KEIR RADNEDGE in SAO PAULO: The dreadful weight of history rests on the shoulders of Brazil’s footballers today. Not only sporting history. Brazil, the nation, confronts the imagery of its self-respect as the Selecao take on Croatia here in the Opening Match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals.
Some 64 years ago Brazil, then as now, host to the most alluring of the world’s great sports events, lost the final match by 2-1 to Uruguay. Years later goalkeeper Moacyr Barbosa was mortified to hear a woman tell her daughter: “Look, that’s the man who made all Brazil cry.”
The duty of the new Brazil, led by superstar Neymar, is to settle that national debt. The record five-times winners of the World Cup should make a winning start, at least, against the lone newcomers to these 20th finals.
But these are not the finals the nation expected when Brazil landed host rights to the World Cup in 2007 on the rose-tinted presidential watch of Lula da Silva.
Those were happier economic times, when Brazil’s growth earned it the status of an alphabet initial among the so-called BRIC nations along with Russia, India and China. It was an era of optimism. Better times were round the corner.
But that was an illusion. Brazil even thought it had escaped the global economic crash. But all it escaped was the immediate impact. The withdrawal of international investment came later, bringing a loss of jobs, a loss of confidence and expectations which the government of successor Dilma Rousseff could not fulfil.
A rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo, hitting the poor and the working class, sparked street protests. They erupted just as the Confederations Cup – the World Cup warm-up tournament – landed in Brazil a year ago. Everything has gone downhill since then.
The economic crisis sharpened scrutiny on the $11bn cost of the World Cup and engendered depression and anger. Hence Sao Paulo stages the Opening Match but the streets of South America’s largest metropolis do not tell the tale. A few small flags here and there; even fewer banners.
Greg Dyke, chairman of England’s Football Association, summed up the mood – or lack of it – when he told this writer yesterday: “The only way you know where’s a World Cup is because there’s a transport strike and you can’t get in from the airport.”
All very different to the excitement back in October 2007 when FIFA’s executive committee decided that the 2014 World Cup should come to Brazil. In truth it was not a difficult decision: the rotation system has designated that South America should host the finals and Brazil was the only candidate put forward by the continental confederation.
Ricardo Teixeira, president of the Brazilian confederation, was delighted. He appointed himself chairman of the local organising committee and negotiated favourable terms to send matches to as many cities as possible. Far too many, as it turned out, either for considerations of flights, accommodation, security or construction demands.
Teixeira was a member of FIFA’s executive committee and was allowed to get on with the job. Except, he did not. Not until 2011 did it strike FIFA that notning was being done. That was when secretary-general Jerome Valcke made his impatient comment that the Brazilians needed “a kick up the backside.”
Valcke, FIFA’s World Cup progress-chaser, and president Sepp Blatter have continued to play good-cop/bad-cop.
Valcke has kicked, bullied, pressured, threatened, cajoled and pushed the Brazilians to build the absolutely minimum necessary in what little time remained; Blatter has sugar-coated his aide’s anxiety with professions of how this will be the most wonderful World Cup in the home of the jogo bonito, the “beautiful game.”
Certainly there has been a record take-up of tickets, record revenues from sponsors and television and record figures expected from worldwide broadcasts and a four-week social media deluge.
President Dilma has hit radio, television and Twitter with exhortations to the nation to show a happy welcoming face to the world. She is trying hard though, privately, she probably finds the diplomatic demands of the World Cup a distracting nuisance from the challenge to seek re-election later this year.
But responsibility for transforming the mood in Brazil from dour scepticism to delighted celebration – to cover the myriad preparation failings – depends less on Dilma, Blatter and the rest than it does on Neymar and his team-mates.
If the Selecao rise to the supreme challenge of winning Brazil’s sixth World Cup then all the angst will be forgotten for a while at least. If not then even the occasional flags will vanish from the streets of Sao Paulo.
Brazilian football president Jose Maria Marin, at one of FIFA’s meetings this week, defined Brazil as “a country of music and happiness but mainly a country of football.”
Today you would never guess. As for tomorrow . . .
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