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Brazil's grand obsession with beautiful game

Welcome to the land where football never sleeps, where games are found at any hour, day or night and where those strolling along the boardwalk are beckoned across to join in kick-abouts (good first touch permitting).

Welcome to Brazil, the land where football comes second only to breathing in the list of daily must-dos.

So, today's 2014 World Cup draw at Marina da Gloria, which sounds like the Girl from Ipanema, but is actually a large tent by the Atlantic, stirs exquisite expectation darkened only by a fear of missing out on what will be the greatest footballing party ever held. Every fan will want to travel to football's heartland.

Brazil's grand obsession can be seen everywhere from the rebuilding of the mighty Maracana to those five gleaming stars stitched into the national team shirt denoting World Cup triumphs.

But for the visitor to Rio this week, it has been the little details that form the big picture of Brazil's love affair, that signal why the world will tumble smitten into this country's embrace in three years.

It is seen in the conspiratorial smile from a security guard at Maracana as this Englishman nips inside to snap a sneaky picture of the splendid montage of legends like Zico and Pele.

It is the Botafogo fan who guides strangers up into the stands at the Olympic Stadium, beaming proudly when mention is made of Garrincha, the 'little bird' on the wing in the Fifties and Sixties.

It is the radio commentator, greeting Botafogo's two goals with lung-shredding fervour.

It is the elegant lady striding along Ipanema Beach in her ironed Flamengo shirt at 7.0am.

It is the old men gathered around their tables as the sun stretches its warming fingers across the beach, these hardened Flamengo fans poring reverentially over the pictures of Ronaldinho shimmying through Santos' defence. Such is Brazil's fixation with footballing idols that Ronaldinho was mobbed by reporters clamouring for his views as he walked off the pitch -- at half-time.

Even a well-travelled man such as Guus Hiddink, the Alan Whicker of the managerial world, gets caught up in the joys of Brazil. "It's of course a country where you see football everywhere -- near the beach where kids play it any time of the day," reflected the Dutchman, currently Turkey coach.

"There is incredible passion. Brazil will be very attractive because of the romance. Football is in the soul of every kid in this country. There is more passion than even in Europe.''

Such is the desire to welcome the world that some Rio taxi drivers are even taking lessons in English, although some could do with driving lessons first.

If England qualify (usual caveats, disclaimers and no-liability clauses apply) then the cabbies on the Copacabana may be genning up on words like 'penalties' and 'not again'.

England seem to spend their time shuffling around the globe, seeking redemption for past failures. They certainly have a World Cup score to settle in Brazil, a humiliating score from 1950. Some of the most fabled names of the English game, icons like Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Tom Finney, Alf Ramsey and Wilf Mannion, lost 1-0 in Belo Horizonte to the United States' collection of teachers, hearse-drivers and dishwashers.

If 1950 was their darkest World Cup hour, 2010 was almost as much a wake for a pedestrian England outplayed by a youthful German side in Bloemfontein.

England will be hoping that the date of the draw provides a good omen. For, 45 years ago today, on a sunny afternoon in north London, West Germany were overcome 4-2 in the World Cup final at Wembley.

Tonight, nearly 6,000 miles away in sunny Rio de Janeiro, England's 12th and latest quest to replicate the achievements of Alf Ramsey's side will be mapped out. Those planning to save to make the football trip of a lifetime should note that there are just 1,048 days to go before the opening match of the 2014 World Cup finals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent