The World Cup has always been about iconic moments. Think a topless Pele, shoulder high, wading through fans in Mexico 1970. Hurst’s hat-trick goal soaring past Hans Tilkowski. A grass-strained, side-burned Beckenbauer holding the trophy aloft in 1974. Maradona slaloming past the entire England team in 1986. The ‘hand of God’ just moments later.
Indeed, the World Cup isn’t just about its winners, impenetrable defences and golden boot-winning strikers – but world-stopping moments, good or bad. Think Gazza’s tears and Lineker’s grimace at Italia 1990. Roger Milla’s iconic celebration the same year. Columbia’s goalkeeper, René Higuita – the ‘master of the unpredictable’. For all Zidane’s genius – which gave France its first World Cup in 1998 – it’s that headbutt in 2006 etched in our memories.
But on the eve of every World Cup, the same question is posed. Who can be this tournament’s Paolo Rossi, Bobby Charlton or Gerd Muller? Will Ronaldo or Maradona’s genius ever be replicated? Can Messi re-find his Ballan D’Or form? Are the once unstoppable axis of Xavi and Iniesta able to propel Spain to another World Cup? Can Ronaldo – the world’s best player – inspire Portugal to greatness?
And then there’s Neymar. It’s 64 years since Brazil, o País do Futebo,“the country of football”, hosted the World Cup, but 1950 has never been forgotten. Back then, the Seleção wasn’t just expected to win, but do so majestically, with style and ease. What began as a showpiece – a demonstration of technical prowess, ended in despair with a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the final. As one anthropologist later put it: the result was “perhaps the greatest tragedy in modern Brazilian history.”
Can Brazil atone for 1950? Will Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal begin life as Manchester United manager a World Cup winner? How does Joachim Löw reenergise a lackluster German team? And what of England’s young Lions? Can the effervescence of Liverpool’s Strurridge-Sterling-Gerrard attacks translate – or will Roy Hodgson put the brakes on? With the inclusions of exciting talents Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley, our national pendulum of hope and despair has swung towards optimism.
The answers are tantalisingly close. What’s sure is that Brazil, painted Canary-yellow and sound-tracked by the Caxirola, will prove the perfect host. Everyone expects a classic and there’s no chance Brazil 2014 will let us down.
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