What was to be a soccer celebration is in danger of being
hijacked by off-field issues as a growing furore surrounding FIFA
over alleged vote-buying for the 2022 World Cup stews and anger over
domestic political corruption broils throughout Brazil.
The gloom is a far cry from what was envisioned when Brazil was
selected as host nation in 2007. But if any country can perform a
feat of spiritual alchemy using soccer as its tool, Brazil can.
And for all the FIFA and protest dramas, billions of people around
the world will tune in as eagerly as ever once the action begins.
The home of what Pele termed "the beautiful game" is likely to
respond like few others could, if its yellow-shirted heroes can
carry all before them.
A joyous festival of soccer would indeed be testament to the power
of soccer if the sport shrugs off the unseemly smog enveloping the
lead-up to this tournament.
Brazil will be confident of providing the perfect fillip when they
open the World Cup with a Group A clash against Croatia in Sao Paulo
EXORCISE THE GHOSTS OF 1950
The hosts are favorites to clinch a record-extending sixth World Cup
crown come the July 13 final at Rio's Maracana stadium, and
certainly it would be a triumph to finally exorcise the ghosts of
Sixty-four years ago the tournament was held with a round robin
format and the Brazilians needed a draw to win the title in front of
200,000 fans at the Maracana.
However, they were beaten 2-1 by Uruguay in a national tragedy known
as "the Maracanazo".
While there will be some 100,000 fewer people in the rebuilt
Maracana for the 2014 tournament, expectation will be no less
That does not bother their wily coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led
Brazil to their fifth triumph 12 years ago.
"Every day I am more and more certain we are going to win the World
Cup," he said, allowing no room for failure.
"I know we must respect other teams but generally speaking we are
better. Be with us during the World Cup: participate, jump up and
down, get into the spirit.
"We want you to help us particularly when we are in trouble because
that is when you can make the difference."
LUKEWARM WORLD CUP CAMPAIGNS
Brazil have their script - one involving locals suspending their
anger at the eye-watering cost of the tournament held with a
backdrop of rising inflation, urban gridlock and soaring crime - but
there are no shortage of other teams and players lining up to take
their place in the pantheon of soccer giants.
Argentina's Lionel Messi tops the list.
Considered by most to be the world's best footballer, the Barcelona
phenomenon has never hit the heights at a World Cup.
Unless he does, as the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego
Maradona have before him, there would always be a hint of a question
mark over a career in which in every other way has touched the
At the age of 26, a veteran already of two lukewarm World Cup
campaigns, Messi has never really been embraced by Argentine fans.
It doesn't help that he was brought up in Spain after local clubs
allowed him to slip through their fingers.
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But a triumphant World Cup in their biggest rival's backyard could
elevate the 5ft 7in forward, four times World Player of the Year, to
the level of the similarly diminutive but much-revered World
Cup-winning Maradona in his homeland.
But Argentina are much more than Messi, who will have great support
from the other three members of the "Fantastic Quartet" Gonzalo
Higuain, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria.
"We're more together than ever because of the dream we all have,"
skipper Messi said after Argentina breezed past Slovenia in their
final World Cup warmup.
The formidable Germans have their minds set on a slice of history
for themselves. No non-South American team has triumphed in these
parts, but Joachim Loew's stylish squad have observers lining up to
say that spell is ready to be broken.
Without a major title since the 1996 European Championship, it has
been quite a while between drinks for a nation used to toasting
tournament winners, but with creative dynamo Mario Goetze at the
heart of their machine, the wait may be about to end.
Another European powerhouse is not ready to relinquish its grip on
the World Cup, however, and champions Spain will also be a
Vicente del Bosque led La Roja to victory in Johannesburg four years
ago and to the European title in 2012, and his side is still packed
with some of the best passers in the game.
Some critics argue that the heart of that team is over the hill but
there is new blood in the shape of Diego Costa, the Brazil-born
striker whose call-up by Spain has been a dagger blow to the host
Brazil's coach Scolari said Costa was "turning his back on the dream
of millions" in choosing Spain over his homeland, but the Atletico
Madrid forward could instead be embracing World Cup glory if Del
Bosque can work his magic one more time.
Three more former winners will fight it out in Group D as one of
Italy, England and surprise 2010 semi-finalists Uruguay will be
going home early.
Uruguay, more specifically the hand of striker Luis Suarez,
prevented Ghana becoming the first African nation to reach the
semi-finals four years ago in South Africa.
The Black Stars are back again but, along with the other four
African representatives, they will have to punch above their weight
to shatter that toughened-glass ceiling.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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