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A Special Year For Football

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Normally at this stage of the year I am just getting used to writing the date with the appropriate last two digits. However, this time around it has been a rather seamless transition, and it’s no secret why. To the like-minded football tragic out there, this needs no explanation. For those without the addiction, bear with me while I tell you why 2014 is going to be special, for me, for football, for the world.

England may be the birthplace of what is now well and truly the global game, but ask anyone in the know (Argentinians aside) and they will tell you that Brazil is where it is most loved. This is reflected in official honours, with Brazil’s five World Cup victories making them the most successful nation.

The first ever FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup took place in Uruguay in 1930. On the back of their success in the sport at the Olympics Games, the tournament commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the country’s independence. Fittingly, they were crowned champions, and cemented their place in the game’s history.

This is a history littered with cause and effect. The events of the 1950 tournament – also held in Brazil – have led to next year’s competition becoming the most anticipated yet. The 1950 tournament was unique in format. Unlike all editions before and since, it had no knockout stage. Instead, there was an extra round-robin between the four group winners, followed by a deciding match between those who finished highest. It came down to Brazil and Uruguay.

Brazil had won an extra game, scoring eight more goals, and conceding two less. They were clear favourites. An official attendance of 173, 830 people flooded into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium that day. The actual numbers are estimated at closer to 210, 000, a world record for team sport that still stands today. Chanting what is roughly translated to “Brazil must win”, Brazilian fans watched on as their side took the lead before a spirited Uruguay came back to win 2-1, scoring the winning goal ten minutes from the end. This was the darkest day in Brazilian football history, and resulted in a uniform change – from all white to the now famous yellow shirts and blue shorts, decorated with five stars in honour of the subsequent World Cup triumphs. However, Brazilians aren’t satisfied with these accolades. The 1950 match – still referred to simply as Maracanazo or “The Maracanã Blow” – is still seen as a wrong in need of righting this year.

While Brazil has this unique affinity with the World Cup, it is important to keep things in perspective. For all the excitement, there is a lot of anger, and rightly so. Despite the nation’s increasing economic prosperity over the last decade, poverty is still a widespread problem. The last year has seen numerous protests over how the Brazilian Government and FIFA are preparing for the tournament to be held in June and July this year. The government has already spent 7 billion Brazilian reais (3 billion AUD), three times the total amount spent by South Africa when it hosted the event in 2010. Furthermore, some stadiums are still unfinished. Given this, it is unsurprising that allegations have surfaced about overbilling scandals. Meanwhile, issues in infrastructure remain rife, while demonstrations all around the country are outlining health, education, transport, high unemployment and low welfare as the primary concerns. The World Cup brings unprecedented tourists, money and media attention to a nation. However, for conflict-rife Brazil, the event’s success hinges on popular concerns being heard and acted upon. One thing is certain; the people of Brazil will do their bit.

Given these conflicts, those planning to attend may understandably be anxious. However, if this is you, just remember that you are going to be a part of something truly memorable. In an attempt to prepare for my trip, I have recently started learning some Portuguese, and have bombarded my Brazilian friends with some seriously basic conversations. In doing so, I have discovered the Australian advantage. We need not fear, because “G’day” in the local lingo is … “Oi!” Even my fellow football fans should be able to handle this! To those not able to make it, you can follow my journey here. I will keep you up to date on all things on and off the pitch, as I travel a country, like ours, the size of a continent.

My first port of call will be São Paulo, a couple of weeks before the Cup begins. As the city with the largest population in Brazil (and the sixth largest on the planet) it is one of the world’s great melting pots. A mix of people from Brazilian, African, and European (particularly Portuguese and Italian) backgrounds, it is also home to the highest number of both Japanese and Lebanese people outside of their respective countries. I will be staying in Liberdade, a neighbourhood at the centre of this Japanese community.

Even with its high population and cultural diversity,  São Paulo (colloquially known as Sampa) is often labeled the ‘industrial city’ when compared to picture-perfect Rio de Janeiro. This is rather unfair for a place steeped in artistic history, which contains such grand museums such as the Portuguese Language Museum, the Ipiranga, and the Theatro Municipal, the latter two both notable pieces of architecture. However, these are not the buildings synonymous with this metropolis. As one of the biggest, densest cities in the world, when most people picture São Paulo they think of a sea of high-rise buildings. Yes, as a boy from sleepy Brisbane, I may never be ready for what’s about to hit me. It’s fair to say I’m excited.

Next time my attention turns to the Socceroos, as they prepare for the tournament now only 4 months away.


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