I’m sure you will all agree that so far Brazil 2014 has been a fascinating tournament both on and off the pitch. Indeed I would contend that it has been a microcosm of the sport itself with the sublime skills of practitioners of the beautiful game contrasting spectacularly with the darker more malevolent aspects of football.
Negative ‘hype’ before the event – true or false?
As has become customary with major sports events, in the run up to the tournament there was huge negative publicity. In the case of Brazil 2014 the media focused on; the stadia, working conditions of builders, the infrastructure (or lack of it) and general public dissatisfaction with the costs as manifested in riots and unrest. Having been to Brazil for the first two weeks of the competition, in my opinion some of the criticism was indeed justified. It is clear that some of the venues were incomplete. Brazil and its main cities are difficult places to get around and levels of service leave a lot to be desired. Although I personally saw no rioters or public discontent, I was struck by a general apathy and lack of enthusiasm among the local people. When we arrived in Sao Paulo a few days before the event, it was as if the World Cup was not even taking place. I would describe the atmosphere as ‘sombre’ rather than ‘samba’. Admittedly this changed a little once the tournament got underway and there was certainly more of a carnival feeling in Rio than in Sao Paulo. I see England as the historical home of football and Brazil as the ‘spiritual’ home of football. I can tell you that at least initially, it didn’t feel like football was ‘coming home’.
The Business of Football
The 64th FIFA Congress was an eye-opener and I got to see first-hand how the global ‘politics’ of football works – quite fascinating for me but probably boring for most people so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say that Mr Blatter is very ‘hands on’, is likely to stand for another term, is likely to be elected and whilst not universally popular (especially within UEFA) is certainly an astute politician. The popularity of football generates enormous revenues for FIFA from TV. It is very good at using this wealth to cement its power, to use its influence and to be fair, to spread the benefit across the world.Delegates were treated to a Congress Opening Ceremony billed as ‘a dazzling celebration of Brazilian culture, its people and its natural environment’. It was indeed a kaleidoscope of colours, sounds, visuals, songs and dance. The undoubted highlight for me was a ‘parade’ of 209 children each carrying the flag of one of the Member Associations affiliated to FIFA. It was surprisingly moving to watch and it put into perspective just how huge and diverse our world is and how football transcends differences in race, colour, creed, religion and other perceived ‘barriers’ to togetherness. Some of the countries represented are in deep turmoil and it was a time to remember how lucky most of us are because we can easily sit back and enjoy a global sporting event rather than worrying about hunger, disease, war and other catastrophic events.
The flags of the 209 Member Associations are paraded by children – football is truly global
The ‘public’ opening ceremony was colourful and lively, if a little bizarre but it was a mere curtain raiser for the home team’s first match; Brazil V Croatia. What an atmosphere!
A giant electric football forms the centerpiece of the Opening Ceremony
The National Anthem before kick-off made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I knew I was very privileged to be there. Perhaps the expectations on the Brazilian players was too much however because they went a goal down early on and eventually won a scrappy nervous encounter. The 3:1 score was very flattering.
The wall of sound coming from the Brazilian crowd was literally awesome
Immediately after the match I headed to the airport and after a circuitous, expensive and decidedly uncomfortable night of travelling I finally arrived in Salvador for the Spain V Netherlands match. I, like people all over the world, watched in stunned disbelief as the match unfolded. We witnessed the end of an era as the ‘mighty’ Spain were literally humiliated by a very impressive Dutch team who played some of the best football I have ever seen. Scintillating, breathtaking stuff. As the match finished I realized that in my enthusiasm to get to the stadium I had not planned my return journey to my hotel. I ended up walking and walking and eventually getting lost in a seriously scary place.
The end of an era? – Spain V Holland, an unforgettable match
The next match I saw was in Rio at the amazing and iconic Estadio do Maracana (another lifetime ambition achieved). The atmosphere was again electric as Argentina took on minnows Bosnia-Herzegovina. In actual fact, it was a pretty dull game apart from one exquisite piece of skill by you know who, the inimitable Lionel Messi. As I watched his supreme goal I looked forward to seeing him again in Hong Kong in October. I thoroughly enjoyed my few days in Rio, the tournament was starting to come to life and it is a vibrant, exotic place.
But I had one more match to watch and so it was back to Sao Paulo to see my beloved England in a crucial encounter with Uruguay (another potential opponent of Hong Kong in September). Well what can I say? I know I should be used to it by now but defeat still hurts. Although after this second loss it was still mathematically possible to qualify, it was improbable and the England fans there, myself included, knew it. However, the squad is young and I am sure we will do better in 2018 (I thought I would get my unwavering but totally mis-placed and only to be disappointed optimism in early this time). Neither team played particularly well; the main difference was the finishing quality of Suarez (more about him later).
Post Visit Reflections
My time in Brazil had come to an end. I was sorry to be leaving just as the tournament was getting interesting. It had been a great experience and I know how lucky I am to have been to a World Cup in Brazil. My only regret is that I think it could have been a lot better as an event. I don’t see there being any real football or social legacy and the country doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure or raise the standard of service, which is frankly woeful at times.
But for now the focus is on the football and I have to say that it is an open and exciting competition. The South American teams were expected to do well including Brazil and Argentina. Whilst the ‘big two’ are somehow stumbling through, some of the lesser known Latin American teams are playing great football including Columbia and Costa Rica. The Europeans seem to be polarized into two main groups, namely disappointing and excellent with Spain, Portugal, England and Italy in the first group and Germany, Holland, France, and Belgium in the latter.
The Asian teams have had a very poor campaign and the difference in skill level, intensity and physicality has been exposed. This must be a worry to the AFC. Three points in total for the four teams is a poor return and ironically the team that didn’t gain a single point, Australia, actually played entertaining attacking football in a difficult group, scoring one of the best goals of the tournament.
I am troubled and disappointed by the performance and behaviour of some the African nations. There is no place at any level of football for match-manipulation, but for allegations to be made concerning two teams at the World Cup is astonishingly worrying. Nothing is proven yet and I sincerely hope that in this case there is smoke without fire. What I also find unfathomable is the Ghana bonus situation. It seems that players are holding Associations to ransom these days over bonus payments. Quite frankly I have never understood the concept of bonuses when playing for your country. Needing ‘additional’ financial incentive to try harder to win a football match at any level is an anathema to me but for your country at a World Cup, it’s unbelievable. What’s more Ghana didn’t win a single match so what exactly was the US$3m cash actually rewarding – one draw and failure to progress from the group stage? Talk about throwing good money after bad.
Obviously one of the saddest and most annoying incidents was the Luis Suarez bite. What I found most disturbing was not the bite itself, sickening as it is, but the people who have leapt to his defense in a pathetic attempt to condone the unforgivable. FIFA acted swiftly and decisively and I think the ban is about right, if not on the lenient side for a third offense.
Unfortunately for me there has also been too much simulation, diving, time-wasting and general histrionics by some of the players from some of the teams. I watched Robben take a blatant dive in the match against Spain and whilst there is no doubting his footballing brilliance, like Suarez he should know better. These people have the potential to be role-models for aspiring footballers and young people all over the world. Unfortunately they do not use their privileged position to become positive icons and it is their unacceptable behavior and lack of sportsmanship that will ultimately define them. The fact that their colleagues, peers, coaches, mentors and even politicians defend them simply reinforces their own sense of self-importance.
And so as I said at the start, for me this world cup (so far) has been a reflection of the good and the bad in our sport of football. There is no doubt that generally the quality of the football is incredibly high with technique, tactics and physical attributes on display that us mere mortals can only wonder at. Football is arguably the only truly global sport and therefore has a unique ability to bring all people together. The passion, friendliness and camaraderie of fans in Brazil was fantastic. I did not see one bit of aggression (off the pitch). I shared drinks, good times and bad times with people from myriad nations. That bit was great.
I won’t allow the negative aspects of the tournament to spoil it for me but neither should they be ignored or forgotten by me, by you the reader and more importantly by the football authorities. Those of us involved in the sport should never forget our responsibility to use football as a force for good, to bring people together to promote positive behaviour and enhance humanity. I fervently hope that the rest of the tournament will showcase what is good about football (fingers crossed).Mark Sutcliffe July 2nd 2014
二百零九幅屬會成員的旗幟由小朋友手持列隊進場 – 足球是真正的全球運動
一個時代的終結？ – 西班牙與荷蘭一役，令人難以忘懷的大戰