The 20th World Cup begins next Thursday, 12th June, when Brazil takes on Croatia in Sao Paulo. This is the first time the World Cup has been held in South America since 1978 when Argentina was the host.
64 matches over four and a half weeks, with every game on television and highlights shows to match. This is a far cry from the coverage available to those couch-hibernators from 1978. Back then, some of the matches were so late they weren’t acceptable to a tv schedule which closed down at 11pm. The year before the tournament, England completed a summer tour to South America playing matches against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Only the Argentina game was televised and with having to use the host broadcaster, we were forced to watch in black and white, as Argentina didn’t introduce colour television until just before the tournament kicked-off. If the inconvenient times weren’t enough, as viewers we had to contend with commentators seeming to commentate from studios over here, and even those who were actually in the stadiums were so far away from the action they would often get the players’ names wrong. This was typified in the opening match where even Argentinian television incorrectly named the winning goalscorer, as well as pictured the wrong player celebrating.
No such errors are anticipated this time, 26 years later in what has to be effectively termed, South America’s World Cup. Colombia had submitted a bid but withdrew to allow Brazil to host the tournament. South American fans and players have been looking forward to this tournament since 2007, and intend to make it a home success. The whole of the continent is behind it, and with FIFA’s rotation policy resulting in this being their only opportunity as hosts for many years to come, they decided Brazil was the best venue to accommodate one of the biggest sporting occasions in the world, and so the six South American nations should not be underestimated. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay will all be hoping to go further than just the group stage.
The other critical factor should be the heat. In the build-up to the draw, many European teams were hoping to avoid groups where Northern cities were the venues. Manaus, Fortaleza, Natal and Recife are all going to be blisteringly hot, especially at mid-day. Portugal take on USA in Manaus and Italy meet Costa Rica in Recife and then Uruguay in Natal and Germany meet USA in Recife, all with 1pm kick-offs. This could put European teams at a distinct disadvantage. Italy seem to have the toughest draw with all their games in the North. Their decision to keep their base camp in Rio state therefore seems all the more baffling.
Merely travelling around a country as vast as Brazil could also present an obstacle for many teams, as well as supporters. With the tournament reportedly costing the Brazilian government $14bn, there was no way they could get the public to accept such an expense if many of them just couldn’t get to see the games. Therefore new stadiums have been built in cities with no major domestic football clubs, and all teams have to fly all over the place. Whether this will be enough to appease the locals remains to be seen, as many have forecast a repeat of the protests which dogged the Confederations Cup last year. If this is the case then the world’s media will be waiting to capture it, as this could be the last World Cup for a while which is held in a country which has some semblance of concern for the views of its citizens.
Spain, the holders, has picked a squad which includes 16 players from the 2010 tournament, a record for the World Cup. They are overwhelming favourites along with the hosts, although the two could meet in the Second Round. Brazil is still the only country to have won a World Cup outside their own continent, winning in Sweden in 1958 and Japan in 2002. If Spain manages to replicate this it could provide the ultimate irony for the host nation.
In 1950 the whole nation’s hopes rested on them winning the World Cup for the first time. The final match of the tournament was against Uruguay, which has long been recognised as ‘the Final’, and Brazilians everywhere were expecting a win. Uruguay had won the first World Cup, something which had bothered Brazil ever since. The public and press were all expecting it to be a formality, carnivals had been arranged and a packed Maracana Stadium (with an estimated attendance of 210,000) watched believing this was Brazil’s time. When Uruguay shocked the world by coming from behind to win 2-1, it triggered mass hysteria. Fans were distraught, the press refused to accept defeat and Brazil changed their colours forever to yellow shirts, believing playing in blue had been bad luck.
As a country, Brazil struggled to get over the defeat. It has been etched in their psyche ever since. This was why their first win in 1958 was such a success. There are likely to be many references to 1950 during the next few weeks, and any time Brazil are under pressure on the pitch, minds will go back to the Maracanazo, is it became known. For Brazil finally getting the chance to host the competition again is payback indeed. For a European nation to win it could well be too much for the hosts.
Brazil has long been considered the spiritual home of world football, with excitement building for a tremendous tournament, it promises to be a World Cup to remember.