Other than the drug gangs, the terrorism threats, the robbery and assault outbreaks, the armed guards in riot gear, the corruption that accompanies $11.5 billion in government spending, terminal flooding, transit strikes, two-hour taxi lines, no long-distance rail service, unfinished stadia and airports, humidity, the possibility referees will be on the take, the fact 65 percent of sewage is untreated and the pungent reality that FIFA might be filthier than the sewers, sure, absolutely, the World Cup in Brazil will be a hoot.
When even the perpetually smiling futbol ambassador, Pele, slams his native land for its alarming unpreparedness, you realize the quadrennial global spectacle could be bombarded by madness. Last I saw Pele, he was kicking a ball through the halls of the Olympic media center in Copenhagen, successfully convincing the International Olympic Committee that Rio de Janeiro deserved the 2016 Summer Games. If the next four weeks are so messy that we are distracted from Messi — the sublimity of Lionel Messi, the Argentine legend — I might suggest Rio hand over the Olympics to a tamer host city.
“It’s clear that politically speaking, the money spent to build stadiums was a lot, and in some cases was more than it should have been,” said Pele, questioning where the money went. “Some of this money could have been invested in schools, in hospitals. Brazil needs it. That’s clear.
“We already know that 25 percent of foreigners who are going to Brazil are worried … and I think they have even canceled (their trip). So this is a great loss for the country.’’
Whatever joy a rumba-and-roll country has in showing off its love for futbol and life, much of it has been offset by disgust about its leaders. If you’re an American headed to Brazil — and FIFA says U.S. ticket sales for the Cup is second only to the host country — then wear your body armor and don’t expect the time of your life. “We have cases of violence in our cities, violence with social origins, common crime, robberies,” said Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo, per the Associated Press. “We are trying to contain this.’’
A good idea, in fact, would be to root for Brazil to advance as far as possible. The happier the natives are, goes the thinking, the less likely they are to take their anger to the streets.
We in America, of course, have a scattered relationship with the World Cup. To the rest of the world, it is part religion and part psychosis, a communal gathering. But to those of us conditioned to the traditional American way of sports fandom — American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, golf, auto racing — soccer continues to have a double identity. While millions around us cram into bars and live this event for weeks in a surge of frenetic, uncontrolled nationalism — those people hail from other lands — we simply kind of hang out, waiting for Team USA to accomplish something that makes us think we belong in the world soccer elite. Maybe we’d feel better about it all if we didn’t keep losing to … Ghana? … when half the U.S. population couldn’t identify Ghana on a map if they were pointed to West Africa. Naturally, America is being punked by drawing Ghana again, in the first game, this while the latest coach commissioned to fix our soccer condition, Juergen Klinsmann, already has announced that Team USA has no chance of winning in Brazil.
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann told the New York Times. “For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”
So why am I watching? Does he not realize we thrive on the miracle in the States, dating back to the 1980 Olympic hockey team? Was it a good idea, despite Klinsmann’s remarkable World Cup record as a player and coach, to hire someone who doesn’t understand our sports culture? There he was, ripping the Lakers for signing Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48-million extension, not understanding that a team in a major market has to have a gate attraction and story line — Bryant ending a phenomenal career as a Laker — to attract interest and fans to the arena. Klinsmann made this argument relative to why he didn’t include the aging Landon Donovan, only the most recognizable and accomplished U.S. soccer name (and someone who scored a big World Cup goal in 2010), on the final roster.
Said Klinsmann: “This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?’’
Maybe we need an injection of German pragmatism to take the next step on the international stage. Or, maybe the guy doesn’t like our way of life, which begs a question: Who hired him, and why is he signed through 2018?
The good news is, Team USA is a minuscule story in the enormity of the planet’s biggest sports and media event. If no one expects the Americans to win even a match, then we needn’t worry about being mocked or turned into a global meme. I’m more concerned about Brazil and whether it will survive four weeks without something catastrophically going wrong.
But then, something already has: Brazil was awarded the World Cup in the first place.