Brazil today returns as the host of the football World Cup after 64 years, using the intervening period to establish its pre-eminent status as a soccer-playing nation. There are stories — real and apocryphal — of how people dolorously wept after the host nation lost to Uruguay in the final held at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, stories of how Pelé consoled his father on the promise that he would bring the World Cup to his country.
If the story is true he kept his word, not once but thrice, a feat unsurpassed by any so far. Pelé was fortunate in having legends such as Garrincha, Vava, Mario Zagallo, Rivelino and Tostao as his colleagues over the three World Cups of 1958, 1962 and 1970.
However, Pelé towered above all of them, earning for himself the status of being the world’s best footballer ever and the most famous Brazilian of all time. The sad side of the story is that Garrincha — the meaning of the word is ‘a small bird’, the moniker he justified by flitting from place to place with the ball — drank himself to death, almost in penury.
Despite the Brazil gharana, it is sometimes said that individual brilliance is going out of the game. We have not seen outstanding individual skill in the World Cup such as the one exhibited by Diego Maradona in 1986. It is to be seen whether Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain or Angel Di Maria can step into his shoes, now that they have proved their worth in club football.
Or will it be Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Brazil’s Neymar? However, club football is one thing and the World Cup is quite another. There have instances of players, Rudd Gullit of the Netherlands being prominent among them, who have done splendidly in the European Champions League but could not perform at the desired level at the acme of world soccer. Maybe power football was not much in evidence in those days, a fact proved by the growing injury list right on the eve of the Cup.
It is a bit unfortunate that the biggest spectacle in world sport begins in the backdrop of two controversies. The first is the charge of corruption concerning FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. A considerable amount of boodle is said to have changed hands in this. The second are the unpleasant questions thrown around the construction of a stadium in the host country itself.
Some issues associated with a stadium in Sao Paulo — such as the price of a seat or the cost overrun in construction — and the benefit the Cup will bring to the economy of Brazil have been the stuff of angry debate and reactions, so much so people have gone out to protest against the idea of hosting the Cup itself.
The question, laced with fear, is what will happen if Brazil fails to win the Cup. A throwback to 1950, or something that death squads on the streets of Brazil would love? Let sanity thrive as the great game begins.