Feel it. It’s here.
Football and arguably the world’s biggest sporting jamboree is finally upon us. The football World Cup starts in Sao Paulo, Brazil tonight. This marks the return of the World Cup to one of football’s grand sentimental heartlands. Brazil, the greatest footballing nation on the planet takes on Croatia at the spiritual home of Brazilian football, the imposing Maracana stadium. 64 years after Brazil lost the World Cup final at the same venue to Uruguay their quest for a record breaking 6th World Cup title begins. This will be the first of 64 games involving 32 countries over a month long period. For football aficionados everywhere this is as hedonistic as it gets.
This World Cup in Brazil is going to be the eighth World Cup to take place in my lifetime. The first was Mexico World Cup ’86. I wasa toddler. Whilst Diego’EL Diego’ Maradona was dribbling his way into football folklore on the pitches of Mexico in 1986, first with the infamous ‘hand of god’ and then with the most brilliant individual goal ever scored at a World Cup tournament, halfway across the world I was kicking my first ever football. My father a lifelong football fan had begun sowing the seeds of what was to grow into a lifelong passion and love for the beautiful game. Maradona went on to single handily win that World Cup for Argentina.
Despite getting this early start I wasn’t exceptionally talented when it came to dancing with the ball around the ankles of other kids. I was no Maradona. Not by a long shot. But I loved the game. I followed the careers of my favourite players religiously. The fact that I wasn’t the most gifted kid on the playground did not diminish my appetite for the game. On the contrary it fuelled it. Mine became more and more of a vociferous involvement, albeit at a televisual distance. My limited talent gave me an even greater appreciation for all those great players who used the football pitch as the canvas on which they painted their masterpieces.
My second World Cup, Italia ’90 is one I vaguely remember. It is the World Cup in which a 38 year old Cameroonian, Roger Miller announced the arrival of African football on the World Cup stage by flamboyantly dancing around the corner flag every time he scored on his way to leading Cameroon to the Quarter finals, the furthest any African team had gone. Cameroon had also opened that tournament with a win against the defending champion’s Argentina. They would bow out controversially to England in the last eight. FIFA subsequently went on to offer African teams an extra place at the next World Cup. Italia ’90 was won by West Germany.
By the time USA ’94 came around I was 10 years old and had become psychotically absorbed by the beautiful game. I had fallen truly, madly and deeply in love with a certain Manchester United. This would become the vehicle which would drive my passion for the game for years to come. The ’94 World Cup is the first World Cup that I remember clearly. This is the tournament in which I was first captivated by the flare and free flowing Samba style of Brazilian football. I remember watching the likes of Captain Dunga and Romario as they dazzled in the butter yellow and royal blue colours of Brazil. I had never seen anything like it. It was like watching poetry in motion. It was love at first sight.
Brazil went on to win that World Cup. The first and only World Cup to date to be decided by penalties. A certain pony tailed Italian Roberto Baggio face down, arms akimbo; possibly reflecting on a glorious but doomed soliloquy as the Brazilian players celebrated wildly in the background is one of the lasting images of that World Cup. Despair and disbelief poignantly juxtaposed against unbridled joy and celebration.
When the France ’98 World Cup rolled around I was now a pimple faced teenager in my second year of high school. I was in boarding school at the time and the atmosphere in the TV room during the games is one of the most electrifying and intoxicating atmospheres I have ever experienced during a World Cup. It was as rowdy as it was jovial. Hundreds of teenage boys huddled around the TV, shouting, singing and dancing as they urged their heroes towards World Cup glory. It was like being in a stadium. Unfortunately for me the Brazilians lost that World Cup final to the mercurial Frenchman Zenidine Zidane’s Les Blues, the host nation. That final was also notable for the dismal performance of one Ronaldo who had in he build up to the final been Brazil’s star player. It is widely reported that the striker had suffered a seizure earlier in the day and this no doubt affected his performance in the final.
Ronaldo would however get a chance to redeem himself and cement his legacy at the next World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea in 2002. In the final against the Germans he would score both goals in helping Brazil win their fifth World Cup title. The most by any nation. And Brazil’s last World Cup win.The was also the last World Cup I would watch in boarding school.
Fast forward to the World Cup hosted by Germany in 2006. I am now in my early twenties and studying down under, my love for the beautiful game as strong as ever. My memories of that tournament are of having to get up between 2am and 4am just to watch the games. My Singaporean housemate and I would make our way to our Italian football coach’s houses in the wee hours of the morning and watch the games with some of our other teammates. It wasn’t quite the same atmosphere as the two World Cups during my high school days but we did just share the same passion for the beautiful game. Italy went on to win that tournament. Our coach made sure we never forgot that.
When the World Cup came to the Motherland for the first time in 2010 I had since graduated and was by now working in Melbourne. Unfortunately because of circumstances outside my control I would not make it to South Africa 2010 as had been the plan all along. I consoled myself with the purchase of a big flat plasma screen HD TV and a state of the art home theatre system. This was the first World Cup I watched in high definition. It was only the loneliest World Cup experience Ihave had to date. For most of the games which again were in wee hours of the morning it was just me and my TV. My saving grace was Facebook which provided a platform for me to engage in some banter with my football loving friends. But it just wasn’t the same. And that is why South Africa 2010 is not high up on my list of the most memorable World Cup tournaments. Spain went on to win that tournament whilst the Brazilians unfortunately were a pale shadow of their former glorious selves.
This brings me to Brazil 2014 World Cup, my eighth world cup. I have since left my twenties behind, earlier this year. This is my first World Cup as an adult that I will get to experience with my father, the man who fostered the love of the beautiful game in me. In many ways it feels like I have come full circle and I intend on Indulging myself to fullest on this year’s football fiesta in Brazil.
My World Cup Picks for Brazil 2014
Brazil are my favourites to lift the World Cup trophy come the 13th of July. They play the beautiful game just the way I like it. With panache. They are also playing in their own backyard which I believe will give an added advantage, not that they really need it. This Brazilian squad is a young but experienced one but with Neymar Jnr a thrillingly nimble footed inside forward with gossamer touch, a conjurer’s skills to beat a man and, best of all, an air of being entirely unfazed by the rapt attention of the Brazilian populace as their talisman they have a good a chance as anyone to go all the way. Defending Champions Spain on paper are the best team at the tournament and on their best day there are virtually unplayable. The usual suspects, Germany, Italy and Holland should also be in with a chance. If both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have decent tournaments for their respective teams then expect Portugal and Argentina to also be in with a shout.
The team that my heart wants to win the tournament is Ghana. Ghana, under Kwame Nkrumah was one of the first African countries to gain independence in the early sixties. Their first president Kwame Nkrumah was one of the early pioneers of Pan Africanism. It would make a for a beautiful story if Ghana went on to become the first African country to win the World Cup. The odds though are heavily stacked against the ‘Black Stars’ after being drawn in the ‘Group of Death’ alongside European powerhouse Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and the USA. But hey, if you want to be the best you have got to beat the best. Also after coming a penalty kick away from reaching the semi finals in South Africa four years ago I believe they are due more than just a date with Lady Luck this time around.
Belgium are my dark horse to win the tournament. They had undefeated run to this year’s World Cup finals and boast one of the most talented albeit inexperienced squads at the World Cup. This is definitely Belgium’s golden generation.The neutral in me would to see them win the World Cup. Chile if things go their way are another dark horse. They play a free flowing and dynamic style of football that is a pure joy to watch. A win for Chile would be a win for beautiful football.