World Cup Fever 2014
From June 12 to July 13 all eyes will be on Brazil, host of the 2014 World Cup, as the best players of the planet’s most popular sport compete in 64 matches. Even in the U.S.— one of the few places where the game we call soccer isn’t a national passion—Brazilian-born stars Neymar, Costa and Oscar may become household names, successors to Pelé, Brazil’s most famous son and the finest footballer who ever lived.
In 1958 many Americans thought of Brazil mainly as the homeland of Carmen Miranda, the vivacious musical star who performed with a pile of fruit on her head. But in June of that year, attention suddenly shifted to Edson Arantes do Nascimento (named after American inventor Thomas Edison), a 17-year-old who went by his childhood nickname, Pelé. His Brazilian team had made it to the World Cup final, in Sweden, and the lithe striker from Bauru had an almost supernatural ability to control the ball as he moved downfield or shot on goal; he was also a superb tactician who could anticipate and thwart his competitors’ moves. Pelé had first made news when he scored three goals in the semifinals against France, and he didn’t disappoint in the final against the host country. He scored twice to help Brazil win 5–2 and take home its first World Cup trophy. One of his opponents, center back Sigvard Parling, said of Pelé’s final goal of the match, “I just wanted to applaud him.” When the Brazilians landed at home after the victory, they were greeted with a banner that read “Welcome Pelé: Son of Bauru, Champion of the World.”
Football fans number an estimated 3.5 billion, and the sport has been popular for millennia—allegedly since the Chinese began kicking leather balls into nets sometime in the third century B.C. Ancient Romans and Greeks also played a form of soccer, but not until the 19th century did the British give the game official status by drafting the Cambridge Rules (1848) and by founding England’s Football Association (1863). Football organizations soon popped up all over Europe and, in 1904, they created the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to regulate international play. FIFA’s big blowout is the World Cup, contested every four years among qualifying teams from the 208 FIFA member nations. It is by far the world’s most popular sporting event. The 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa, drew an aggregate of 26 billion broadcast viewers over the course of the tournament—about 400 million per match.
Scottish immigrant Thomas Donohue introduced football to Brazil in 1894, when he marked out a pitch for a match in Rio’s Bangu neighborhood. The game quickly caught on, and Brazil has become FIFA’s most victorious member, winning the World Cup five times so far—in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002.
Players and fans of the game most nations call association football have long had a reputation for rowdiness, and an old British saying claims, “Football is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians.” Reports of violence and unruliness led England’s King Edward III to ban football in 1365, when the sport involved kicking a pig’s inflated bladder across the heath. Just to the north in Scotland, King James I was forced to prohibit the game in 1424, issuing a proclamation that “na man play at the Fute-ball.” Soccer “hooliganism,” ranging from obscene taunts to shoot-outs and stabbings, has plagued the sport in recent decades. In Brazil, where football is taken so seriously that banks and other businesses close during important matches, football violence attracted international attention in 2013 with the decapitation and dismemberment of an amateur referee who had made an unpopular call. Some experts say the incident is evidence of general violence rather than soccer violence. (Brazil ranks among the world’s most violent nations.) Yet Brazil has more soccer-related deaths than any other country does—155 between 1988 and 2012. Brazilians meanwhile have popularized the phrase joga bonito, or “play beautifully,” a refreshing call to return honor to the game.
Pelé is widely considered the greatest association football player of all time. With a combination of expertise and speed, he scored a record-breaking 1,281 career goals in 1,363 games. His presence on the field was nothing short of transcendent; civil-war-torn Nigeria even declared a truce while Pelé played in a 1967 exhibition match in Lagos. Second place in the hierarchy of all-time greats usually goes to Argentine-born Diego Maradona, who combined talent and technique with the craftiness of a street urchin. The controversial player is best remembered for his role in Argentina’s 1986 World Cup quarterfinal win over England, when he knocked the ball into the net with the outside of his left fist. Maradona claimed he had scored the goal “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”; the move has since been called his “hand of God” play. England cried foul play to no avail, and Argentina fans, still reeling from the 1982 Falklands war with the U.K., took pride in Maradona’s viveza, or liveliness. A contender who may well surpass Maradona and perhaps even Pelé in the pantheon is another Argentine, Lionel Messi, arguably today’s best player.
Soccer has enjoyed a small, avid following in the U.S. since the 1880s, when European immigrants formed leagues in the textile mills and shipyards where they worked. Lore has it the game was played on these shores much earlier, however: In 1620 the Pilgrims observed Native Americans kicking a deerskin ball around, in an activity they described as pasuckquakkohowog, meaning “they gather to play football.”
The mid-1970s were promising times for U.S. soccer, when the New York Cosmos, the most successful team of the nascent North American Soccer League, signed Pelé, German star Franz Beckenbauer, Italian sensation Giorgio Chinaglia and Pelé’s fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto. Beckenbauer was known as the Kaiser for his formidable on-field presence. Chinaglia was so popular with the Lazio team, his Roman squad, that fans supposedly threatened to throw themselves in front of the plane flying him to New York. And Alberto played on Brazil’s third World Cup–winning team. Pelé, though, was the crowd-pleaser, and more than 100,000 fans bought tickets (for an oversold 77,000-seat Giants Stadium) to watch the last match of his career, on October 1, 1977. It rained, and a Brazilian journalist, among 650 reporters present, emoted, “Even the sky was crying.”
About 24 million Americans play soccer, while 10 percent call themselves soccer fans. That’s compared with 25 percent who identify as NFL fans, 14.4 percent who are basketball fans and 13.9 percent who are Major League Baseball fans. But soccer’s popularity is rising in the United States. Demographers point to the nation’s Latin population, expected to triple by 2050, among whom soccer is more popular (26 percent call it their favorite). American children are increasingly playing soccer—approximately 3 million today compared with 100,000 in 1974—and many will remain lifelong fans. Young girls have been particularly inspired by the U.S. Women’s World Cup squads, international superpowers who won the women’s tournament in 1991 (its inaugural year) and 1999. Yet football fascination spiked in the celebrity-obsessed U.S. with David Beckham’s arrival. Not as spectacular as his Manchester United performance, the photogenic Englishman’s stint with the L.A. Galaxy—plus his commercial endorsements and highly publicized married life with former Spice Girl Victoria “Posh” Adams—has done much to popularize soccer here. During the World Cup, interest in the game does hit a higher pitch; U.S. ticket sales for this year’s matches in Brazil far exceed any nation’s except the host.
Conservative estimates put the number of daily viewers for some World Cup matches at 1 billion, compared with about 111 million for the Super Bowl. This year’s contests are especially fraught with expectation for Brazilians, who last hosted the World Cup in 1950, when they lost the final to Uruguay. Brazil is the only country to have won the right to keep the tournament’s Jules Rimet trophy in perpetuity, after its third World Cup win, against Italy in 1970. The nation wept with joy as the winning Brazilian squad accepted the 8.5-pound, gold-plated sterling silver prize—a decagonal cup supported by a figure of Nike, goddess of victory. (Sadly, it was stolen from the Rio de Janeiro offices of the Brazilian Football Confederation in 1983 and was never recovered.) Whether 2014’s World Cup matches will elicit emotions of the same caliber remains to be seen. Putting a potential damper on World Cup fever are reports that hotels and stadiums won’t be ready when the tourney begins and that transportation between the 12 far-flung venues will be positively hellish. Then again, passion for the game may well surmount all obstacles in o país do futebol, the country of football.