Barney Ronay: Brazil 2014, the Copa das Copas
After seven years of wrangling and worrying the World Cup is upon us - and all eyes are on the hosts in the São Paulo opener
Here it comes, then. After the storm: the storm. Brazil 2014 is finally upon us, a drama of ranged tectonic interests and high-end chicanery now dissolved into the relatively simple matter of the worlds greatest sporting event. This has been the peculiar trajectory of this World Cup, which already feels like a tale told in reverse, a seven-year, continental-scale wrangle that has dwindled away now to this, a series of football matches over four weeks in summer, starting with the hosts opening fixture against Croatia in São Paulo on Thursday night.
Brazil, naturally, expects. Although it must be said this has from the start been the most disobedient of global extravaganzas, chafing relentlessly against its own outsized margins. In the Brazilian governments ludicrously optimistic recent TV advert campaign described by federal prosecutors as absurdly divorced from reality Brazil 2014 was styled not just a World Cup but as the World Cup: a Copa das Copas and this, at least, rings true. There are World Cups and there are World Cups. And then there are Brazilian World Cups. For all the broader themes of vanished infrastructure projects and social unrest, Brazil 2014 is at heart a genuinely thrilling prospect, a pure sporting treasure to make even the most jaded observer drool a little.
When it comes to World Cups in the modern era only Italia 90 gets close as a return to one of footballs grand sentimental heartlands. USA 94 can match Brazil for sheer geographical spread. South Africa carried similar nation-building ambitions. The Copa das Copas, though, has the lot. There had been some talk in the shemozzle over Qatar 2022 of a first winter World Cup. But lets face it, this one already feels like Christmas.
Although even here there are contradictions. Seven years ago there seemed little doubt about what this World Cup would mean to Brazilians. But prosperity and education tend to take the edge off a diet of bread and circuses and the protests that have attached themselves to the edges of the World Cup are not so much an indication of concerted hostility towards the tournament itself and certainly not to Luiz Felipe Scolaris affectionately regarded Seleção but a symptom of wider dissatisfaction with Fifa and an ingrained and horribly self-serving industrial overclass, a collision of old and new that is central to Brazils wider future.
Plus the protests are another reminder of the indissoluble link between football, the World Cup and Brazils basic sense of itself. This is a nation whose progress can be measured against these four-yearly intercontinental encampments. In 1938 Leônidas, Brazils Rubber Man and star attacker, attempted to play barefoot on a quagmire in Strasbourg and had to be ordered to put his boots back on by the referee. Seventy-six years later the World Cup has been sold from the start as a kind of coming out the emergence, finally, of an utterly modern South American superpower.
There has already been plenty of talk this week about Brazilian edginess before the tournament opener, usually accompanied by the suggestion that this is in part a hangover from the dreaded Maracanãzo, the final game of the 1950 tournament that saw Brazil denied the trophy by Alcides Ghiggias late goal for Uruguay, the day the Cariocas wept in the streets and the white and blue shirt was junked for the triumphant gold and green. But really the sense of circular anxiety goes far beyond football.
In 1950 Brazil was, as now, emerging from a transformative economic boom, spurred on by the manufacturing opportunities of the second world war. In the decades since, marked out by busted presidential reigns and grand-scale corruption, football has been projected as a means of escape, an activity in which Brazil land of the tragically poor, the uselessly rich could still win against the world.
There is a familiar misconception about Brazilian football, the idea that this is a nation enraptured above all by the jogo bonito, favela-bound primitivists preaching the poetry of the ball. It is of course a load of rot. Brazilians love winning more than anything else and ever since that first post-war World Cup the Seleção, for all the beach football branding, has been state of the art in its preparations.
True to form this Brazil squad carry themselves, for now, like a beautifully well-grooved machine. Scolari took over in late 2012 with Mano Menezes and his players looking a little frazzled in the face of arguably the greatest concerted expectation ever heaped on any national team. Kicking off with a 2-1 defeat at Wembley, during which Scolari could barely speak owing to a lingering virus, Brazils favourite proselytising tough-guy national treasure has enacted a remarkable turnaround. Scolari has capped 40 players in the past 12 months, while in all nine from that first match at Wembley have been jettisoned.
Out of Brazils broad footballing diaspora Scolari has culled a youthful and demonstrably united team, not to mention one of the least experienced squads in Brazils World Cup history. Dani Alves and Maicon have 70 and 73 caps but no one else in midfield or attack has more than Neymars 47. Neymar has 30 goals and Fred 16. No other player has double figures.
Not that this is in itself particular cause for concern judging by recent tournaments Indeed, in purely footballing terms some cautious hopes floated that Brazil 2014 might provide something of a renaissance for the dear old World Cup, which has served up two relatively dull tournaments in a row, with teams made up largely of tired and stretched European club players eking out some distinctly flat final stages in Germany and South Africa.
Never mind the wrangles: this has been World Cups great gift down the years, its ability to conjure up a series of shared moments: not just Maradona-style spikes of creative genius but the one-off moments of grace that step beyond the politics and the chicanery and exist in their own space, from François Omam Biyik against Argentina to Pak Doo-ik in Middlesbrough and Joe Gaetjens in Belo Horizonte.
Football moves on apace and the last few years have seen a continued rebirth of dribbling and technically skilled inside- forwards, as reflected in the personnel available to Spain, Holland, Argentina and Germany here. This is balanced by the spread of supreme team-defence, the pressing style that helped Brazil shut down Spain in the final of the Confederations Cup last year. With this in mind it is one of the mild paradoxes of modern Brazilian football that a nation once cast as the home of free-wheeling attack is now most notable for the brilliance of its athletic, ball-playing defenders.
Brazil have conceded only two goals in their past nine matches, a resilience that owes much to the traditional double-defensive pivot in midfield Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo: Scolaris representatives on the pitch as it does to the imperiousness of Thiago Silva and the athleticism of David Luiz, the central defenders.
Scolari has also re-geared Brazils attack into a brilliantly effective four-man unit. Hulk, whose bulk belies his technical qualities, has become a key figure, forging an effective partnership with Dani Alves on the right flank. It is a triumph of broader significance for a player who has spent almost his entire professional career outside Brazil, and who seemed, before that Confederations Cup, to embody a lurking distance between Brazilians and their prized national team. A minor alienation that stemmed in part from the murkily peripatetic itinerary of the Nike years, when Brazil played endlessly lucrative overseas friendlies anywhere but Brazil, and in the tendency for younger players to move to Europe earlier in their careers.
With Hulk, Oscar and Neymar behind Fred at the point of Scolaris attack, Brazil have played like a team energised rather than crushed by all that nuanced expectation, winning 15 of their past 16 matches with Uruguay, Spain, Italy Mexico, France Portugal and Chile in that run and scoring 30 goals in their past nine. The real test from here will come if this inexperienced Brazil side go behind. There are weaknesses: a lack of depth in their attacking options; and the standard issue game-changing genius centre-forward (a matter of symbolic detail only: but the fact remains Brazil have never won a World Cup without Pelé, Ronaldo or Romário in the starting squad). Oscar already looks like a crucial component in lessening the attacking burden on Neymar.
What about Neymar anyway What a player the World Cups doe-eyed poster boy is already in a Brazil shirt, scorer of 31 international goals aged 22, a thrillingly nimble-footed inside-forward with gossamer touch, a conjurers skills to beat a man and, best of all, an air of being entirely unfazed by the rapt attention of the Brazilian populace.
Neymar is a genuinely beloved footballer in his home country, a legacy perhaps of his decision to stay in Brazil for four years after his professional debut, making over 100 appearances for Santos (and a vast amount of sponsors cash from the Lula-Boom economy). Plus of course with his creative No10s talents he speaks to the wondrous Brazilian heritage of joyfully inventive attackers, from Leônidas, through Garrincha and the 1970 team, Zico and Ronaldinho: and now this agreeably impish, beautifully balanced graduate of São Paulo street football and the futsal court. The Confederations Cup was an eerily perfect dress rehearsal for Neymar, who switched to the No10 shirt for the first time, scored four times in five games and led Scolaris team with verve and grace throughout. Brazil expects. But Neymar has been in the public eye since he was 17 and appears almost startlingly calm this close to the most onerous month of his sporting life.
Brazil: land of contrasts! Not to mention unrest, anxiety, galloping modernity and, alongside it all a genuinely rapturous footballing excitement. As Brazils players take to the pitch in São Paulo to face a Croatia team with many strengths of their own it seems likely Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will provide a dual scurrying-playmaker axis in the centre it is hard to avoid the sense of something epic about to play itself out. And beyond this to hope that some part of this great, messy, ugly, beautiful, global, sporting beano can speak more loudly than the rumbles that have surrounded Brazil 2014s difficult seven-year labour.
The World Cup may be less a tournament of the people these days, more a tournament of the un-people: the brands, the machines, the corporate personages. It may seem mixed and muddled, a progressive corporate hijack too large and too hungry for its own health. But there is a terribly seductive idea at its heart, and beneath it all a tournament that can still produce, over the next 32 days, those wonderful moments that are the essence of all that is good about the World Cup. Plus, who knows, maybe even a Copa das Copas worthy of the name.