One feature of the modern world is when nations want to advertise themselves their first thought is not to hold exhibitions of the sort Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria, patented in the 19th century but to organise global sporting events. This has given Olympics and football World Cups a much higher profile than the Expos. But what makes the football World Cup special is that it is the one major event, and not just in sport, where the US is a minor player.
The US team failed to qualify for the World Cup for 40 years between 1950 and 1990 and, while its German coach Jurgen Klinsmann coaxed a good performance, it still came as a surprise that the country which calls football soccer even plays it , let alone at the highest level and with some distinction.
But what made this World Cup very different is that not only did we see the best football at a World Cup since 1986, but that the people of Brazil gave the astonishing impression they would rather not have had the event. No nation is more identified with football than Brazil, indeed football defines the nation. Back in 1950 when Brazil last hosted the competition, the country built a grand new stadium in Rio called the Maracana expecting to be crowned champions. But in the final Brazil were surprisingly beaten by Uruguay. This was such a shock that the goalkeeper who let in the Uruguayan goals was ostracized for life and the defeat is known as the Maracanazo, Maracana Blow. The Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues wrote, “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950”.
So given this attachment to the game why did Brazilians not take to the streets to celebrate the competition? Why in the various cities I visited I was met not with flags and bunting but cans of Coke and Budweiser, products of companies who are major sponsors of the competition?
The reason is Brazilians were appalled that having been told the World Cup would cost nothing they found the government spending £10 billion on stadiums and infrastructure when money is urgently needed for healthcare, social services and education. What was seen as the rapacious demands of FIFA, the organisers of the World Cup, also did not help. And while there were no protests in the street as there had been an year earlier when the Confederations Cup, the trial run for the World Cup, was held, there was an all too visible anger about the event.
It also did not help that Brazilian team played a brand of football so far removed from what we associate with the country as to be unrecognisable.
The result was the ambience of the competition was not shaped by the home fans but visiting ones, in particular those from Brazil’s great rival Argentina. What Argentina set out to do, says Andreas Campomar, author of Golazo, a splendid history of Latin American football, is “ poner los cuernos a Brasil, which means cuckold Brazil in the marital bed (i.e. in the Maracana).” With Argentina just across the border thousands poured in and in all the venues they played in Argentinian fans took charge of the city centres as if the cities belonged to them. And with Lionel Messi the leader of their team they could claim they had the world’s greatest player.
It was this that made 2014 World Cup so unexpected: a World Cup played in Brazil but largely made by Argentina.