Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How the 'beautiful game' eclipsed the chaotic World Cup preparations


The first round isn't even over yet but the verdict is in: Brazil 2014 is the best World Cup since Spain 1982, and may go down as the best ever if the superb level of play continues through the July 13 final.

The tournament has already given us the shock of seeing defending champs Spain humiliated by Netherlands and Chile; Mexican goalie Memo Ochoa's gravity-defying save against Brazilian star Neymar, and Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez's heroic takedown of England.

For those who need stats to validate a point (I'm talking to you, US sports-industrial complex), the first 16 games produced 3.06 goals-per-game – compared to a measly 1.56 at this point in South Africa 2010 – and six come-from-behind wins.

All of this is great news considering that FIFA recently feared this would turn out to be the worst World Cup since the tournament's inception in 1930. Even former Brazilian great Ronaldo, a member of the organizing committee, said last month that he was "appalled" at his country's woeful unpreparedness to host the event.

But does anyone remember now that stadiums and airports weren't completely finished in time? Or that the world's biggest party was going to be engulfed by protests – with Guy Fawkes-mask wearing, Molotov-cocktail throwing youth stealing center stage from Neymar and Argentina's Lionel Messi?

In the final run-up to the tournament – after FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed Brazil was further behind than any other previous host nation and FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke said the country risked becoming the "worst organizers" – Brazilian columnist Vanessa Barbara said enough's enough.

"Well, if they wanted punctuality, maybe they should have chosen the Germans or the Swiss to host their events. We Brazilians are slightly different," Barbara said in a stinging retort published in The New York Times in May.

Brazil is not the first nation to stumble in organizing the event. Colombia ceded its right to host the 1986 Cup because it couldn't comply with all of FIFA's demands. Crime and lack of infrastructure were supposed to derail South Africa 2010, which went off without a hitch.

Even the always-dependable Germans had at least one snafu in the lead-up to their 2006 World Cup, when the retractable roof on the new stadium in Frankfurt sprung a leak during a rainstorm and showered the pitch in the warm-up Confederations Cup before a global audience.

Of course, once the official ball started rolling, nobody remembered the Frankfurt roof leak, just like no one seemed to notice that the Itaquerão stadium's roof was incomplete on June 12, when Brazil-Croatia kicked off this World Cup in São Paulo.

It's as if Brazil's tropical air and traditional jogo bonito, or beautiful game, inspired not only the spectators but the other 31 national teams as well. Whether it's the Dutch players casually strolling on the beaches of Copacabana, or the Costa Rican squad dancing samba during a visit to a Santos school, everyone seems more relaxed, which leads to more offensive-minded soccer.

And while 'black bloc anarchists' still haunt the margins of some small clashes with Brazilian police, we have not yet seen a replay of the massive protests sparked by a bus fare hike in São Paulo, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, that overshadowed last year's Confederations Cup.

Brazilians are most likely still angry that their country clamped down on demonstrations and spent about US$12bn at the behest of an organization as corrupt as FIFA; and tourists who landed in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of the Cup couldn't help but notice that airport workers were on strike and makeshift walls hid unfinished works. But nobody blames the beautiful game for it.

Since Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura blew the opening whistle and then called a dubious penalty for the home team, all the talk has been about the great goals and the controversial calls – though that could change if Brazil makes an early exit from the tournament.

In the end, though, football itself does not have to answer for FIFA's misdeeds or the persistent inequality in Latin America's largest economy. As the troubled genius Diego Maradona said after retiring from the game, "The ball doesn't get tainted."

June 20, 2014

BN Americas