PERHAPS no host nation has been under as much World Cup pressure as Brazil find themselves in ahead of tonight’s opener with Croatia – for political, historical and cultural reasons.
As run-ups to finals go, this has been a tortuous and increasingly fraught one for the hosts with an endless loop of stories about unfinished stadiums, transport problems and anti-government protests littering the tournament build-up for not just weeks, but many months. The backdrop is a World Cup outlay of $11bn by Brazil, a figure not just lavish, but something considered obscene to many.
Now with the talking nearly over and pitch action about to get underway, it’s pretty much over to 23 Brazilian footballers to justify that humongous expense.
That will only be achieved by lifting the big prize for a sixth time, while also vanquishing memories of THAT losing final against Uruguay at the Maracana in 1950 – labelled as a ‘national disaster’ in Brazil’s history.
Yet it’s not just the Brazilian Football Confederation, players and government feeling the heat, but also Fifa. And more specifically its president Sepp Blatter, currently bearing the brunt following serious allegations about his stewardship and the organisation’s fitness for purpose amid widespread stories of corruption in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The waters were somewhat calmer in October 2007, when Blatter officially confirmed Brazil as 2014 World Cup hosts. The glossy brochure said three simple words: ‘World Cup Brazil’. It was the most beguiling of reads.
Picture-book images of the Copacabana Beach, Sugarloaf Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue interspersed with those of Pele and Ronaldo et al amid sunny skies in a seductive package of canary yellow and cobalt blue with green trim.
A World Cup pitched in the epicentre of the global game’s heartbeat. A best seller, box office, must-see – what could possibly go wrong? Bring it on. The rest of the football planet thought so. No-one else bid. After all, how do you seriously punch your weight against Brazil when it comes to a World Cup pitch.
There were plenty of smiles that day in Zurich; winning smiles, both from the Brazilian contingent and Blatter and his acolytes. Now the smiles will be nervous ones among Fifa and Brazilian officials when they gather in at Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians Stadium tonight (9pm). It’s now entrusted to the likes of Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and co to start parting the toxic clouds. So no pressure then Brazil. But if they require inspiration, they may care to look across the River Plate to bitter foes Argentina, the last time the tournament was held in South America in 1978.
Then as now, a shadow was cast before the build-up to the tournament, chiefly through deep political uncertainty and protests against a so-called ‘Dirty War’ by the country’s ruling military junta against political dissidents which claimed many lives. A group of footballers, led by Daniel Passarella and Mario Kempes, managed to unite a country and create a ticker-tape fairytale.
Now the stage awaits Brazil, who dare not disappoint.