A World Cup in Brazil isn't just special because it is the only nation to have participated in every edition or that it has won the Cup five times (the most by any country). Brazil is a state of mind. For football fans, it is the Holy Grail, the Char Dham, the Mecca-Medina and the place where Pelé comes from.
Anybody who has kicked a leather ball around with some degree of control in his childhood suddenly has the name flung at him - whether you grew up playing in the lanes of Kolkata or Kottayam, or on a beach in Goa, or even on a playground in a government servants' colony in Delhi, the way I did: 'You think you are the next Pelé?'
Edson Arantes do Nascinmento, better known as Pelé, picked up his third World Cup trophy in 1970. But the image of him smiling at the cameras with Bobby Moore after the final in Mexico City still epitomises the greatest traditions of the Beautiful Game: The fiercest defender in the universe exchanging shirts with the most attacking striker in the world. Minutes after losing the World Cup title no less.
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Carlos Duarte, Brazil's ambassador to India invokes an observation by footballer Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, popularly known as 'The Phenomenon', to describe what Brazil has to offer to millions of fans. "Ronaldo said: 'Whether it's from visiting the beaches of the northeast, witnessing the vastness of the Amazon River, or taking in the dazzling blend of ocean and mountains that makes Rio de Janeiro such a special place, every visitor will take home a treasured personal memory.' Brazil is a place of great happiness and joy, and we'll welcome World Cup visitors with open arms," promises Duarte.
What the envoy doesn't underscore is Brazil's reputation as a kickass partying nation. It is the land where the people, when they are not kicking ball on the Copacabana, or sipping on a Caipirinha, would love to let their hair down at the Carnaval. And with a line-up of the coolest bars in the world dotting beaches and happening neighbourhoods, both the football fan and the reveller couldn't ask for more.
The big dilemma
They might be five-time champions. But playing in home conditions, with close to 80,000 people cheering them on in arenas such as the Maracanã, the challenge before Brazil will be two-pronged. "Certainly, the crowd will work like a twelfth man for them. But Brazil cannot merely win: they also have to look good doing it. The fans expect nothing less than that," points out football expert and author Novy Kapadia.
This dual challenge, of playing a skilful attacking game was best epitomised by the 1982 Brazilian squad for the World Cup that included Socrates, Cerezo, Falcao, Junior and Zico often called 'The White Pelé'. "I consider the 1982 Brazilian team as the best ever. They were the last of the romantics. Their coach Tele Santana encouraged individual flair. Unfortunately, they lost in the second round in 1982. After that, Brazil might have won the Cup, but they sacrificed flair for collective effectiveness," says Kapadia.
Who else but a Brazilian could have come up with the phrase Jogo Bonito (Portuguese for The Beautiful Game), to describe the most popular sport in the world? That is how Pelé responded when asked about the secret behind football's global appeal.
Indian footballing legend Shyam Thapa, who scored for Mohun Bagan against New York Cosmos when Pelé visited Calcutta with the team in the 1970s, says the Brazil of 2014 is a young side that wouldn't like to be saddled with the baggage of history. "Also, with an exciting talent like Neymar, playing in home conditions, they can win this World Cup."
In Thapa's eyes, Pelé, 'The Black Pearl', has a special place in World Cup history. "He was a different story altogether. Messi and Ronaldo may be greats at the club level when they play for Spanish sides, but they still have to prove themselves at a World Cup. Pelé won three World Cups separated by 16 years. They can aspire to be in that select club only after they win one World Cup at least."
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From HT Brunch, June 8
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