Another sort of homecoming

Fantasy football and grim reality are set to collide at the 2014 World Cup. Liam Mackey, in Rio de Janeiro, predicts the winner.

Another sort of homecoming

It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming — football’s coming home. With all due respect to Baddiel and Skinner, the Lightning Seeds and all who bend the knee before the Three Lions, most of the world has been waiting since 1950 — not 1966 — for football’s true homecoming.

And that day finally dawns today.

We’re talking spiritual home, of course, and it’s to be found in that the vast and exotic land in South America which gave the world the beautiful game. Brazilians will graciously concede England invented football, but will quickly and proudly insist Brazil perfected it. And who’s to gainsay that? As five-time winners of the World Cup, Brazil stand alone, but it’s not just the stats which back up the boast they have established the gold standard for international football. God, not the devil, is in the thrilling detail here: the greatest player in the history of the game (Pele), the greatest team in the history of the game (1970), and the greatest team never to win the World Cup (1982). Performance levels might have periodically dropped, sometimes drastically, but the canary yellow and cobalt blue always carries at least the promise of something to stir the romantic soul.

So the idea of Brazil hosting a World Cup on its own soil for the first time in 64 years should be about as close to the definition of fantasy football as it gets. But not so. This, as U2 might have it, is another sort of homecoming.

As the 2014 Mundial prepares to get under way this evening, with the host nation facing Croatia in Sao Paulo, there is as much fear and loathing as joy and expectation about what’s likely to unfold over the next four weeks. Brazil is a house divided, the estimated $11billion dollar cost of the tournament — the burden of which, contrary to the government’s initial promise, will be carried by the taxpayer — a source of public rage in a country where extreme poverty and extravagant wealth are sometimes only a street block apart.

All of which means the stakes are now even higher for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team, the nation’s beloved Selecao, than could ever have been imagined when Fifa named Brazil the host country seven years ago. In a country where the passion for football borders on religious fervour, it’s hardly overstating things to suppose that the longer the national team are in the running in this tournament, the less likely it is social unrest will replace football as the headline story.

No pressure then: Big Phil’s boys only have to go and win the damn thing, that’s all. Fortunately for all concerned, that’s precisely and exclusively what’s top of the manager’s agenda. If that sounds like hubris, it’s nevertheless grounded in a recognition that, with last year’s impressive Confederations Cup win — crowned by a 3-0 demolition of reigning world and European champions Spain in the final — all the elements came together in a way which swept aside the restless natives’ previously deep concerns about the team’s state of health and turned a nominal dry run into something altogether more like a convincing statement of intent.

Key to their living up to their billing as favourites, however, is that poster boy Neymar replicate the dazzling form he paraded in last year’s Confederations Cup rather than his underwhelming season in the colours of Barcelona. If the latest saviour of the nation, in a rich tradition running from Garrincha through Pele and Zico and Romario to Ronaldo, can deliver on expectations over the next few weeks, then Big Phil will be spared a big dish of humble pie.

The greatest threat to a Brazilian triumph is likely to come from their own noisy neighbours. It tells you something about the potency of Argentina’s attack that Alejandro Sabella can afford to overlook Carlos Tevez. But with guaranteed goals from the likes of Sergio Aguero (if fit, of course) and Gonzalo Higuain, ably supported from midfield by the endlessly dynamic Angel Di Maria, the manager is entitled to feel secure in the belief that, even if a bit leaky at the back, Argentina will still put most opponents to the sword.

And, of course, the have the world’s best player in Lionel Messi. Much the same caveat applies to him as it does to his Barca team-mate Neymar — Messi urgently needs to shake off a season which ended in disappointment at the Camp Nou and rediscover his incomparable mojo in the international colours on the greatest stage of all. If he plays as we know he can — supernaturally — then not only might Brazil be denied the home win they crave, but Messi’s place in the eternal pantheon, as successor to Maradona and rival to Pele and Best, will be secure.

From Europe, I would expect Germany to lead the charge but, as has happened repeatedly since they unveiled their gleaming new football model on home soil in 2006, they look set to come up agonisingly short again, most likely in what would be a tantalising heavyweight semi-final clash against the host nation.

There is also a sense that we’ll get more of the same from Spain, certainly in terms of that instantly recognisable tika-taka style, but after dominating world and European football for six years, it is surely stretching expectation to the limits to think Vincent del Bosque’s players can go all the way yet again.

But while there is every reason to think that an unusually strong Belgium side will illuminate this tournament as outsiders, the same cannot be said of our own dear neighbours. Certainly, it would be refreshing to see such gifted young players as Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley given a chance at this giddy altitude. But it’s also a huge risk to expose their inexperience to such an unforgiving test. A fit Wayne Rooney, England’s most outstanding natural talent since Gazza, remains central to their fortunes, the notion that he might be sacrificed on the altar of the team’s shape, an absurd mockery of the fundamental football logic which holds that a manager should always field his best players.

Roy Hodgson would probably have taken more encouragement from seeing Ireland rattle an experimental Italy at Craven Cottage last Saturday week, if he wasn’t aware that the Azzurri have a habit of looking ordinary and sometimes even downright inept in friendlies on the eve of tournaments.

But England will surely then need another favour — in the shape of Luis Suarez failing to make the cut — if they are going to hold off Uruguay.

In the end, luck will only get you so far and, barring England tapping into the kind of underdog spirit that is rarely on show when they step into the fray, their fate should ultimately be dictated by the simple fact their best 11 is not on a par with the best the rest of the world has to offer.

We must also be prepared to have expectations confounded right throughout this World Cup. That comes with the territory, as will refereeing controversies, complaints about the heat, arguments about the ball, criminal tackling, stunning goals, the birth of a new star or three, acts of giantkilling, acts of plunder, moments of hilarity, moments to make you despair and, from beginning to end, the gradual emergence of a new cast of heroes and villains for the world to acclaim and deride.

A final prediction? The World Cup 2014 in decider in Rio on July 13 will be an all-South American affair, a derby classico between Brazil and Argentina, with the hosts finally getting to lay to rest the ghosts of 1950.

DOES SEX DRAIN THE LEGS?

A 1995 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness said no. But some coaches aren’t taking any chances. As legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel put it: “It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.” So how much action will be happening in Brazil?

BRAZIL: Missionary to succeed

Sexy Times? Within reason.

Rules of engagement: Take it handy.

Gaffer says: Phil Scolari insists his players keep their shape and stick to their positions: “The players can have normal sex during the World Cup. Usually normal sex is done in a balanced way but some like to perform acrobatics. We will put limits and survey the players.”

MEXICO: Hunger games

Sexy Times? No.

Rules of engagement: Oh alright, but be discreet.

Gaffer says: Ideally, Miguel Herrera would like his boys to keep their minds on the job. “If a player can’t go one month or 20 days without having sexual relations, then they are not prepared to be a professional player.” But “I am not thinking about prohibiting sex. I am thinking about football. I hope the players are thinking the same way.”

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: Hands on the trophy

Sexy Times? No way.

Rules of engagement: Take it to the bank.

Gaffer says: Safet Susic: “There will be no sex in Brazil. They can find another solution. They can even masturbate if they want.”

USA: Family affair

Sexy Times? Sure, buddy.

Rules of engagement: Before and after meals.

Gaffer says: Jurgen Klinsmann is playing it cool: “I think we are very casual in the way we approach things. Their families can come pretty much any time. They will be at the games, they can come by at the hotel, we will have barbecues together.”

FRANCE: Comme ci, comme ca

Sexy Times? Peut-etre.

Rules of engagement: Clock in, clock out.

Gaffer says: Didier Deschamps just doesn’t want to think about it: “Depends on when, and how much. I don’t want them to be cut off from the outside world.”

CHILE: No room at the inn

Sexy Times? Not even the gaffer.

Rules of engagement: Forget about it.

Gaffer says: Chilean press reports manager Jorge Sampaoli’s instructions: “What they all have clear is that visits will be restricted only to salons. No returning to rooms with wives or girlfriends. Sex is not allowed in Belo Horizonte by the coaching staff.”

ENGLAND: Waiting on Roy

Sexy Times? Too early to say.

Rules of engagement: Sneak out to the WAGs’ hotel.

Gaffer says: Roy Hodgson has yet to be drawn on the matter. But at the 1994 World Cup, he did impose a total sex ban on his Swiss team before a last-minute change of heart to allow partners visit hotel rooms for a few hours after the opening match of the tournament.

NIGERIA: Super Eagles’ wings clipped

Sexy Times? Don’t think so.

Rules of engagement: Not even a dance.

Gaffer says: No word yet from Stephen Keshi, but former coach Christian Chukwu has made his feelings plain: “If Stephen Keshi and his crew can keep close eyes on these players by making sure that they keep away from sex totally, they will do very well.”

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