If anyone wanted an early taste of what will be one of the pervading storylines of next summer’s World Cup—for hosts Brazil, at least—than they were well served by Friday’s draw in the scenic resort of Costa do Sauipe.
Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in what was effectively the final of the 1950 World Cup (albeit back then, the tournament was decided by a final group stage) is a tale that has often been told.
With the hosts only needing a draw to lift the trophy, and around 200,000 fans enthusiastically filling the Maracana stadium awaiting a joyous coronation, Brazil went 1-0 up but somehow went on to lose 2-1 to their South American rivals—seeing the tournament slip through their grasp and, by some accounts at least, sending the country into a shell-shocked slump that it took decades to recover fully from.
"Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima," as the playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote of an event that would become known as "Maracanazo". "Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat to Uruguay in 1950."
The 23 men who will make up the Selecao’s 2014 World Cup squad will not just have to deal with the pressure of being clear favourites to win the tournament then, but also the nagging memories of 1950—a gnawing uncertainty and fear in the fans (and perhaps some of the less self-assured players) that will not truly be washed away until the World Cup trophy is lifted.
Back at the Maracana on July 13, the hope is fans will see not just a celebration but an exorcism, too.
"Brazilians have mixed feelings about the Maracana," as author Alex Bellos wrote for the Guardian. "It is the spiritual home of Brazilian football, but it is also stigmatised by that fateful match more than six decades ago."
There are many ways to deal with any fear, with two particular approaches at either end of the spectrum—pretend it does not exist entirely or confront it head on.
On Friday, Brazil indicated it would choose the latter route, even inviting Uruguay’s goalscoring hero of that 2-1 win, Alcides Ghiggia, to be one of the former professionals asked to help with the draw.
"What would I give to see Uruguay win the World Cup in Brazil again? Life itself!" Ghiggia said at a FIFA press event on Thursday, presumably to shudders from any of the natives in attendance.
"I've already experienced it as a player, but to witness it again from the stands would be priceless."
He added: "This is football—and people win and people lose and that event at Maracana was what it was. The Brazilians were sad at the time but they have won five World Cups since then, so I’m happy for them."
Then there was Pele—his country’s greatest-ever player, a transcendent star who has at times claimed he was inspired to win three World Cups by his father’s reaction to the 1950 loss—referring to it directly moments before the balls were drawn.
"When Brazil lost to Uruguay in 1950, my father had tears in his eyes," Pele recalled on stage. "But this time I'm convinced that this Brazil team will reach the final, and win!"
As Brazil president Dilma Rousseff had said moments before:
This is the land of Pele, the greatest player of all time. It is the land of Ronaldo, the top scorer of all World Cups. And today we have a strong national team, full of brilliant new star players, and our coach, the great [Luiz Felipe] Scolari, a true champion assisted by another winner: our great [Carlos Alberto] Parreira. So I have ample reason to be very optimistic as a Brazil supporter.”
Yet such expressions of confidence were punctured by acts of superstition. Pele, for example, did not help with the draw—these days he fears he is bad luck to his nation in such matters. In his stead the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Mario Kempes and Sir Geoff Hurst gave the hosts a group stage draw they will be happy with.
Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon all have their relative merits, and indeed none of them will feel pessimistic about their chances of escaping from Group A. But all will be pragmatic and perhaps acknowledge that they are fighting among themselves for second place.
Opening against Croatia in Sao Paulo—as is currently scheduled, although the stadium is far from guaranteed to be ready in time after the sad death of two workers in a recent construction accident—is no guaranteed win but should be relatively comfortable for Luis Felipe Scolari’s men.
Croatia are not a settled side right now—they needed a play-off under a new manager against Iceland to reach the tournament—and are perhaps more likely than their rivals to be overwhelmed by the stage.
With a first win in the first game, the rest of the group—Mexico in Fortaleza, Cameroon in Brasilia—should fall into place with relative (this is a World Cup, nothing is that comfortable) ease.
Then, however, the challenge ratchets up—just as the mentions of that 1950 disaster begin to kick into overdrive. One of the finalists from 2010, Spain or Netherlands, likely awaits in the last 16—whether or not Brazil win the group.
The best they can hope for is that if they finish top of Group A, Spain match their feat and thus they can only face each other in the final.
The nightmare scenario, however, is that Spain are edged to top spot in the group (not an impossible scenario, considering the fine margins involved) and the Selecao are forced into a horribly testing examination in the first knockout round.
Should they come through that challenge, things are unlikely to get any easier. While prognostications are never wise so far from the tournament (when injuries and other factors can have significant impacts), it nevertheless remains eminently possible that Colombia or Italy (or England) will be waiting to face them in the quarter-finals.
Or, of course...it could be Uruguay.
Assuming both nations win their groups as anticipated, it might then be Germany waiting in the semi-finals.
Should they get through that test, they will be where they want to be but also where they will be most fearful—the final.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that, regardless of where they finish in their group, Brazil cannot play at the Maracana until the final. The only side going into Friday’s draw who already knew which spot (A1) they would be in—a perk of being hosts—it is almost as if organisers crafted the fixtures so as to avoid the hosts having to return to the site of their greatest failing any sooner than necessary.
The film star does not decisively confront his nemesis in the second act, after all.
"A World Cup in Brazil has special significance because in Brazil football is at home," President Dilma said before the draw. "Brazil, as everyone knows, is the country of football. Football is in the heart of each and every Brazilian.
"This will be the World Cup of all World Cups. A World Cup no one will ever forget."
Brazilians have never forgotten the 1950 World Cup either.
In 2014, they hope, the final venue will be the same, but the outcome will be markedly different.
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