FIFA World Cup 2014 – Thursday 12 June 2014

Yes, this summer England will be hosting the opening three stages of the Tour de France and yes, Scotland will be hosting the Commonwealth Games, but the ‘big’ event of the year is that taking place in Brazil – the 20th FIFA World Cup.

What drama will unfold over the 64 games of the tournament? Will it be remembered for events on the pitch or will the demonstrations that were a feature of the Confederations Cup last year come back to haunt the Brazilian authorities? Will the stench of the recent Qatar 2022 bribery allegations linger?

The fact is that the build-up to the World Cup has not been an easy one and FIFA and the Organising Committee will hope that it all runs to plan, with the International Olympic Committee taking a keen interest with the 2016 Games in Rio on the horizon. Have no fear the Blatter publicity machine will make sure the world knows that the event was a ‘triumph’. The most corrupt man in a sick circus that rolls into town every four years.

But I digress…

Brazil has hosted the World Cup before, that being back in 1950. As host nation Brazil made it to the Final, but the perfect ending never materialised, as Uruguay shocked their South American neighbours winning the game 2-1. The shock of that loss was partly expunged when Brazil beat Uruguay during the Groups Stages of the 1970 World Cup, but may only be fully laid to rest if they can win the competition in the revamped Maracana later this month. Now 64 years later, the weight of expectation will once again fall upon the Brazilians. Will the pressure prove too much or will they rise to the challenge to take the title for a sixth time? Which Brazil will turn up? Will it be the one full of the glorious skills of the teams of 1970 and 1982, or will it be the cynical teams that graced the World Cups in 1974 and 1978 and lost its head in 2010?

Well today the journey begins as Brazil take on Croatia. Brazil qualified for the tournament as hosts, whilst Croatia had a little bit of work to do to reach the Finals. Croatia were in Group A from which Belgium emerged winners and took the automatic qualification place. Croatia went into the Play-offs for the eight Group Runners-up with the best record and were drawn against Iceland over two-legs. The first game in Reykjavik ended 0-0, but a place in the Finals was secured with goals from Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna.

Whilst the Brazilian squad is littered with familiar faces from England and the rest of Europe (only four of the squad play for Brazilian clubs), the Croatian squad might not be quite so well known to the English audience. Defender Dejan Lovren has been at Southampton this season, whilst Nikica Jelavic has been plying his trade at Hull City, but those are the only players currently in the English Premier League. Others who have dallied with the EPL and all bizarrely with a North London connection include Stipe Pletikosa who played a single League Cup game for Spurs (against Arsenal) in 2010/11, defender Vedran Corluka who had spells at Manchester City and Spurs, midfielder Luka Modric who also played at White Hart Lane and Eduardo who had a spell up the road with ‘The Arsenal’.

Back in 1950, Brazil opened the competition with a 4-0 win over Mexico. Whilst I can’t see a repeat of that score in 2014, a 3-1 win for the host nation is not out of the question.

Book Review: The Country of Football – Politics, Popular Culture & the Beautiful Game in Brazil, edited by Paulo Fontes and Bernardo Buarque de Hollanda

When many people think of Brazil, they conjure up images of a joyful mix of football, samba, carnival and beaches and therefore maybe puzzled by the demonstrations that have occurred in the preparation and build-up to the World Cup. The reality is that Brazil is a complicated country which as the introduction to The Country of Football says, “…stems from its explosive growth, and the struggles to adapt economics, social and political institutions to the new realities of the country…”.

This book explores how the country has developed and provides an insight into why there has been unrest from some of the Brazilian population and an understanding of the importance of football to the country. These nine essays look at the links between football and the country in a social and anthropological context.

Make no mistake this is no ‘run of the mill’ football book. You’ll not find any, ‘the boy done good’, football clichés. The writing is unashamedly academic with contributions from historians, professors and those with PhD’s; so be prepared for a style and language that is more thesis than terrace banter.

The nine chapters follow pretty much a chronological flow and include the formation of football in Brazil in the late 1890s by Anglo-Brazilian Charles Miller, the professionalism of football in Brazil (1930 – 1950), Amateur Football Clubs in Sao Paulo (1940s – 1960s), ‘Dictatorship, Re-Democratisation and Brazilian Football in the 1970s and 1980’s’ and bringing the story up to date with a chapter on the impact of the 2014 World Cup on Brazil’s football stadiums and culture.

The three stand-out chapters for me are, ‘The People’s Joy Vanishes: Meditations on the Death of Garrincha’, ‘Public Power, the Nation and Stadium Policy in Brazil: The Construction and Reconstruction of the Maracana Stadium for the World Cups of 1950 and 2014’ and ‘A World Cup for Whom? The Impact of the 2014 World Cup on Brazilian Football Stadiums and Cultures’. The reasons? Well, Garrincha is acknowledged as one of Brazil’s greatest players and this chapter highlights the difficulties he endured in his career, the obscurity of his death, but which ended with a national outpouring at his funeral. In terms of my other favoured essays, they both have a connection to the impending World Cup, which makes them more accessible than some of the earlier historical pieces.

Nevertheless, it is a book that gave me a greater understanding of how football in Brazil has developed, its links to politics and the class structure, where the sport lies in the countries sporting psyche and goes some ways to explaining the stance of the working-classes in the recent demonstrations; I will certainly will be revisiting all the chapters of the book in the future.

Finally, the writers maybe academic, but they understand football too, a point perfectly illustrated in the final essay which looks at the impact of the 2014 World Cup:

Financed with public money and controlled by public interests, World Cup stadiums will be worlds of consumption isolated from their urban and cultural contexts.

The accepted business wisdom of football suggests that this is the only way forward for Brazilian football. The private sector has undertaken no risk in developing the World Cup and the public sector has overachieved in its desire to put forth a ‘positive image’ of Brazil to the world. The wanton destruction of historic stadiums has been accompanied by a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of tournament organisers. Football’s institutions have not recognised the very real threats to traditional football culture in Brazil. To the contrary these very institutions have worked closely with private interests to change the form and function of Brazilian stadiums as well as the ‘kind’ of people that go there. These processes have the potential to permanently alter an essential element of Brazilian cultural identity. Ironically, it is the cultural weight of football as created and sustained by ‘o povo’ (the people), that has made possible its saleability in the global marketplace’.

Read The Country of Football and see the 2014 World Cup in a different light.

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