Few sporting events inspire more passion than the World Cup, and this year’s event, which kicks off in São Paulo today, will likely be an even more intense affair than usual, with the hosts hoping to clinch their sixth title. Brazil is the country that turned soccer into an art form, and that has produced many of its greatest players. Men like Leónidas, able to score without his boots; Pelé, the undisputed king, who took the game to a new level. And then there is Rivelino, Carlos Alberto, Zico, Socrates, Romario, and Ronaldo…
Brazil is quite simply the apotheosis of soccer, which is why it was about time that the ball returned to the place where it has always been treated best, where it found its most recreational space, and where it is affectionately referred to as menina (little girl). But despite this, unfaithful as she so often is, it was in Brazil that the little girl broke more hearts than anywhere else. It happened 64 years ago when a band of Uruguayan rebels led by Obdulio Varela silenced Maracaná. A nightmare that would be even harder to bear today for the hosts.
Brazil is the country that turned soccer into an art form, and that has produced many of its greatest players
After that monumental tantrum, a celestial Brazil emerged, playing mystical soccer. But today, we find ourselves living in different times, and to everybody’s surprise, the champions have suddenly been overcome by an attack of results-focused playing. Brazil’s game is almost mathematical in its approach. It has lost its style and has been put to the service of Scolari and his prosaic vision of soccer. The Brazilian coach doesn’t like creativity. Under his leadership, and thanks to his time on the continent, Brazil has undergone shock treatment: its style of play has become Europeanized. All that matters is the final score, and if that has to be achieved through tactics worked out by logarithms, then so be it.
Brazilian soccer has become a factory producing centurions of the likes of Thiago Silva, David Luz, Luiz Gustavo, Fred… all of them good soccer players, but perhaps better suited to the barricades. Among the few with any sense of magic is Neymar, perhaps the missing link with the beautiful game it once was.
Despite all this, Brazil are still the favorites. Scolari’s boys will not be relying so much on the reputation of their forebears, as their performance in the Confederations Cup, when they unleashed an unstoppable performance.
After the overhaul carried out by Vicente del Bosque in 2008, Spain is a side with something special about it
But the World Cup is a very different event. It is the holy grail of soccer, and the side will be under tremendous pressure, both because of the heavy weight of the past, and because of the widespread protests that have taken place throughout the country at the cost of staging the event. Brazil’s first game, tonight at 10pm, will put them to the test. The Croatians are not exactly a side of rank amateurs, fielding, among others, heavyweights such as Modric and Rakitic.
Along the way, Brazil has crossed paths with Spain, a side with a lot more samba in its game. After the overhaul carried out by Del Bosque in 2008, this is a side with something special about it. This is a team that has been strengthened by new additions such as Azpilcueta, Koke, and Diego Costa, all of whom will be hungry to make their mark. Costa, who has played for both sides, is obviously something of an outsider in a team that has never given its wingers their head, and in his desire to set up passes to his teammates, sometimes forgets to go for goal.
Spain is still not a side that can produce goals out of nowhere, something it will have to deal with
But Spain is still not a side that can produce goals out of nowhere; something that it is going to have to deal with sooner rather than later. Diego Costa could play a role in addressing this issue, if he is able to capture the style of a team in which he will likely be a last resort and not the main draftsman in designing the game’s architecture. It won’t be easy for him to fit in. The Atlético Madrid striker needs space to find his style of play, and may find that it is his own teammates who shut him down when facing a tight defense. If he wants a future, he’s going to have to put some distance between himself and the ball.
Costa’s future, and that of the rest of a side that has been reprogrammed by Scolari, will be decided from today on. At last, some soccer, and in a country where it is little short of an ode to joy. Today, it’s not entirely clear whether that rapture between the Brazilian people and their national game will survive the coming two weeks: another of the many questions to be answered during this World Cup, and perhaps the most important. For Brazil, much is at stake, both on the pitch and on the streets.