Few of the locals—and nobody from Uruguay—needs to be reminded of what happened last time Brazil staged the World Cup. Sixty-four years ago, Brazil built the giant Maracana stadium in the certainty that it would prove an appropriate stage for the country’s first world title. On their way to the decider with Uruguay, Brazil were irresistible, thrashing Sweden 7-1 and Spain 6-1. All they needed in the last game was a draw. On the pitch before the match, the mayor of Rio proclaimed them world champions. They even took the lead, but Uruguay hit back to win 2-1 and take the title.
A Uruguayan company has used the experience to put together an amusing advertising campaign. Draped in a light blue sheet—the colour of the Uruguayan shirt—‘the ghost of 1950’ wanders around Rio, scaring the locals. And as Brazil (naturally) look to go one step better the second time they are hosting the tournament, it is not just the past that spooks them. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari makes it clear that he is particularly wary of meeting rival South American sides.
The continent’s football currently has an unprecedented strength in depth—the fruit of a change to the format of World Cup qualifying introduced 18 years ago. Before 1996, South America’s sides were usually divided into three groups. Qualification was a quick process, and teams often had huge gaps between competitive fixtures. But for the last five campaigns the teams have been in one big group, playing each other home and away in a marathon process that takes almost three years. For the first time, South America’s national teams have enjoyed the kind of structure the Europeans have taken for granted—regular competitive matches, with the chance to keep a side together and retain a top quality coach. The consequence has been a dramatic strengthening of the less traditional nations, and a fiercely competitive qualifying campaign which prepares the teams well for the challenges of the World Cup.
The evidence was clear four years ago in South Africa. All five South American sides made it out of the group phase. True, Brazil and Argentina were disappointed with quarter-final elimination. But Uruguay, fifth in qualification, came fourth in the world. Chile played some exhilarating football and Paraguay fell to Spain in the quarters but, as coach Vicente Del Bosque confessed, gave the world champions their stiffest test on the way to the title.
Paraguay have not made it this time. They finished bottom of the table in qualification. Even so, they still recently held the much-vaunted Germans to a 3-3 draw—an excellent example of that South American strength in depth. Which is why, with the tournament back in their continent for the first time since 1978, South America’s sides can approach the 2014 World Cup with such optimism.
Chile and Uruguay are both back, with similar line-ups to last time. But there is an important difference; in 2010, Chile had a young, inexperienced group. Now the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal are coming into their peak years. Electric little coach Jorge Sampaoli is a disciple of the fascinating Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine who took Chile to South Africa and armed them with a philosophy of play which made them the neutrals’ favourites. Under Sampaoli, the approach is the same; whoever the opponents, wherever the game, Chile take the field to impose themselves, to play in the opponent’s half of the field, to work two against one situations down the flanks. Expectations have never been higher, because now they do it with a mature collection of players, widely seen as the best side the country has ever produced. They have been placed in a very difficult group—to get out of it they must finish in front of Spain or Holland (the 2010 finalists), and Brazil lie in wait if they succeed. Whatever happens, Chile’s matches will be unmissable.
Draped in a light blue sheet—the colour of the Uruguayan shirt—‘the ghost of 1950’ wanders Rio scaring the locals.
Uruguay, meanwhile, have plenty of ageing limbs in their line-up. This will be the international farewell for a group that has been together since the Copa America of 2007, leading to fears that this might be a tournament too far for some of the senior players. But they can count on two strikers at the peak of their powers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Their gameplan will be predictable; they will sit deep, keeping the midfield close to their centre-backs in a bid to cover up their lack of defensive pace—and they will look to slip it to Suarez and Cavani on the break. It might not always be pretty, but veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez is unconcerned; as long as his team are hard to beat, he trusts that flashes of attacking flair and old-fashioned tournament nous will take them towards the later stages.
Colombia are back in the World Cup for the first time after 1998 when even a wonderful performance from goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon was not enough to prevent elimination against England. Mondragon, 43 on June 21, is now the reserve keeper, there to pass on experience to a promising new generation. Most of the headlines have gone to centre-forward Radamel Falcao Garcia and his battle to recover from a knee operation in time. He clearly has no chance of being 100 per cent fit, but Colombia have an interesting generation of strikers, with Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca. The key man, though, is left-footed attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, who bestrides the pitch like a young prince.
Ecuador, a Latin American footballing Luxembourg 30 years ago, are now playing their third World Cup (in the last four). They would appear to be the weakest of the South American qualifiers, but nevertheless are a team with virtues; they attack down the flanks with pace and skill, with Luis Antonio Valencia full of power down the right and Jefferson Montero with a box of tricks on the left. A 1-1 draw away to Holland in mid-May was good for morale, and despite some defensive problems there will be general disappointment if they are unable to match their achievement of 2006, when they reached the second round before falling to England.
And that leaves Argentina. Coach Alejandro Sabella had serious problems at the start of the qualifiers, when his team lost away to Venezuela and were held at home by Bolivia. But during the course of the campaign, he found an answer to the question which had been troubling Argentine football for some time—how to get Lionel Messi to reproduce his club form. Sabella ended up playing Messi behind Sergio Aguero (with whom he has a wonderful understanding) and Gonzalo Higuain. The strikers are thrown wide, leaving Messi with plenty of space in which to operate. And behind him in the midfield trio is Angel Di Maria, with his blistering pace.
The outcome is an attack-minded team that can move the ball from one penalty area to the other in the blink of an eye. Sabella admits that the balance of the side gives him problems; fielding such a collection of attacking talent leaves the defence exposed, especially as the current Argentine crop of centre-backs and goalkeepers are not the strongest. But, argues Argentina’s coach, this is a risk worth running if it helps Messi to play to potential. This is surely the key moment in the little maestro’s international career—and he and his team-mates have been given a helping hand by the draw. It is not just the fact that Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria are hardly the most challenging of opponents. Even more importantly, Argentina will play the entire competition without ever having to play in the draining heat of the north-east. In South America’s first World Cup for 36 years, a Brazil-Argentina final looks like a logical conclusion.
Veteran Rio resident Vickery covers South American football for the BBC, ESPN and World Soccer magazine