Obstacles aside, it's finally showtime as Brazil, Croatia collide in opener
JUN 11, 2014 3:00p ET
SAO PAULO --
The World Cup begins here on Thursday. And the written word can hardly capture what that means to this place.
There exists no other country in the world whose identity and sense of self worth is so closely intertwined with a national team as Brazil’s is with the Seleção. The national soccer team, which simply goes by “the selection,” is the great unifier in a vast and disparate country.
There’s good reason for that. The national team, a record five times world champions, is the only thing every Brazilian has in common with all countrymen. And as Brazil rose as a viable, resource-rich country on the international scene after World War II, its soccer team led the way, becoming a world power with a side that reflected the country’s racial mosaic. Soccer made Brazil, and with its dominance and redefinition of the game’s stylistic parameters, Brazil helped make soccer.
The triumphs of Brazil’s soccer are also the biggest of their entire country. Its failings are their national tragedies – none more so than the 1950 World Cup lost on home soil in the final game. The national team coach is considered the most important person in the country, save for the president -- maybe. The Seleção is plastered all over billboards.
And so there’s hardly any overstating the importance of Brazil getting off on the right foot against Croatia (live, Thursday, 4 p.m. ET). Their effervescent attackers Neymar, Hulk, Oscar and all their soccer brothers should make short shrift of a team that had a mighty tough time of qualifying. Sure, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic are fine playmakers capable of creating danger even with Mario Mandzukic suspended. But they shouldn’t pose a huge challenge to the home team.
This is supposed to be Brazil’s destiny, after all: to finally win the World Cup at home and right the karmic injustice from 64 years ago, when the fates wronged them. Their group isn’t as murderous as that of the Americans. Mexico and Cameroon won’t get in the way.
But the story of this world cup won’t just play out in the stadiums. It means many other things to many men and women. While the Brazilians feel that the World Cup coming here is only right and proper, most of them are desperately unhappy by how the whole thing has come off. It’s been seven years since Brazil was assured that they would host it -- more lead time than anyone has ever been given before.
Yet on the eve of the tournament, plenty of stuff is not finished. Much of it wasn’t even started and some of it never will. A section of the monorail being built in Sao Paulo -- which won’t be ready for the World Cup, even if that was its initial purpose -- collapsed and killed a worker on Tuesday. Nine have died in the hurry to finish the stadiums.
The immense cost of the tournament was sold on the promise that the everyman would benefit as well. But the private sector never bought in, as speculatively predicted, and the infrastructure upgrades have fallen by the wayside, as it were. Corruption and cronyism ran riot within Brazil’s tenuous governance, punching a big hole into the billions set aside for this whole song and dance. Crippling demonstrations and strikes ensued. A subway work stoppage has turned commutes in Sao Paulo’s already-snarled traffic into multi-hour marathons.
All that will be left standing when FIFA’s circus moves on to the next country eager to put on this ruinously expensive event, are a bunch of stadiums -- several of them in towns without a soccer team to fill them.
Wandering through Sao Paulo over the last days, where the stadium will at least be put to good use by local powerhouse Corinthians, you get a sense of the country’s unease with the World Cup. In South Africa, four years ago -- another country willing to put itself deep in the hole for the glory FIFA promises to bestow without relinquishing the profits -- buoyancy ruled the day. People smiled, they were delighted you had come.
But this town has hardly turned green and gold. There aren’t many FIFA logos and such about either. Locals are as likely to eye you with suspicion as with indifference. Not nearly as many foreigners as originally forecasted to come will show.
FIFA, meanwhile, is caught up in its own swirl of controversy. More apparent evidence that the 2022 World Cup was bought by Qatar keeps emerging. Major sponsors are now publicly asking for the mess to be mucked out.
There’s a fitting metaphor for all this: the venue for Thursday’s game, which seems to either be called the Itaquera, the Arena De Sao Paulo or the Arena Corinthians. Of the 61,606 seats that were planned, 1,376 won’t get installed in time. And of the remainder, only 25,000 were sold directly to actual fans. If it rains, there will be no roof to shield much of the stands. It never got finished.
Still, the party will start. The question is how long it will last. And if anyone will turn up.