In the long and winding history of the world’s greatest sporting event, soccer’s quadrennial World Cup, no tournament has been so highly anticipated as the 20th edition next summer in Brazil.
And Friday’s all-important group stage draw – in which the host country and the 31 teams that managed to slog their way through the two-year qualifying process – will set up a six-month sprint of preparation and angst in equal measure.
The draw, which divides the 32 nations into eight groups of four, ought to be the kickoff to festivities. But instead, there is dread. Dread for teams worried about landing in the so-called ‘group of death’; dread for managers worried about playing in the steamy Amazon; and dread for Brazil itself, which seems spectacularly ill-prepared to host this tournament.
Brazil should be a dream location for a World Cup. No other country has lifted five World Cups, as they have, delivered so much scintillating soccer on the world stage or produced so many transcendently skilled players – Pelé, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and, lately, Neymar. Instead, it seems more akin to a nightmare. This is a World Cup plagued by problems.
Brazil has failed to deliver the structures to host the games on time. At least two of the facilities will miss the world governing body’s Dec. 31 deadline for delivery, instead getting done sometime in February. At another, in São Paulo, where the opening game will be held, a building crane collapsed last week, killing two workers. A new date for delivery there has yet to be mooted.
The corruption and misappropriation that run rampant in Brazilian politics have further inflated the already ballooning costs of this World Cup. At a price tag of some $15 billion, a lot of Brazilians understandably wonder aloud if that money wouldn’t be better spent on the country’s much-deprived infrastructure and school system. This widespread discontent burst to the surface during a series of anarchic and often violent demonstrations during last summer’s Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the big tournament. With none of the people’s gripes addressed, more seem in the offing during the World Cup.
Unrelated to the civil unrest, potential visitors have also been confronted with news of stadium violence and other disturbing tales. In one, an amateur game ended with a referee stabbing a player to death before being gruesomely lynched by a mob. Another tells of a former professional player whose severed head was delivered to his wife’s doorstep by a drug gang. And while neither incident is directly linked to the World Cup, they project an image of Brazilian lawlessness.
For the participating teams, the realization has also hit home that Brazil is a vast country with disparate climates, meaning they face thousands of miles of travel and drastic changes in temperatures – hardly ideal conditions for players running on fumes following a demanding club season.
The field of entrants counts unusually few weak opponents, making a favorable outcome of Friday’s draw so very important. Seeded in Pot 3, along with the other Asian and Central and North American teams – arguably the weakest regions – the United States is entirely at the mercy of that draw. For instance, it could draw a group of Spain, Ghana and the Netherlands, spelling outright doom, or it might luck out and get Switzerland, Algeria and Croatia, leaving intact the stated ambition of reaching the knockout stages.
Less dependent on the outcome of the draw are the four favorites: Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain. None of those teams can draw one another, since they are all among the top seeds in Pot 1. But if the little ping pong balls that will be pulled blindly from the bowls in Friday’s schlocky ceremony pair them with, say, a strong African or South American team from Pot 2; Mexico or the U.S. from Pot 3; and one of the more fearsome European teams in Pot 4, theirs too will be a daunting task.
No team, then, is an obvious favorite at this stage. Brazil’s is a young team that will shoulder tremendous pressure – just as it did in 1950, when Brazil lost the final to Uruguay in the only other World Cup held on its home soil. Argentina has the world’s best corps of forwards but has underperformed at the World Cup every time since 1990. Spain and Germany are experienced and well-rounded sides that can dazzle when the mood so strikes them. But then no European team has ever won a World Cup staged in South America.
But these excuses will all be for naught come June. There is no higher truth than your performance at the World Cup and no justifying your failures there. Because, in soccer, the World Cup is the end game.