In the city where football was first played in Brazil, the hosts will square off against Croatia Thursday to kick-start the biggest show on earth — watched by 61,606 screaming fans in the Arena de Sao Paulo and millions worldwide.
After the first whistle, it will be 32 days of non-stop football featuring 32 teams and some of the biggest names in the game.
Organised football came to Brazil in 1894 with Charles Miller. Born in Sao Paulo, he went to school in England, where he learnt to play. When he returned, he brought with him a book of rules and a deflated ball, and started teaching expats. But once the Brazilians got the hang of it, football changed forever. “You taught us the game, we perfected it,” Roberto Carlos, a World Cup winner with Brazil, once said.
Over the next month, the world will know if Brazil have perfected it enough to get them an unprecedented sixth Cup. They haven’t won since 2002 — too long for a country where football isn’t just a game but Jogo Bonito (the beautiful game).
No one feels the pressure more than star forward Neymar. Outside Morumbi stadium, Neymar shirts sell briskly. People here don’t just wear their Neymar shirts, they flaunt them even on cold winter mornings — an indication of the kind of pressure the young boy who started at Pele’s club and now plays with (Lionel) Messi would be under.
Anything less than runners-up could have severe consequences, especially since Brazil’s affair with the World Cup has seemed like a marriage in crisis. It’s something President Dilma Roussef, seeking re-election this year, sought to allay, saying: “A World Cup lasts a month, but the benefits are for life.”
Brazil’s winter is getting intense. What better way to warm up than with a month of football. Or Futebol, as they say here.