THE REIGN OF SPAIN
At one point on the late June afternoon, the exultant sea of yellow, 170,000 strong crammed inside the Maracana, began a mocking chant of: “Wanna play? Wanna play? Brazil will teach you!”
The taunting must still be reverberating across Spain.
A year has passed, and the World Cup titleholders, now with first-hand intel on how to combat the hothouse conditions in South America and the tactical fouling that Brazil used to such great effect that day, are returning to make amends. And history.
For many, the comprehensiveness of that 3-0 score line in the Confederations Cup final indicated a changing of the guard atop the world football order, Brazil ending La Roja’s 29-match competitive unbeaten run that stretched back three years.
“We are happy with what we have done over the last few years,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque reasoned. “One loss — you have to look at it, but not overreact to it.”
No European nation has hoisted the World Cup on South American soil. No country since Brazil, in ’58 and ’62, has won it back-to-back. Spain arrives ranked it’s usual No. 1 on the FIFA charts, unbeaten, of course, during qualifying. The famous cast, instantly recognizable from Angola to Zambia are all back, determined to prove that their magical cycle — two Euros and the South Africa World Cup — is not yet at an end.
The fans at Maracana may not be buying it. “The champion,” they also chanted in a year ago, “is back.”
Be careful, Brazil. Dismiss Spain at your peril.
THE PASSIONATE EYE
Fourteen of them, actually. In the shabby wake of a botched no-goal scored by England’s Frank Lampard on a lob against German ’keeper Manuel Neuer four years ago during the knockout phase, FIFA has finally clawed its way into the 21st century.
Goal-line technology has arrived at the World Cup.
GoalControl GmbH, a German company, is placing 14 high-speed cameras around the pitch, with seven focusing on each goalmouth. The ball’s position is continuously and automatically captured in 3D and the indication of whether a goal has been scored is immediately confirmed within one second to a watch worn by each of the match officials.
“The way the system’s designed is awesome,” lauds Canadian assistant referee Joe Fletcher. “The referee and both assistants have a buzzer on a watch that tells you ‘Yep, it’s in.’ It vibrates, it says ‘goal.’ The only thing it doesn’t do is slap you in the face and say ‘Put the flag up, dummy!’
“It’s credible, it’s close, it fits. It’ll be good.”
THE MADNESS OF KING MARIO
Sports Illustrated pictured him on its cover walking on water (at least, atop a sheet of clear glass positioned underneath the surface in a Miami hotel swimming pool). Time Magazine tagged him as one of its 100 Most Influential People for 2013. Jose Mourinho called him “unmanageable,” Roberto Mancini described him as “crazy.” While playing for Man City,
Mario Balotelli set his own house ablaze lighting off fireworks and later that week was unveiled as Greater Manchester’s ambassador for firework safety. The YouTube video of City teammate Carlos Tevez trying to teach him to wrap a Christmas present (“No wonder people say that you are daft,” sighs the Argentine at one point) is unmissable.
Italy forward Mario Balotelli controls the ball during a training session of Italy in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Saturday, June 7, 2014. Italy play in group D of the 2014 soccer World Cup. (Antonio Calanni/AP)
Capable of sulking like an unhappy, petulant schoolboy, wandering aimlessly around the pitch, or scoring cracker goals from 30 yards, Italy’s Balotelli can be safely identified as one of the tournament-tippers for Brazil. And he’s only 23.
After a less-than-drama-free club season at AC Milan, the controversial striker’s performance — indeed his every move, his very body language — will be under the microscope. All eyes, as usual, will be glued to Mario. His mood has the power to push Italy to the heights or drag it down to the depths. He may not be the World’s Most Interesting Person, but he’s a bonafide contender for Most Exasperating.
THE WEATHER CHANNEL
Fluctuating temperatures, depending on locale, and often stifling humidity. Weather will be a factor, and a major talking point, at this World Cup. Particularly for European nations, unused to such conditions.
Hear Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, for instance, after his side’s 4-3 win over Japan at last year’s Confedertions Cup win over Japan in Recife:
“We struggled like crazy tonight,” he admitted. “The humidity is something we have to deal with, as it really is difficult.”
Teams will experience a range of conditions in the southern hemisphere winter — from the humid north of Brazil to the cool south and humid inland cities versus temperate coastal venues.
“If you’re down in Porto Alegre, you’re going to need a fur coat because it snows and temperatures reach single figures, certainly, and maybe even sometimes lower,” England boss Roy Hodgson warned. “And if you find yourself in Manaus, then you won’t be sunbathing but you will find 45, 50 degrees (Celcius) of heat and plenty of mosquitoes as well being near the Amazon jungle.”
MESSI’S YEAR? FINALLY?
The greatest player of his era. Or any other, according to a growing consensus.
Only 26, the first player in history to win four Ballons d’Or consecutively, as well as the first to win three European Golden Shoe awards. As the focal point of Barcelona, he’s collected six La Liga titles, two Copas del Rey, five Supercopas de Espana, three UEFA Champions Leagues, two UEFA Super Cups and two Club World Cups.
One rather obvious item is missing from the curio cabinet. The final piece of a legendary collection.
“I do not want to be world champion with Argentina so that people can say that I will be a great like Pele or Maradona,” Messi complained recently. “I want to do it to achieve this objective with the national team, and to add this title to my list of trophies.”
Leo, Leo, it’s not only THIS title, it’s THE title.
Only one nation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is marking its maiden voyage into World Cup waters, finding itself in Group F alongside powerful Argentina, Nigeria and also-rans Iran.
The Balkan nation, born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia, ranked 25th by FIFA, and reached Brazil after topping a qualifying group that included Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latviaand Liechtenstein.
s Argentina is untouchable, but with Man City hit man Edin Dzeko in top form, second and a berth in the knockout phase isn’t out of the question.
PROTESTING MORE THAN DODGY CALLS
Not all Brazilians are football mad. Many are mad at football. Or at least the unseemly amount of money allotted huge tournaments like last summer’s Confederations Cup in lieu of improved public services.
Targeting Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and known initially as V for Vinegar Movement or Brazilian Spring, protests over free public transportation last summer spread into dissatisfaction with many forms of social infrastructure, everything from improved health care to a better educational system, and were widely referred to as the Confederations Cup Riots.
At the final in Rio, tear gas floated around the Maracana during the Spain-Brazil final as police and soldiers clashed with protesters a few hundred yards from the stadium. Not the best of publicity for FIFA.
With a far larger global viewing reach for this World Cup, Brazilian police are already massing. A reported 150,000 will patrol the 12 venues and along the country’s borders.
On any list of those caught squarely in World Cup crosshairs, Germany boss Joachim Low rates highly. Now in charge of his fourth major tournament for the Nationalmannschaft, the expectations to finally deliver a title are immense.
Beaten by 33rd-minute Fernando Torres strike the at Euro 2008 final, tripped up 1-0 again by eventual champions Spain (after muscle-flexing dismissals of both England andArgentina) in South Africa in 2010 at the second-last hurdle, and ousted on a Mario Balotelli brace in the Euro semis in 2012, the wait is becoming a bit excruciating, patience wearing thin.
The coach’s contract may have already been extended through the next Euros, in France in 2016, but given the 24 years since Germany last won a World Cup and the quality of the squad at his disposal he’d probably be best advised not to wait that long.
In this June 8, 2014 photo, Germany’s soccer player Erik Durm, left, and Matthias Ginther are seen inside a bus as they arrive at the International airport in Salvador, Brazil. Germany’s national soccer team arrived in Salvador to continue their preparations for the upcoming 2014 World Cup, which starts on June 12. (Raul Spinasse/AP)
YOUTH AND THE THREE LIONS
When Roy Hodgson announced his list of 23 to represent England, the names revealed as much of an eye toward Russia 2018 as Brazil this summer.
With the ghosts of 1966 still ever present, the re-configuring of England has begun, with Hodgson omitting old hands such as Ashley Cole, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe for this tournament in favour of burgeoning talent the likes of Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling.
“We shouldn’t get hung up on the fact that there are some youngsters in the squad,” the boss argued. “They are there because I believe they deserve to be there and because I feel they are capable of performing well. I’m not taking anyone purely for the experience.
“How do you get experience? You get experience by being given the opportunity. Yes, of course I believe this squad can win the World Cup. There is no point in going unless we have some belief they can win it.”
The realists might beg to argue. Drawn in a tough group alongside Uruguay and Italy, reaching the knockout phase of 16 would represent something of an achievement.
CAN BRAZIL MAKE IT AN EVEN HALF-DOZEN?
Last summer’s Confederations Cup triumph has expectations off the charts for the party to end all parties come mid-July across Brazil.
It’s true that the Seleção beat Italy, Uruguay and Spain, all prime World Cup contenders, to the title a year ago. But the European teams that attended last summer will be much better prepared for the trip this time and it goes without saying that a 32-team World Cup is a far deeper, far more dangerous enterprise. Only six hometown winners in 19 tournaments, the last being France in 1998, and a lot of hosts’ dreams ended in ashes.
Big Phil Scolari’s Canaries have a straightforward passageway to the knockout phase with only Croatia, a sub-par Cameroon and scandalously weak Mexico standing in their way, meaning they should breeze to the top of Group A.
After that, though, all bets are off. There’s home-field pressure. And then there’s home-field Brazilian pressure.
They certainly possess the players, the setting and the pedigree to pull it off.
History, at any rate, is against them.