Like sunshine and happiness or Lennon and McCartney, football and Brazil go together, each making the other better. So the first World Cup in Brazil in 64 years is bound to be special.
Having cracked open a new continent four years ago in South Africa, the planet’s most popular sport now returns to its spiritual home, the country which more than any other has put the wow factor into football.
Football and Brazil will both win if the four-week feast of 64 matches fulfills expectations for a samba-fuelled carnival of goals and fun, a showcase for the game’s stars to prove their worth or see their thunder stolen by exciting new talents.
But South America’s largest country and the sport that many of its 200 million people treat as a quasi-religion will emerge as losers with damaged reputations if the 20th World Cup goes wrong, which it could.
Brazil squandered too much precious time in the seven years it was given to prepare. Construction deadlines were repeatedly missed. Many promised transport improvements were scrapped or will not be ready for the June-July influx of fans from around the world. The runaway $3.5 billion spending (triple Brazil’s initial estimates) on 12 stadiums (four more than World Cup organizer FIFA actually needed) infuriated Brazilians.
At the year-to-go mark, during the Confederations Cup tune-up tournament last June, hundreds of thousands of them poured in protest into city streets across the vast country, asking why hospitals, schools and other essential services aren’t as good as the newly built or renovated World Cup arenas.
The pop and hiss of police tear-gas canisters, workers plunging to their deaths at World Cup construction sites, tangles of red tape and other problems during the preparations haven’t been great advertising for the idea of a dynamic and capable Brazil, one of the so-called “BRIC” powerhouse economies of tomorrow, along with Russia, India and China.
If things go awry during the World Cup or if the violent crime problems of Brazilian cities ruin the experience for visiting fans, people will ask whether Brazil is also going to make a fist of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and if it bit off more than it can chew in hosting the biggest mega-events in sports so close together.
So Brazil and FIFA, which earns the vast bulk of its billions of dollars in revenue from the World Cup, need the football to shine. There is every reason to believe that it will, just so long as players deal intelligently with the tropical heat and humidity in some cities and, for some teams, many thousands of kilometers (miles) of travel.
Of the 32 teams, only a few Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany, to name just the top contenders will genuinely be expected to win. But plenty of other teams Uruguay, Italy, Colombia, Belgium, Portugal, France, perhaps the Netherlands, England and a few others are good enough or have players dazzling enough to produce must-watch games, to upset favored opponents and to rightfully entertain ambitions of going fairly deep into the knockout stages. For half the teams, the adventure will stop after three group-stage matches, with the weakest possibly going home without a single point or even a goal.
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Cue Samba: Brazil's World Cup Bound to Be Special