Before the draw for the finals, Roy Hodgson had, unwisely, voiced the view that this city plonked in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest was the place to avoid. Almost inevitably then, that’s precisely where the gods ordained the Three Lions would have to make their opening stand. And, despite being commonly referred to as the king of the jungle, the lion, as we know, tends to be more at home in wide, open grasslands. Like, um, Wembley.
So, yes, there’ll be energy-sapping heat and humidity in the Arena Amazonia tonight, not to mention a dubious pitch, but England’s initial challenge, you feel, will be to overcome possible stage fright, especially if Hodgson opts to give a few of his bright but scarcely battle-hardened young ’uns their World Cup baptism.
England always have to get over themselves first, especially their long established penchant for finding increasingly novel ways to self-destruct spectacularly on the biggest stage: that whole unhappy and, betimes, hilarious history of metatarsals, red cards and penalty shoot-outs. Even when they get it right, they’re done wrong – think of poor Lamps’ goal-that-was-that-wasn’t against Germany in South Africa four years ago. Sometimes you can’t help thinking that England’s recurring woes are all down to bad karma, eternal payback for the goal-that-wasn’t-that-was when they ruled the world in 1966.
And then there’s the small matter of tonight’s opposition, the blue-chip Azzurri. Italy have ruled the football world four times – in 1934, ’38, ’82 and ’06 – meaning they’re second only to Brazil in the all-time World Cup Hall of Fame. Few are expecting them to equal the Brazilian record on the latter’s home soil but fewer still would bet against them still being there or thereabouts, to use the technical phrase, when it comes to the last eight or even the last four.
Even at 35, the wondrous Andrea Pirlo is man who still makes them tick, originating and orchestrating every significant move, in the manner of an American quarterback. He was the one who did for England at Euro 2012 but, having sashayed through that tournament with something approaching complete immunity – further proof that the greatest players always make the game look easy – he was comprehensively nobbled in the final, Spain’s swarming midfield denying him the critical oxygen of space.
England are unlikely to be able to follow suit and, of further concern for Hodgson is that Cesare Prandelli also has the luxury of a Pirlo-in-reserve, should the conditions or some other circumstance catch up on the grand old man tonight, or even later in the tournament. Compact, even stocky, yet head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch when Ireland played Italy at Craven Cottage two week’s ago, 21-year-old Marco Verratti lived up to all the rave reviews he’s been receiving at PSG.
Physically strong, technically adept, and cool and composed beyond his years, he fulfilled the Pirlo role to the letter, skipping away from tackles to generate the space he needed to deploy a fantastic range of passing, from knife-like incisions through the middle to great booming long-rangers to the flanks which always arrived just so for the wide men and overlapping full backs.
Little wonder that Real Madrid are now hot on his trail; if he gets his chance and Italy last the course, Verratti could emerge as one of the brightest now stars of this World Cup.
Meanwhile, after a brief hello we’ve bid a brief farewell to Rio. Our lodgings in Laranjeiras are in a part of the city which is generally described as leafy and relatively quiet. But you quickly learn that normal standards don’t really apply in Rio — and especially not when the World Cup is in town.
So it was that the opening night of the greatest show on earth was celebrated with fireworks, thunderous firecrackers and a cacophony of honking horns in our neck of the woods– and that was just in the hours leading up to the kick off between Brazil and Croatia.
Think of Italia 90 in Ireland, with a combination of Halloween and New Year’s Eve thrown in for the craic, and you’ll have some sense of the mood of feverish anticipation. Or at least such was the state of affairs until about 15 minutes before kick-off when the all human life suddenly disappeared from the broad, bustling street in front of our apartment, as the nation turned its eyes to the box in the corner or the big screens in the fan zones.
We took our seats in a local café and felt the pain of the regulars who first watched aghast as Croatia took the lead through that Marcelo own-goal, and then had to suffer through a lacklustre Brazilian performance which ended up looking much better on the scoreboard than it ever did in the run of play. In the end, Oscar’s precision toe poke wasn’t so much icing on the cake as badly needed insurance against Croatia’s attempts to spoil the party.
For deeply jangled Brazilian nerves, the big plus was that Neymar once again delivered in the national colours, his first goal a sweeping strike that brought to mind Rivaldo in his pomp. Later, he wasn’t quite so convincing from the spot, it has to be said, but still did just enough to find the net again. The bigger story, however, was that the awarding of a desperately soft penalty suggested that the hosts are going to get all the breaks in a tournament which, already beset by so many problems, would turn into FIFA’s worst nightmare if Brazil went out early.
Indeed, even as the multitudes celebrated in the fan zone on Copacabana, there were plenty of signs held up in the crowd – helpfully translated into colourful Anglo-Saxon – which should have left football’s world governing body in no doubt about just what many Brazilians think of them.
Little wonder then that, after all the excitement in the build-up, the dominant mood after the final whistle was one of sheer relief.