The World Cup is nearly upon us and as the anticipation is ramping up for the biggest sporting event on the planet, so will the debates, talking points, narratives and clichés. No doubt soccer fans from all over will gather together with like-minded friends and discuss everything there is to talk about regarding the World Cup. In the course of a conversation people may throw out some statements that seem reasonable at first, but are also worth looking into in more detail.
Here are a few things that you may or may not hear in the run up to the 2014 soccerpalooza otherwise known as the World Cup.
1. No European team has won a World Cup in South America:
This is completely and utterly true, but ask yourself how many times has the World Cup been held in South America? The answer is four. And when was the last time South America held a World Cup? It was 1978, in Argentina. The only times South America hosted the World Cup were: the inaugural tournament in Uruguay in 1930, Brazil 1950, Chile 1962, and Argentina 1978. It’s worth noting that the 1986 World Cup was supposed to be held in Colombia but a mixture of politics and earthquakes prevented the tournament from being held there. Indeed, the Colombians gave up their right to host the tournament in 1983.
The last time the tournament was in the Americas was USA ‘94 whilst Mexico held the event in 1970 and 1986. In total the tournament has been hosted seven times in the Americas. So the next time someone points out that no European team has won the World Cup in South America, it’s worth saying that the tournament hasn’t been hosted there since 1978, and just four times in the region.
2. Belgium are “dark horses” for the World Cup:
Apparently the earliest mention of the term ‘dark horse’ was in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel “The Young Duke.” He wrote, “a dark horse which had never been thought of and which the careless St. James had never observed in the list, rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph.”
So effectively, the term means unexpected winner. Now Belgium have been mentioned as potential dark horses, but let’s have a closer look at them. Are they favorites? No, that tag, according to the bookies, is reserved for Brazil. Second, third and fourth favorites are Argentina, Germany, and Spain respectively. Who are fifth favorites to win the World Cup? That’s right: Belgium, and given the squad they have it is no surprise they’re up there in the odds list.
With Thibault Courtois in goal, they have one of the best young keepers in Europe, if not the world. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertongen and Toby Alderweireld help make a solid base in defense. The Red Devils’ midfield is strong with the likes of Axel Witsel, Stephen Defour, Moussa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli, Kevin De Bruyne, and even the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini beefing up that area of the pitch. And let’s not forget the attacking talent that the Belgians possess in abundance with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and even the newly-pledged Adnan Januzaj providing the goal threat. Belgium certainly have a squad good enough to make the latter stages in Brazil.
Would it be a surprise if they win the tournament? Yes, but it wouldn’t be that huge a shock. If the odds are anything to go by, the Belgians are expected to make the quarterfinals at the very least.
Perhaps Belgium are not dark horses but instead are, to borrow a quote from Brendan Rodgers, the “chihuahuas who run in between the legs of the horses.”
3. To be considered one of the all time greats, Messi or Ronaldo must win a World Cup:
This statement has popped up now and again in relation to two of the finest players of this generation. This tends to be a polarizing argument and is somewhat clouded by the rather odd, in my opinion, Team Messi vs. Team Ronaldo dynamic.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that Messi or Ronaldo need to win the World Cup to cement their greatness. Winning the World Cup would certainly embellish their glittering list of honors, but some of the greatest players of all time do not have a World Cup winner’s medal to their name. Johan Cruyff, Eusebio, and Ferenc Puskas are rightly considered some of the finest players to have graced the game but they haven’t won a World Cup. George Best never even played in a World Cup during his brief career, but is rightly recognized as one of soccer’s greats.
To a point, Ronaldo and Messi are their own worst enemies because they’ve made the extraordinary seem mundane. Indeed there’s a striking photo of Ronaldo in Portugal’s 3-2 victory against Sweden, racing towards goal with still some work to do whilst in the background his teammates are already holding their arms aloft in celebration.
Their records, especially in an era where the Champions League is arguably the pinnacle of quality in world soccer, are quite staggering. This season, as of the time of writing, Ronaldo has scored 50 goals and made 14 in 46 appearances in competitive club matches including an amazing 16 goals in 10 Champions League games. Messi in comparison has “only” scored 41 goals and made 13 in 45 competitive club games. Messi has won the Ballon D’or four times whilst Ronaldo has won it twice. Ronaldo has scored 150 league goals in La Liga faster than anyone else and Messi racked up the most goals over a calendar year with 91 in 2012.
The pair have smashed records left, right, and center and whilst they are no doubt determined to lead their countries to World Cup glory, their stature should not be affected by the lack of a winner’s medal.
More than anything, we are extremely fortunate to see two of the greatest players the game has ever seen grace the pitch in our lifetime.
4. The World Cup will be a carnival of soccer:
This will no doubt be bandied about, and for all intensive purposes is true. but there is so much more. If the 2013 Confederations Cup is anything to go by then the World Cup will be a lightning rod for large-scale protests and for good reason too.
The roots of the discontent can be found initially in the fare increases in public transportation in Brazil. From there it escalated into protests against corruption, the state of public services, and the cost of living to name but a few issues. The protests were not initially against the tournament itself, but the Confederations Cup soon came to be a target for the ire of the protesters.
Sepp Blatter pleaded with protesters not to “use football to make their demands heard.” Not for the first time, and probably not the last either, Blatter completely missed the point.
On the other hand, players like David Luiz, Hulk, Dani Alves, and Neymar came out in support of the protests, sympathizing with the concerns of their fellow Brazilians. Oddly enough, whilst the Confederations Cup drew the scorn of protesters, the Brazilian team provided a beacon of unity in that very same tournament.
The legacy of the upcoming World Cup, or the hope at the very least, was supposedly that public money would be used to invest in much needed infrastructure projects whilst private money would be spent to build or improve the soccer stadiums.
What happened instead was public money being diverted to help build stadiums at the expense of the infrastructure projects. The building of stadiums is well behind schedule so far and has cost the lives of eight construction workers at the time of writing.
South American soccer expert Tim Vickery, speaking to an Irish radio program, pointed out the disconnect between the Brazilian public and the organizers of the World Cup. He singled out a particular banner that distilled the frustrations of protesters into one powerful slogan: “We need FIFA standard schools.” Vickery explained that if the Brazilian authorities under pressure from FIFA can build modern world-class stadiums, then why are they seemingly incapable of building FIFA standard hospitals, FIFA standard schools, or FIFA standard public transport.
He noted that Brazil effectively had 11 years to prepare for the World Cup even though they were officially announced as hosts in 2007. This was in no small part due to FIFA’s policy of rotating the World Cup around different confederations and the support of the South American Football Federation COMNEBOL, who gave their blessing to Brazil’s bid. Despite the time available to prepare, Vickery pointed out that there was a lack of ‘intelligent’ debate about how the World Cup should be hosted. Private investors were expected to fund the building of stadiums in places like Manaus, Brasilia, and Cuibá, but organizers didn’t take into account the lack of a culture following local teams and weak home sides in these areas. The commercial viability in investing in these stadiums, especially after the World Cup, is pretty small so the incentive for private investment was always minimal.
Locally, there will be a lot of politicking among political hopefuls in Brazil. The General Election will be held in October of this year and will see Brazilians vote for the Presidency, National Congress, State Governors, and State Legislators. Politicians will no doubt try and tap into the mood of the country and use the World Cup for their own political ambitions. Former World Cup Winner turned politician Romario, who has been a huge critic of how the tournament has been organized and of FIFA, has already claimed that Brazil has lost the World Cup “off the pitch.” One way or another the upcoming World Cup will see a lot of political jostling.
The soccer at the World Cup will hopefully be played with the spirit that embodies the style and flair of the host nation Brazil. If there are the expected protests at the World Cup, Brazil have a leader in Luiz Filipe Scolari who can tap into the feeling of the nation, galvanize the team, and rally his country to a World Cup triumph. The Seleção themselves can be a uniting force and provide a symbol for all of Brazil to get behind. The team will be lauded if they triumph, but the disenfranchised will separate any success on the pitch from the troubles that preceded the tournament and will lay the blame firmly at the door of FIFA and the bureaucrats if they haven’t done so already.
There will be a carnival atmosphere and the soccer will be treasured by the fans. FIFA, however, in all likelihood won’t feel the love. Still, Sepp Blatter and company can probably draw comfort from another potentially huge profit from a commercially successful World Cup.
There are plenty of stories, clichés, and words that’ll be said or rehashed, in the run up to the World Cup. Can Brazil banish the pain of 1950? How useful will goal line technology be? Will the Brazuca be up to scratch? Can Luis Suarez top his save in the 2010 World Cup? Will the curse of the Nike ad strike again?
There’s plenty to talk about but don’t take things at face value. There’s always a little more to the World Cup than meets the eye. That said keep on talking, keep on debating, enjoy your soccer, and most of all bring on the World Cup!