup compared with 80 per cent in 2008.
How this will play out once the event kicks off remains to be seen. At the moment, the anger does not seem to be directed at visitors, but if the notorious Brazilian police get heavy-handed, it could get ugly and wreak havoc with the country’s already chaotic infrastructure.
But similar fears before the 2010 World Cup proved unfounded and the hope is that once the football starts, the situation will calm down for the duration of the event. Or for at least as long as the Seleção stay in the tournament.
Should Brazil get knocked out early, there is fear that tensions may quickly rise and the 2014 World Cup will be remembered for being more than just a game.
Chris Gibbons, a former Royal Gazette sub-editor and the author of Breezeblog, will be writing a regular diary piece for the duration of his stay in Brazil.