Brazil World Cup 2014: Lights, camera, redemption?
Brazil and the rest of the world's football-loving public need a World Cup to cherish at a time when controversial matters away from the pitch continue to dominate, writes Daniel McDonnell
IT is known as the greatest show on earth, but the build-up to the 20th renewal of the World Cup has been overshadowed by concerns about the stage. From afar, Brazil, the five-time winners, seemed the natural fit for hosting duties. For the romanticist, there's something magical about the prospect of this great tournament taking place in a country where the sport is intertwined with its identity.
Instead, there is a sense of trepidation about how it all might pan out. The run-in to kick-off has turned into a tale of crisis, identifying problems that have exposed the logic of bringing the whole show to such a complex and sprawling nation.
Much of the promised infrastructure is incomplete, not to mention the hastily assembled stadiums and an irate public feel they are being made to pay at a time when the economy is in decline. The most recent opinion polls say that less than half of the population now believe that the hosting is a good idea.
Their government sold the dream on the basis that private funding would be sourced for stadium construction. Instead, $3.6bn of taxpayers' money has been spent on either renovating or building new grounds. When the party moves on, the cities of Manaus and Brasilia will have giant modern stadiums even though they don't have professional football teams. The cost of building the latter arena has trebled during the process, with innuendo surrounding the reasons. Long term, the white elephants will be an unnecessary waste in a country where hospitals, schools and public transport are sub-standard and poverty in the bigger cities is endemic.
Much as they love their football, the street protests are fuelled by raw emotion. The disquiet was perfectly summed by a Sao Paulo street artist Paulo Ito, who painted the scene of a crying, starving Brazilian boy sitting at the table holding his knife and fork, but with only a football on a plate before him. The influx of tourists was supposed to cancel out the expenditure. Alas, South Africa spent $3bn and only made $400m back. More fans are scheduled to travel to Brazil, filled with advice on how to avoid the scourge of street crime, but their business will not settle the bill. Romario, the ace poacher turned politician who starred en route to success in 1994, has described the overall process as 'the biggest heist in the history of Brazil.'
It would underestimate the depth of feeling to say that the Brazilian side can distract their people from the real issues by succeeding on the pitch. Yet there may be an element of truth in believing they do have the power to in some way alter the overall perception of this festival.
If Luiz Felipe Scolari's team reach the latter stages, the whole event would benefit from the euphoria. The alternative scenario of inglorious failure, which is entirely possible with Spain, Holland or a crack Chile side waiting in the last 16, would be disastrous for organisers. FIFA make a good bulk of their money from TV revenue, of course and, around the world, a 26-billion audience across 214 countries will simply judge Brazil 2014 on the entertainment value as opposed to the ethics of it all. Four years ago, the Jabulani ball and the vuvuzela were put forward as excuses for the South African adventure that didn't live up to the standard of its predecessors, even if it delivered a worthy winner.
International football could do with a vintage episode to remind people what makes it special, especially when the looming debacle of Qatar 2022 threatens to diminish the standing of the game's flagship event. The Champions League undoubtedly has a higher concentration of quality, but the World Cup is still a box that the elite players have to tick. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo know they can compete for the club domain's biggest prize each year whereas the chance to write their name into the World Cup pantheon only comes around every four.
It is clear from their respective preparations that it means a hell of a lot. Messi's mid-season break was geared around peaking in the summer and, with Argentina seemingly on the soft side of the draw, this is his chance to emulate Diego Maradona.
The focus on the outstanding individuals is natural, but the greatness of one group of players may turn out to be the biggest story. If Spain secure a fourth major tournament on the bounce, they would have a convincing case for being recognised as the greatest ever international side.
Only pre-war Italy (1934 and 1938) and the Pele-inspired Brazilian crop (1958 and 1962) have successfully retained the title. Brazil's 1970 side are often flagged as the benchmark but if a Spanish side which has retained the same core from Euro 2008 deliver again then their combined achievement would arguably stand above all others. Before South Africa, the key stat was that no European nation had ever won the trophy outside their own continent. After Spain set that right, the next mission is to break through in South America.
Vicente Del Bosque's ridiculously talented ensemble are the most likely Euro side to change the continent's luck in that part of the world, although they're not the only contenders. Germany and France will meet at the quarter-final stage should they top winnable groups and negotiate a round of 16 where only surprise results elsewhere will pose them an intimidating opponent. On recent evidence that would bode well for Joachim Loew's squad, but, after a disastrous showing four years ago, Les Bleus do seem to be a tighter unit this time around and might just slip under the radar.
There is far more to the soiree than the trophy hunt and the best tales are often found further down the food chain. Bosnia, the only debutants, bring hope to a country where it's a welcome commodity and their attacking style should make new friends.
Ivory Coast, of whom so much has been expected in the previous tournaments, aspire to fly the flag for Africa this time around. Then there's Honduras and Costa Rica punching above their weight from Central America, and Japan and South Korea arriving from Asia bidding to prove that co-hosting in 2002 helped to breed a new generation that can mix it with the best.
Naturally, Irish eyes will be drawn to our neighbours in England, with Roy Hodgson grappling with the pressure that has broken many good men. He was afforded a pass for Euro 2012 because he took over from Fabio Capello just beforehand, but his head will be on the chopping block if they fail to emerge from a devilishly difficult group.
That's far from an implausible scenario and it's feasible that the 'Three Lions' could perform reasonably well and still exit to streetsmart Italian and Uruguayan sides that will have ambitions of creeping through under management that have previously brought them to the semi-finals of major competitions.
As neutral observers, there is envy towards the participating nations. Sepp Blatter's political instincts have helped reduce the number of Euro qualifiers to 13 and that steepens the task for sides like Ireland. The excitement of Italia '90 is a long time gone and, while mathematically logical, it's hard to believe that Ireland's debut visit is as far away in history from England in 1966 as it is from this year's affair. There are grown adults among us now for whom Saipan is a hazy blur, never mind the heady days of Jack's Army.
Still, there are plenty of young Irish kids whose first football memories will be shaped by this competition, just like millions of other enthralled viewers around the world. The images live in the mind's eye forever; they just vary depending on age. Think of Maradona's 'Hand of God', Carlos Alberto's overlap, Roger Milla's celebration, Zidane's head-butt, Baggio's penalty.
Clips where explanatory voiceovers are unnecessary to those who watched it unfold in their living room.
This is the showcase for a game with a global reach greater than any other. The sincere hope is that the next five weeks throw up an array of similarly magic moments.
Irish Independent Supplement