“I will cheer for Brazil as always, but for the first time I don’t want them to win,” Jose Erivaldo Costa, a hotel worker from Rio de Janeiro, told Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times this month (subscription required).
“If we win the government will use it as an opportunity to say what a success it has been and to mask all our problems.”
The popular rhetoric for this World Cup is that football is coming home, that the most passionate football fans on the planet are going to host its greatest-ever party. Brazil is not football’s birthplace, but it is widely perceived to be its spiritual home; where the game as a form of expression has been elevated to a higher art.
As the locals delight in saying: “England invented the beautiful game, Brazil perfected it.”
The perception that this month will see the party to end all parties might turn out to be true. However, on the eve of the event, there is not the groundswell of support for the tournament in Brazil that many observers around the world might have initially expected.
In a country that is still wrestling with issues of infrastructure, corruption and modernisation, the money being spent—and, more pertinently, the money being lost—on hosting the World Cup has provoked widespread and high-profile outrage among the fans who will ultimately foot the bill.
The run-up to the tournament has been dominated by conspicuously timed and pointed protests about the public money being spent on venues and infrastructure that may have little shelf life beyond the World Cup final on July 12.
Now there is the tournament itself, where prices are expected to prevent many of the game’s most passionate fans from attending matches.
“Brazil is hosting it, but it’s not for the Brazilian people,” none other than Romario, hero of the country’s 1994 World Cup win, told Ben McGrath of the New Yorker in January. “The lower classes won’t be able to buy tickets.”
Much is currently being made about Qatar’s controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but it is Brazil’s experience hosting this year’s tournament that might lead to the biggest change to the bidding process in years to come.
In 2007 and buoyed by a rapidly expanding economy and grand visions for the future, Brazil won the right to host the 2014 World Cup unopposed (FIFA were determined to take the tournament back to South America for the first time since 1978 and no other nation could mount a rival bid). They followed it up two years later by clinching the 2016 Summer Olympics, which are set to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
Hosting the world’s two biggest sporting events within two years of each other was supposed to highlight Brazil’s emergence as a first-world power—the first true economic powerhouse to come out of South America in the 21st century.
Since then, however, the rapid and sustained growth once predicted for the country has not occurred as expected. Prices of the commodities Brazil had built its booming economy on—iron ore, oil—have almost levelled off far sooner than anticipated, undercutting many projections about where the country would be by now and leaving a sizeable deficit against the government’s already increased spending.
As a result, not only has the real cost of the World Cup risen considerably—project overspends seem to be an inevitability when hosting any big event these days—but the changing economic forecast has multiplied those effects.
Suddenly the most passionate football supporters on the planet think hosting the sport's biggest international event is a waste of money.
This opinion might be reflected in future World Cup bids, where countries are picked more for their suitability to host a tournament right now, rather than once they have built five or more new, purpose-built arenas.
Partly because of the Qatar controversy, but mainly because of the Brazil experience, FIFA may well lean toward nations with an existing footballing infrastructure in place for future tournaments.
The fallacy of Joga Bonito
In some ways, the country’s relationship with this national team also represents its distance from the political classes.
The Selecao has often had a somewhat turbulent relationship with the politics of its nation, traditionally aligning itself closely with the working man. Socrates, the captain of a Brazil team that is revered to this day despite its inability to win the 1982 World Cup in Spain, promised to reject any lucrative offers from abroad if his country—controlled at the time by a military junta—agreed to hold free and fair democratic elections.
None were forthcoming, so the No. 8—who had been instrumental in bringing a democratic approach to governance at his club, Corinthians—moved to Fiorentina in 1984.
Socrates was the captain of a squad that all played their club football in Brazil. Nowadays, most top Brazilian players now ply their trade outside South America—let alone their homeland—because of the money and standard of competition on offer in Europe.
The talent drain across the Atlantic is accepted as a way of life, but it remains far from embraced by the wider Brazilian population. In an ideal world, the clubs in Brazil would get their act together enough to keep their best talent in the country—and perhaps start attracting others from abroad to their league.
“If Brazil wins the World Cup [this year], well, good,” as Juca Kfouri, a prominent Brazilian sportswriter, told the New Yorker. “The sixth time, okay? It’s a banalisation.
“We need to have strong clubs in Brazil, not a strong Brazilian national team.”
When you look at Brazil’s squad for this summer, it is hard to escape the feeling that such a sentiment runs deep. Four of the 23 players selected play for Brazilian clubs (12 years ago that number was 12), two such players are back-up goalkeepers.
Yet when you look at Brazil’s main strikers Fred (Fluminense) and Jo (Atletico Mineiro), both of whom came to Europe and failed to make an impact in the biggest competitions, it is hard to believe that Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa would not have leapfrogged both with ease, had he not played almost his entire professional career in Europe.
Costa will instead represent Spain, giving Brazil’s most obvious rivals for glory this summer the one thing—a prolific striker—they look like they might be lacking.
“Brazil approached me very late in my career,” Costa told the Daily Star's Paul Brown, after making his controversial decision. “I played in Spain for many years but only recently did they [Brazil] think of me. When Spain approached me my choice was clear.”
The man in charge of Brazil’s squad selection is head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The former Portugal and Chelsea manager was in charge of the Selecao the last time they won the World Cup in 2002.
“Big Phil" embodies the country’s recent approach to big international tournaments—one that is at odds with the image projected in adverts and the media.
The most successful Brazil teams of recent times have always tended toward the pragmatic on the big occasion, in contrast to the reputation the country has for "joga bonito." The 1982 team, for example, is lauded as among the most talented ever yet fell short of victory because of a combination of hubris and tactical indiscipline.
That failing, echoing as it did the famous "Maracanazo" the last time the country hosted the World Cup, has influenced the country's approach to tournament football: pragmatism at the expense of invention; caution over excessive risk-taking.
The last two World Cup-winning squads, 1994 and 2002, both relied heavily on a defensive block in midfield. In 1994, other than a 3-2 victory over Netherlands in the quarter-finals, the team scored just twice in their three other knockout games, winning 1-0, 1-0 and, famously, on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the final.
Key striker Romario was named the best player, but the three team-mates who joined him in FIFA’s team of the tournament were all defensive-minded players: Jorginho, Marcio Santos and Dunga.
In 2002, Scolari’s winning midfield contained both Gilberto Silva and Kleberson—two defensive-minded players—with Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo combining in an attacking trio of breathtaking quality.
Thanks to that triumvirate, Brazil breezed through a straightforward group, but they were once again more reserved in the knockout stages. In the final, meanwhile, they were generally outplayed by a weakened Germany team, with only Ronaldo’s brilliant finishing making the difference in the 2-0 win.
"My style remains the same,” Scolari said after his re-appointment, when Brazil visited England at the start of 2013—as reported by the Telegraph.
According to a report by Simon Yeend in the Express, he also said: “Playing beautifully and losing is horrible. Whoever says the opposite is an idiot.”
That means defensive solidity remains a priority, with Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo likely to occupy the centre of midfield this summer (Fernandinho could usurp either of them, but he is not a different type of player).
The “No. 10” may well be Oscar, a player lauded by club manager Jose Mourinho as much for his defensive aptitude as his creative instincts, while Thiago Silva and David Luiz remain one of the better defensive partnerships that will be on show this summer.
Brazil's plan to win this World Cup is far from romantic: Rather than looking to score more goals than opponents, they are aiming to concede fewer.
As Ben McGrath wrote:
Romario and his contemporaries may have had genius in their feet, as the saying goes, but the World Cups they won for Brazil, in 1994 and 2002, came after a long spell of elegant failure, and were triumphs of defensive tactics, not wizardry—a cynical concession, you might say.
Sports fans, at heart, are not intellectuals but crass capitalists, who prefer winning at all costs.
The English Connection
Three of the aforementioned five players (Paulinho, Oscar and David Luiz) plied their trade at English clubs last season. Back in 2002, just one player in Scolari’s 23-man squad was attached to an English club during the tournament—Juninho, who had only just re-joined Middlesbrough on a permanent deal (Kleberson would soon join Manchester United, but he would fail to ever establish himself at Old Trafford).
This year, however, eight of the 23-man squad were attached to an English club when it was announced (David Luiz has subsequently left Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain).
This is a huge change. The influx, or change of attitudes, is not a matter of money—the English top division has always had the money to lure top players from abroad; in 1978, Tottenham signed Argentina duo Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, though it would be another nine years before a Brazilian, Mirandinha, played for an English club).
Rather, it has been about differences in culture, climate and perception. If England invented football and Brazil perfected it, then, by implication, the English play in an inferior, less noble style—predicated on physical strength and direct attacking rather than guile and technique.
Why go there, when Italy or Spain offered similar opportunities, but with better conditions and superior playing styles?
Now, however, the tables have turned. Brazilian clubs—much like their country—are ravaged by structural issues and dogged by corruption issues. In comparison, European clubs are invariably well run and have moved toward playing a more expansive style of football.
Even the English ones.
“Brazilians learned how to be technocrats, and Europeans learned how to be artists,” Tostao, an integral member of perhaps the finest of all World Cup champions, the 1970 Selecao, told the New Yorker.
Where England was never previously an attractive destination to play, it is now the preferred destination for many. Compared to clubs in Brazil, where wages are often not paid on time and the facilities and training are subpar by continental standards, top English clubs offer the best of everything—and pay their wages on time.
The standard of football has improved, too. Perhaps most importantly, however, influential agents now have ties to many of the big clubs, which enable them to facilitate deals that would previously have been problematic.
"A new generation of agents has emerged with strong connections with England," as writer Paulo Freitas told ESPN FC last year. "Giuliano Bertolucci is the most famous of them all, and he was involved in the negotiations of Ramires, David Luiz, Oscar and Lucas Piazon [all to Chelsea], as well as the arrival of Paulinho at Tottenham."
These agent relationships, along with Brazilian clubs' constant need for cash injections and the quality of their academy products, means that English clubs have joined their European counterparts in signing the best young Brazilian players at younger and younger ages.
Manchester United made one of the first such moves when they completed a deal for the Da Silva twins in 2007. More recently, Chelsea have brought the likes of Piazon and Wallace to the club to continue their development.
Such emigration has become so common, in fact, that national team officials are increasingly worried about young Brazilians—those who move to Europe in their teenage years—going on to represent their “naturalised” nations at the highest level, following in the footsteps of Diego Costa.
Earlier this year, for example, Brazil under-20 coach Alexandre Gallo embarked on a trip to Europe to convince some players that they were in his plans, hoping to stave off interest from the countries where they now earned their living.
"We have some great players who have the chance to play for European teams," Gallo told Sportv (via the Global Times), citing the example of a 20-year-old midfielder playing in Portugal for Rio Ave. "We are opening up the possibility for Diego Lopes to play for Brazil's national team.
"When we put the shirt in front of him we believe he will opt to play for the Selecao."
The fact that a youngster might even consider not representing Brazil, or the suggestion that Brazilian officials might not ordinarily extend such personal attention to players in Europe, hints at the issues facing the national side.
The 11 who take the field against Croatia on Thursday will carry huge pressure on their shoulders—expectation from those who desperately want a sixth World Cup to be won on home soil, and concern from those who hope a successful tournament will not mask the country's myriad issues.
In 1982, the Brazil team that played in Spain was one that reflected and represented its people—determined to express themselves, over and above simply winning.
This team, however, might instead be aiming to win at all costs, just as the tournament is being hosted at all costs.