Football-crazy Brazil hosts World Cup at last - amid protests, strikes and controversy
Brazil's long love affair with football is consummated with the hosting of the 2014 World Cup. But protests and strikes seem to show the romance turning sour.
"Love and marriage, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage," wrote Sammy Cahn in 1955. Brazil and football hasn’t yet been threaded into a witty ditty.
Probably because of the belief that Brazil is football.
A dazzling array of books have been penned on how that perception emerged. So there was a logic about the choice of the country to host the 2014 World Cup.
True, there were the economic strands that legitimised the selection but as world cups were hosted in Asia, north America, Europe and Africa, it seemed increasingly bizarre that the extravaganza had not been anywhere near its putative spiritual home since 1950.
Brazil failed to win in Rio that year. The loss to Uruguay in the final remains part of the collective trauma. But there has been redemption since that shock. Victory in 1958 with the emergence of a wunderkind named Pelé was followed by the cup’s retention in 1962.
Poor refereeing in England in 1966 accounted for a hat trick of titles as the Brazilian attackers were scythed down during the group stages by Bulgarian and Portuguese tackling. The injustice of that savagery was healed in the heat of Mexico four years later.
At 29, the wunderkind of yore had matured into the man. He and his team glittered with passing and interplay bordering on the otherworldly. Pelé, fittingly, scored Brazil’s 100th goal at a world cup finals during the 4-1 destruction of Italy at the Azteca Stadium as they claimed the title.
That side’s triumph allowed the Brazilian federation to keep the Jules Rimet trophy outright. Brazil’s footballers have won the world cup on two other occasions - in 1994 and 2002 - but with sides far more prosaic by comparison. Number six beckons and the team constructed by Luis Felipe Scolari has an effective mix of silk and steel.
But the presence of world cup fever hasn’t captured the nation’s imagination. Far from it.
Protest has dogged the prelude to the competition. A week before the opening game metro workers in Sao Paulo voted to down tools. Since the network is used by more than four million of the city’s 10 million inhabitants, the stoppage couldn’t be overlooked. It wasn’t the type of publicity organisers wanted for the city hosting the opening match.
But to be fair there are always topics before a big tournament. The world athletics championships in Moscow last August were plagued by the expensive preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi and Russia’s approach to gender equality.
The Beijing Olympics had its issues, too. Add to the list the World Cup in South Africa four years ago and the London Olympics in 2012. It’s part of the narrative now to complain about the billions of euros being pumped in.
Brazil’s World Cup got a break in early June when allegations surfaced in the British media about payments made to certain officials so that Qatar would win the right to put on the 2022 World Cup.
The corruption had long been suspected but the paper trail now seems to have become more apparent. Michael Garcia’s investigation into the allegations will finish just as the squads start settling into their World Cup hotels. His report will follow in early July.
If there’s concrete evidence of dodgy deals, then the clamour for a new vote will intensify. That won’t affect the tournament underway but it will detract from the lustre of the event.
In May, after inspecting the 12 World Cup venues, Jerome Valcke, the Fifa secretary general, wrote on Twitter: “The Fifa World Cup has already arrived in Brazil and the whole world is watching in anticipation.”
There are probably other words that could be inserted because the sheer pomp and circumstance of the World Cup is no longer anaesthetising our thinking faculties. Fifa just about got away with it in South Africa; the bluff being Africa hosting the show and South Africa’s vain lust to show its primacy on the continent.
But Brazilians have organised to show the discontents of its society in a way that South Africans did not. Demonstrations dogged the Confederations Cup in 2013 – the tournament which acts as a curtain-raiser for the event proper.
Brazil’s World Cup is right here, right now and the stakes go far higher than glory in the Maracana on Sunday 13 July. Win and the excessive spending, corruption, inadequate hospitals and poor infrastructure will be obscured by millions congratulating smiling young men in yellow shirts; lose and watch the wheels come off the carriage.