6-12 June 2014 #710

When football comes home

Excitement. Hope. Protests. Hype. It’s all happening in Brazil as the world’s top 32 teams arrive for the FIFA World Cup
Shobhan Saxena in Sao Paulo

GAME CHANGER: File photo taken 16 July 1950 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janerio during the 1950 World Cup Final between Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil lost the match 2-1.
On 16 July, 1950, the day of Brazil-Uruguay final game of the World Cup (pic, right), Brazilians had been partying since morning as they were sure of victory.

There were some 220,000 people in the Maracana Stadium that day. Things appeared to be going to plan when Friaca gave the Brazilians the lead, but Uruguay eventually won the match 2-1 and took the Cup.

A silence fell on the gigantic stadium. The day that was supposed to be the happiest day for Brazilian football turned into the saddest moment in its history. The media dubbed Uruguay's shock victory as the 'Maracanazo,' a term that is still used to describe a “big disaster” in this country.

Sixty-four years later, the world is heading to Brazil again, and this time some are predicting another disaster because of delays and protests.  But 2014 is not 1950. For most Brazilians, this World Cup is not just about football it is about Brazil, which has changed dramatically – socially and economically -- in recent years.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who will be seeking re-election in October, has promised a “Cup of Cups.” With all 3.2 million tickets sold and 600,000 visitors expected, the event could literally be a game changer for Brazil. The government blames the campaign against the World Cup on some desperate people, and says the protests are getting smaller as Brazilians are looking forward to the games.

FIFA itself is under a cloud because of news reports of bribery by the Qataris to host the 2022 games. And when the FIFA show comes to the Home of Football, it’s bound to evoke emotions – positive and negative. Last year during the Confederations Cup, hundreds of thousands of people took to streets across the country to protest bus fare hikes. Soon, they had turned into demands for better schools and hospitals. Some people fear the return of protests during the cup.

The first game is here in Sao Paolo on 12 June, and the mood has changed. The shops and streets are awash in green and yellow. From metro trains to coffee shops people are talking about Copa do Mundo. “What’s the point of protesting when the best footballers in the world are playing in our stadiums. It’s not going to get us education and hospitals,” wrote Antonio Prata, a leading columnist in Folha de Sao Paulo this week.

Despite delays, all 12 state-of-the-art stadiums are ready. Foreign teams have started arriving to get used to the time zone and climate. People can’t stop talking about the “sixth star” – a reference to the five stars above the Brazilian team’s logo, each star signifying one of their five World Cup wins since 1958.

At the mountain resort town of Teresopolis, where the Brazilian team is training, the players look relaxed. Coach Luis Felipe Scolari seems to have his plans in place. At a chat over coffee with a group of journalists last weekend, he said he has decided not to make any emotional talk with the players about the failure in 1950. “Certain things have to be left out of our plans. We will not remember the Maracanazo,” Scolari said. “I want my players to be tough and strong – both physically and mentally.”

But the 1950 defeat still hurts. According to anthropologist Roberto DaMatta it was a tragedy because “it brought about a collective feeling of the loss of an historical opportunity.” There was another reason for the pain it caused, wrote DaMatta in an essay: “It took place when Brazil tried to achieve its destiny as a great nation.”

Next Thursday, when Brazil take on Croatia at the World Cup inaugural match at the Itaquera stadium in Sao Paulo, the country will have another shot at greatness. It won’t be easy however for Brazil to earn a sixth star against teams like Spain, Germany and Argentina.

But as coach Scolari and his team work on their plans and strategies at their camp in the mountains of  Teresopolis, there is one thing they are absolutely certain about: support of ordinary Brazilians.

Shobhan Saxena is a Sao Paulo-based journalist who has reported for Times of India and The Hindu from South America. He is also a visiting professor on international politics at University of Sao Paulo. Nepali Times will carry this exclusive column for the duration of the World Cup.

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