With one year to go, shadow of '70 looms over vulnerable host Brazil

Posted by Roger Bennett

The flamboyant Brazil team of 1970 played as if color television had been purposefully invented to capture its explosive brand of soccer. The broadcast technology had just spread worldwide, enabling the entire globe to glimpse the Selecao as they were meant to be seen: with their vivid and quintessentially Brazilian gold, green and blue glowing in glorious Technicolor. As they casually destroyed all comers, the Brazilians not only strolled toward their third World Cup in 12 years, they cemented their nation's reputation as the standard-bearers of soccer at its most beautiful. Every subsequent Brazil squad would be measured against two opponents: whichever team faced it on the field that day, and Brazil 1970.

That mythical legacy has rarely weighed heavier than in the present moment: a year to the day on which the Brazilians host World Cup 2014. The tournament is guaranteed to capture the globe's attention for an entire month, yet the message it will ultimately deliver hangs in the balance.

When the World Cup was awarded to Brazil in 2007, the tournament was expected to have a double bill. Football would return to its putative "spiritual home," conjuring the prospect of a frenzied global fiesta which would enable an economically emboldened nation to showcase its intoxicating diversity, from the concrete jungle of Sao Paulo to the lush Amazonian jungle of Manaus. The attempt to deliver both messages may yet backfire. A floundering Brazilian team has become mortal, winning just twice in its past nine games. The nation's tournament readiness appears just as precarious, with stadia and transport construction mired in bureaucracy, corruption and uncertainty. With kickoff 365 days away, the nation is torn between the romance of history and optimism and the inescapable inconvenience of reality and doubt.

AP PhotoIn living color: The 1970 World Cup brought forth the beauty of the Brazilian game for all to see.

Brazil's joyous footballing archetype, rife with hip feints, flicks and rhythmic movement, was originally forged in the 1950s. Soccer fused with samba and a dash of added capoeira. Pele became its face once he burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old highlight reel at Sweden 1958, before transcending the sport as the game's first global billboard. Yet the true free-flowing epitome of Brazilian style was Garrincha, The Little Bird. A man who overcame poverty and congenitally twisted legs to become Alegria do Povo (the Joy of the People). An attacker who delighted in beating defenders, allowing them to recover, then beating them again.

Like any fantasy, this ecstatic soccer spectacle would not last. The football world learned to blunt the Brazilian threat with force, kicking Pele off the field in 1966 and forcing the Selecao to introduce an enforcer's steel into their lineup. This delicate tactical balance, welding destructive “futebol brutal” onto creative “futebol arte,” had its apogee in 1994. Brazil's pragmatic, spirit-crushing squad may have won the trophy on United States soil but attracted few admirers in doing so.

The 2013 vintage has been a grave cause for concern. The Brazilians were dumped out of the 2010 World Cup in the quarterfinals after a feeble performance against the Netherlands, and ousted from the 2011 Copa América -- their last competitive game -- at a similar stage.

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Back in the 1970s, when Brazil was so loaded with mono-named strikers that they even played in midfield, the notion of a national team admired for the quality of its defenders would have been anathema -- football's equivalent of reading Playboy just for the pictures. Yet on this squad, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dante are among its most prominent stars.

An unwieldy burden of expectation falls on the shoulders of Neymar, the 21-year-old footballing sensation who resembles a manga comic book hero come alive. Fresh off a $74 million transfer to Barcelona, the predicament he faces at the national level was summed up by Jairzinho, the "Furacao da Copa" (World Cup Hurricane) who starred on the 1970 team. “I used to play with Pele and Gerson when I won the World Cup,” the legend admitted. “Who's Neymar playing with? Normal players.”

Driven by a sense of either nostalgia or panic, the Brazilians have re-engaged coach Luiz Scolari, the architect of Brazil's last World Cup win in 2002. It took seven unconvincing games before the man known as "Big Phil" finally managed to win a game Sunday against France. Cynics would allege the team's last truly great performance was in this 1998 Nike commercial directed by John Woo.

The field of play is not the nation's only source of worry. The majority of the construction projects required for a smooth World Cup are months behind schedule and millions of reais over budget. In panicked reports reminiscent of the run-up to South Africa 2010, the Brazilian press have rung the alarm bell. Less than 20 percent of planned upgrades to the nation's transport network and airports have commenced and only six of the 12 World Cup venues have been completed.

Frank Fife/AFP/Getty ImagesNeymar's Brazil has looked mortal on the pitch, and the host country's World Cup infrastructure has been a cause for concern.

Tournament organizers have been humiliated twice over the past month. First, the roof of Salvador's host stadium buckled under the weight of rainwater; then the nation's jewel, Rio's Maracana Stadium, was deemed unfit for use by a local judge on the eve of its grand reopening for a match against England.

After swirling confusion and embarrassment, the ban was revoked, leaving the legend of the monumental stadium to seduce the English media, many of whom still left declaring 2014 will be the football world's greatest carnival.

As every Brazilian knows, there is a searing precedent for all that is to come. The nation has hosted the tournament once before, in 1950. Then as now, it was greeted with the expectation of a messianic coming. The Selecao were so heavily favored, the squad was presented with gold watches etched with the inscription "for the world champions" before the final game against Uruguay at the Maracana. The atmosphere was so frenzied, one of the Uruguayans was reported to have wet himself with fear during the pregame anthems.

The game did not go as planned. The Brazilians took the lead, but the goal stung their opponents into action. First Uruguay equalized, then with 11 minutes to go, tiny Alcides Ghiggia drove the ball home at the near post to silence the 200,000 in attendance. A disastrous defeat known as the Maracanazo, (The Maracana Blow) that writer Nelson Rodrigues described, without irony, as "our national catastrophe, our Hiroshima."

By the time the 2014 World Cup kicks off, a nation that has waited 64 years for redemption will be braced for both exhilaration and frustration, celebration and humiliation. If sufficient resources are flung at the construction challenges, one big unknown will still remain: What does success look like for the Brazilian team on the field? Do the Selecao have to win it all, or would it be sufficient to reveal a touch of the beautiful game -- to conjure confident, beautiful, fearless football as Germany did in finishing third on home turf in 2006? Brazil's past may provide as tough an opponent as the teams it faces in the present. A curse as well as a blessing.

As former coach Carlos Parreira lamented before the 2006 World Cup, "Why does Brazil have to play beautifully and the others don't?"

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