Brazil are the record World Cup winners, they’re playing at home and they’re the bookmakers’ favorites. Never mind Nostradamus, even Mystic Sally can probably envisage Thiago Silva hoisting aloft the Jules Rimet trophy next July. Despite lacking the panache of Brazilian sides of yesteryear, Luis Felipe Scolari’s men have enough quality, know-how and functionality to go all the way next summer.
In what should, on paper, at least, be one of the most open World Cup’s in decades, a strong case could also be made for the merits of Germany, Italy, Argentina, Chile, Belgium and, of course, holders Spain. But whilst all these nations contain several of the key components required to win a World Cup, only Brazil are likely to enjoy the support of football’s governing body – which is why the Seleção must be red-hot favorites to secure a 6th title next summer.
With soccer being a multi-billion dollar business, governed by a body that seems to be perpetually linked to corruption allegations, the game will always be a magnet for conspiracy theorists and should the host nation triumph next summer with the aid of a few questionable refereeing decisions along the way, expect the integrity of Sepp Blatter & co. to be called into question once again.
Although the decision to award the 2022 finals to Qatar may be the most spectacular own goal FIFA has ever scored, holding the 2014 version at the home of the ‘beautiful game’ is fast beginning to rival that farce. As the violent, country-wide demonstrations during last summer’s Confederations Cup displayed, the Brazilian people are none too pleased with their Government’s decision to divert billions of much-needed dollars away from vital areas such as healthcare and education and into the hosting of a tournament that’s synonymous with over-the-top extravagance and unbridled largesse.
That the tournament is projected to cost the Brazilian tax payer multiples of what they were first promised has angered them further and if that wasn’t enough, the fact that not a red cent of the profits from Brazil 2014 will make their way into the Brazilian exchequer has really sent them over the edge.
What began as minor civil disobedience over the raising of public bus fares quickly descended into vast, ugly protests last summer, enveloping every major town and city in a country not usually known for its rebellious spirit. Whilst the violent protests did subside and eventually dissipate with the conclusion of the Confederations Cup, any sanguine expectations the Brazilian Government had of a permanent cessation of public unrest have been well and truly quashed by a succession of public statements from protesters, promising that, just as the Confederations Cup acted as a warm up to next summer’s World Cup, so too was last June’s violence an Hors d’oeuvre for 2014’s main course.
As powerful and all-conquering a behemoth as FIFA normally is, 200 million irate Brazilians represents a problem in anyone’s book and, should the protesters remain true to their word, there is a real possibility of rioting leading to the disruption of next year’s finals. With money still very much FIFA’s one true master, such a threat to their precious profits will be treated with the utmost seriousness by the governing body. Both FIFA and the Brazilian Government, itself, desperately need a piece of rope to pull themselves out of a treacherous quicksand that threatens to swallow up their hopes of a seamless and profitable staging of the beautiful game. Which brings us back to the game of soccer.
With the game’s governing body unlikely to forego so much as one Real of the profits of next summer’s event (100% of which go to FIFA, tax-free), an ace card is required to placate the masses and what better ace card than a home victory to wash away those protests in a tidal wave of euphoria?
As last summer proved, even a Brazilian victory will not make the trouble go away completely but there is no question the violence subsided as the host nation progressed further and further in the Confederations Cup. A similar level of damage limitation is probably as good as the powers that be can hope to achieve but for that to happen, they will need Brazil to go as far as possible on the field.
Whilst nobody’s suggesting the ugly spectre of match-fixing will raise its head, there are other tools available to FIFA and precedents would appear to have been set.
Having identified Asia as virgin football territory, ripe for exploring, FIFA awarded the 2002 finals to Japan and South Korea. However, for the game to really take off in the region and its vast commercial potential to be tapped, a strong showing was needed by at least one of the host nations. Queue some of the most bizarre and unfathomable officiating in the tournament’s history benefitting the Koreans as they confounded naysayers (and in many cases, the rules of the game) to go all the way to the semi-finals.
It’s worth noting that of the referees involved in the suspicious games, none had ever previously officiated at a similar level and one has since been jailed for football-related corruption. If, as many suspect, FIFA deliberately appointed inexperienced and weak officials in 2002 who would be more easily swayed by a fervent home crowd, then there is nothing to suggest there can’t be a reoccurrence next summer.
Whether one would need to be a fully paid up member of the conspiracy theorist brigade, or merely a mild cynic, the Koreans run to the semi’s certainly seemed odd in the extreme. None of which is to say FIFA would necessarily feel the need to act in such a covert manner in ensuring the progress of certain teams. For instance, after the final round of European qualifying games had been completed for the 2010 World Cup, the governing body were clearly horrified to see many of the games’ biggest names had only made the play-offs and so introduced a play-off seeding system at the last minute, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of an open draw which may have seen two or more of the big names being drawn against each other. Such an act was naked, undisguised favoritism towards the most marketable countries with the largest television audiences and as such, proved that the governing body has no qualms about playing favorites, and doing so in the most shameless and overt manner.
Should Brazil find themselves the recipients of similar displays of favoritism next summer, expect Scolari’s men to triumph in a victory that will, one suspects, be celebrated every bit as enthusiastically in the corridors of FIFA as it will by the Brazilian football community itself.