World Cup Groups Set, a Weary
Brazil Braces for the June Kickoff
The last regulation act before the start of next summer’s World Cup in Brazil took place yesterday: the tournament’s group drawing and first round schedule. It was pretty much one of the few things that happened on schedule. All else is far from running as smooth.
In fact, all six stadiums being built or redone for the games will miss the December deadline, despite staggering costs (and so far, two casualties). Thus, if one could name a single thing that, for sure, will be doing its part, even if all else fails, that’d be the ball.
But apart from that, an engineering feat named Brazuca, Brazilians remain weary about this tournament, despite their now proverbial, and much manipulated, passion for ‘futebol,’ and of course, that it’s taking place in their land. Not many more reasons to celebrate, otherwise.
In June, dissatisfied with the way billions of dollars were being spent with the cup, while a decrepit network of hospitals and chronically underfunded schools were left to rot, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in mass rallies not seen since the 1980s, when similar crowds effectively ended 20-plus years of military dictatorship.
Such dissatisfaction continues to brew, and by the time the ball starts to roll, pent up anger may be virtually impossible to contain. Some expect that a Brazil win could quell such feelings. Others are not so sure. In fact, while many think a win would be great, nice and all that, there seems to be a better sense of proportion this time around.
READY FOR AN UPSET?
Feeling they’ve been taken for a ride, which is reflected in every aspect of FIFA’s fingers on the setup of the games, from the way the competition is being sold to big wig sponsors to ticket prices, prohibitive to most locals, organizers may not have a clear idea what’s coming on their way.
The case of last month’s spectacular collapse in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, of the multi-million dollar, overbudget stadium that’s to host the cup opener, which killed two workers and caused significant damage and further delays, was just another reason behind Brazilians’ ambivalence towards the games.
President Dilma Rousseff, to whom many predict a tough time getting reelected if Brazil doesn’t win, has indeed a lot to ride on the success of the World Cup, if only to make up for the country’s current faltering economy, charges of rampant corruption in her administration, and a general malaise about the future.
THE LEATHER BALLOON
That’s one of the nicknames old school Brazilian radio announcers used to call the ball in their heated narratives of the game, which is still the country’s, and the world’s, most popular. Brazilians should know it as they’ve won a record five World Cups, since hosting it for the first time in 1950. That one, however, slipped by them.
The new ball is a far cry from that one used more than half a century ago, and it’s been changing every four years by its maker, Adidas. The Brazuca is a marvel of technology, but it’s not even made of leather, but six polyurethane panels. It’s also been tested and kicked for two and an half years, by robots, if one can conceived it.
Of course, 600 players were also invited to offer their input, all to avoid what happened four years ago in South Africa, with the Jabulani, the previous Adidas ball that’s failed miserably in their discriminating tastes of what a soccer ball should be. At most, it was called ‘crazy,’ and that was only the good part.
Not exactly worried, since it sold 13 million Jabulani, a lot of it probably to impoverished African countries too, Nike’s main competitor in the highly profitable market of sports goods, went to work driven to find the perfect combination of weight and bounce for the new ball. And, of course, to guarantee its lucrative $100 million deal with FIFA.
All this concern about the ball, though, is only another aspect of how the game has raised its stakes for those destined to make the most out of it: sponsors and makers, interested only in signing fat contracts with country and club federations. For at the end of the day, some ofthe most important parts wind up coming out cheap: the game itself and the show.
PICKING THE CONTENDERS
That’s the quality the drawing held in Bahia was lacking, by the way. Despite all attempts to turn it into a memorable event, it held all the excitement of a lottery drawing, the kind when somebody else, not you, wins. But at least, the presentation delivered its predictable share of shocks and expressions of relief.
Relieved were the host, Brazil, and Argentina, another soccer powerhouse, as both got lucky in their first round pickings. Shock and probably depression was reserved to Team USA, graced with one of the toughest groupings, facing 3-time world champions Germany, plus Portugal and Ghana, its exterminators in two consecutive editions.
Then again, for anyone with a working knowledge of how these short competitions go, many a giant got slayed in the first round, which always offers the opportunity for less experienced teams to sneak by. After the initial three matches, every game can be the last and that’s when many place their bets for the championship ahead.
A WALK TO REMEMBER
Before the anxiety settles in, and the first pass is made, Brazil’s preparing a considerable technological feat for the opening game. On June, 12, 2014, a still to be named paraplegic teenager will walk on the field, wearing a sophisticated mind-controlled exoskeleton, and will kick the Brazuca.
Conceived as a sign of hope for the estimated 25 million people who are paralyzed from the waist down, the robotic suit is being designed by Duke University’s Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who leads the Walk Again Project. Which is , well, heart-lifting and also fitting, since the ball itself has been kicked by mechanical feet before.
So far, two notable absences will be sorely missed. One, Nelson Mandela, who’s just passed away and had more than a passing love for the game. One of his last public triumphs was to help bring the 2010 edition of the World Cup to South Africa, despite all odds to the contrary. May he rest in peace.
The other, Richard Swanson, a Seattle man who was attempting ‘to dribble a soccer ball 10,000 miles to Brazil.’ His plans to walk and promote One World Futbol, a project that donates soccer balls to people in developing countries, came to an abrupt end when he was run over by a truck last May, before even leaving the U.S. He too will be remembered.
* World Cup 2010