Considering that Germany and Mexico have each hosted the World Cup on two occasions, and that smaller nations (Chile, Sweden, Uruguay) and nations where football is hardly the top sport (United States) have also been granted the tournament, it’s somewhat surprising that Brazil has, until now, staged the event only once.
That was in 1950, and the Brazil side that included Jair, Zizinho and Ademir was widely expected—by the locals, at least—to win the country’s first World Cup.
It didn’t happen.
Needing only a draw against Uruguay in the final match of the competition, Friaca gave the hosts the lead just after the restart, only for the tide to turn. Juan Alberto Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia would score 13 minutes apart to win the trophy for La Celeste.
It was a devastating blow to the football-mad country, and one Pele was sure to touch on in his self-titled autobiography.
“We had one of those big, square two-button radios,” he writes. “There was something magical about listening to football on the radio. It really played to a child’s imagination.”
Pele’s father, Dondinho, had invited about 15 friends to the family’s small home, and everyone was expecting to party late into the night.
“Everyone brought something to eat or drink and I remember a table full of cakes, sweets, sandwiches and beer,” he recalls. “We were the hosts, the favourites.”
Even after Schiaffino equalized for Uruguay shortly after the hour mark, the mood at Dondinho’s house remained upbeat. However, when Ghiggia put the ball into the back of the net, Pele recalls his father looking and talking like a “zombie.”
He writes: “My mum took me away and said, ‘Leave your father alone; leave him in peace.’ There was silence everywhere.”
The pain of that defeat (the winner was scored with just 11 minutes remaining), and the memory of it, are the primary reasons why Brazil are so desperate to win the World Cup on home soil in 13 months’ time.
Yes, there is pressure on every host country, but Brazil is different. It is the spiritual home of football, and for nearly 64 years, that spirit has been broken.
Even as the government and organizing committee went about the necessary preparations, you got the feeling the Brazilian national team—the Selecao—was the project the country was most concerned about. There were the airports, the railways, the broadband and the Selecao. And while the world agonized over the progress of the first three, Brazil worried only about the last item.
And it is very much an unfinished project.
Current manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has only been on the job a few months since replacing Mano Menezes, the man who had been expected to take Brazil into the World Cup finals. The team is an uncomfortable mixture of domestic and Europe-based players; it struggles for a cutting edge and its best player, Neymar, recently announced a move away from Sao Paulo club Santos to European powerhouse Barcelona.
If Brazil are considered even an outside favourite to lift the World Cup at the Maracana, it is because of their name only. But to win it would be to achieve the sort of status only a people with football in its veins could bestow.
Brazil need to win the World Cup, and they need to win it for them.