It’s now 44 years since Brazil set a World Cup benchmark they – and any country, come to think of it – have never been able to live up to. Pele’s heroes of 1970 left the samba nation with a legacy they just cannot better, not matter how many times they win the competition. The only time they have excited us the way the media insist they will each time the World Cup comes around, was in 1982, when they should have won it. Since then, they have lifted the cup twice, but they have failed to leave us screaming for more.
This year, the weight of the nation rests upon the Verde-Amarela like never before. Well, at least since 1950 when they were last hosts. Brazil has a ghost to bury and they want to do it in the Maracana stadium, where they were beaten by Uruguay 64 years ago.
The 2014 vintage is a team comprising individuals named Fred, Hulk, Oscar and Jo. It all sounds like a bunch of loony-tune characters, but the only animated figure in the Brazilian squad is Neymar, who actually has a cartoon alter-ego. It might sound amusing, but there won’t be any laughter in the favelas if Brazil flop in July in a tournament they were supposedly born to win.
Those that welcome the competition, and recent surveys reveal that almost half the population are unhappy about the prioritized spending that the World Cup has commanded, will be praying for a host nation win.
Rio de Janeiro knows something about divine intervention, given that Christ the Redeemer, the huge statue that presides over the 12 million people that live in and around the city. If Brazil are struggling, and that might not happen until the latter stages, the mighty outstretched arms will undoubtedly be called upon for help. That would really be the “hand of god”.
In the past, Brazil benefitted from the element of surprise. Europeans only knew of Brazil’s players by reputation. Even as recent as the 1980s, exposure to the Brazilians was mostly via the World Cup or the occasional tour. Today, we know as much about their players as we do about those from France, Germany and Spain. And are they remarkably better than the best Europe has to offer? Not really.
Brazil’s top players are all plying their trade with the European crème de la crème – Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Paris St. Germain, Roma, Real Madrid and Barcelona, to name but a few. Only four of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad play in Brazil.
Neymar went to Barcelona last year touted as the prodigious talisman of Brazilian football. He had a quiet year in La Liga, but his record in international football is superb. He’s only 22, so he’s got time to prove he’s one of the best in the world, and it might start in the World Cup.
We have seen a little of what Neymar is capable of, but have Brazil the wealth of talent many people believe? Players like David Luiz (now PSG), Ramires, Oscar and Willian hardly set the world alight at Chelsea last season. Neither did Paulinho at Tottenham. But in defence, where they are comfortable on the ball, Thiago Silva of PSG and Dani Alves of Barca are world class, although the latter is now 31. Real Madrid’s Marcelo, who many believe is the best left back in the world at the moment, has impressed me this season. Oscar aside, the midfield is all about strength and power rather than joga bonita – don’t expect a Mexico 70 revival run from Scolari’s team.
Up front, I question whether the unspectacular target man, Fred, has the technique to frighten teams and Hulk is certainly menacing, if only because of his name. A lot will depend on Hulk and Neymar, the latter having expectation on his young shoulders for the first time in a major competition – let’s see how he copes, because often, the crown of being the “new Pele” (or is it the new Ronaldo?) can be tough to wear.
The burden of being “mine host”
The last host to win the competition was France in 1998. Until the finals, they were an emerging team but, inspired by one or two individuals, they rose to the challenge. Brazil can do the same in 2014. They are not the finished article by any means, but they have enough talent to go a long way, and they will have passionate fans to back them.
However, that very advantage can easily be turned against them and become a lead weight that sinks Scolari’s hopes. Brazil won’t fall at the group stage like South Africa did in 2010, but they will come up against tough opposition in the knockout stage.
Six host nations have won the competition, but only one in the last eight. Two have been finalists, while four have gone out at the penultimate hurdle, the semi-finals. Four have reached the last eight, while the campaign has ended in the last 16/second group stage for another three. Only one, South Africa, has been ejected in the first group stage.
Brazil – the vital ingredient
Brazil should ease past Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon in the group stage, although they will need a good result in the opener to ease their nerves. If they start well and momentum builds, we could see the sort of football we want them to play. If it’s the Dutch in the round of 16, they should also overcome that challenge. That could give them a quarter-final with Colombia or Italy. The path could be clear to the last four, and then it may be Germany. Game of the People predicts Brazil to reach the final, whoever they come up against. Importantly, the way Brazil approach the finals will be the deciding factor if 2014 is to become a memorable tournament. And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?