A spread from the June 9 issue of The New Republic
In 1950, Brazil played Uruguay in the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro. 200,000 people stuffed into the oversized lifesaver that is The Maracanã Stadium—Brazil’s holiest of temples. A game that was supposed to assert Brazil’s dominance turned into a national tragedy. The home side lost, 2-1. After the game, the Brazilians burned their jerseys, and the national team took a two-year hiatus from its adopted pastime.
Since that dance in the inferno, Brazil’s best kinesthetic artists have trademarked a playing style powered by samba and chutzpah to the tune of five World Cup trophies, Pelé, the original Ronaldo, this, this, this, this and countless amounts of these. It’s not until June 12, when the 2014 World Cup kicks off in São Paulo, though, that Brazil can begin to avenge the wretched ghosts of 1950 and make right a 64-year-wrong.
Soccer has not changed that much since Brazil played Uruguay over six decades ago—22 players, one ball, and two goals—although the tournament’s role as a bottled sports event for European and South American fanatics has evolved. In the U.S. alone the sport is the second most popular for the 12- to 24-year-old demographic. The 180,000 tickets bought by U.S. fans for this World Cup are the most of any non-host nation, according to “U.S. Against the World,” in Men’s Journal. A more globalized world and myriad fan base means more opportunities for brands to turn a profit.
One person who is well aware of this is Pelé. The sport’s poster child since his debut at 17, he signed his first endorsement after the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with packaging company Tetra Pak. In the 70s, he was the second most recognizable brand in the world after Coca-Cola, according to a survey. Now, all his deals are worth some $73 million estimated one of Pelé’s business partners.
Pelé’s “money machine,” as S.L. Price coined it in his Sports Illustrated piece, “Everybody Wants a Piece of Pelé,” stops at nothing. Pelé will happily construct a façade of the pure joy he showed as a player for book signings, team endorsements, or the yellow and green of Subway. You can even buy diamonds with carbon from his hair. As S.L. Price writes, “the timeless nowhereness of personal endorsements makes details such as one’s home country secondary. The product is king.”
The campaign to bring the World Cup back to Pelé’s homeland was as much political as it was emotional. The World Cup, along with the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, was meant for Brazil to shake off the buzzed aura of a perennial bridesmaid and prove it was a focused country ready to compete with the economic muscle of the U.S., Europe, and China. Things didn’t go to plan.
To spread the wealth to more areas, organizers expanded the event from the mandated eight sites to 12 sites. Their ambition backfired, and half-finished airports and media centers are to show for it, as detailed in “Pitch Imperfect” from the May 17 issue of The Economist. In the end, they proved Esquire UK’s Andrew Downie correct. “Brazilians are world leaders in cobbling things together at the last minute, but they can’t for the life of them plan ahead,” he said in an article detailing the ramshackle world of domestic soccer leagues in Brazil.
Since Brazil won the rights to host the tournament in 2008, public approval has dropped from 79% to 48%. Protestors took to the streets during the 2013 Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament, angry over high transit prices and poor education as the government flipped the bill for the 30-day-sporting event. For “Trouble Funk” in Esquire UK, Bruce Douglas traveled to Rio’s poorer neighborhoods in the wake of rolezinhos—a form of youth protest where rowdy crowds blast music and throw parties in public places to show their displeasure with bureaucracy. A phenomenon, “manifest by the sheer waste and incompetence released by its (the government’s) dysfunctional attempts to deliver 12 new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup,” concluded Douglas. The opposition’s argument, basically, is that FIFA is more important to the political elite than the needs of the citizens.
Regardless of government ineptitude and citizen unrest, the show must go on. 732 players from 32 nations have endured years of qualifying matches for a chance to turn childhood dreams into a dizzying reality. The New Republic understood the narrative potential and compiled “The Literary Eleven ” for the highbrow fan to ponder. Distinguished writers flaunted worthy players with a slew of adjectives and verbs to grasp the athletes’ presence on the field. An Argentine winger doubles as Kafka; a Spanish midfielder moves in musical cadences; a shifty Dutch forward channels his inner Sir Patrick Stewart; and a Portuguese defender embodies Kurt Vonnegut’s idea of a villain.
For the less bookish, more tactically minded fans, Men’s Fitness contributor Noah Davis delved into coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s updated approach to Team USA’s fitness for “American Hustle.” The Americans have no problem with running. In the 2010 World Cup the team averaged a tournament high 73.6 miles per game. Klinsmann’s goal is to make sure they are economical athletes, not just endurance bots, that focus on ball movement as much as cardio.
Then there are the few transcendent players who warrant a full profile. At only 26, Lionel Messi has the odd distinction of laying a decent claim to being the best player ever, but still being the second best player in his native Argentina. Thanks to Diego Maradona, the stocky playmaker who is lionized in his country for delivering a World Cup trophy in 1986, Messi doesn’t get the same love on home soil as he does from club FC Barcelona in Spain. But public taste has begun to shift.
ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson traveled to Buenos Aires and found a new generation of Argentines that equate more with Messi’s composed dominance than his predecessor’s cavalier showmanship in “Shadowed by the Hand of God.” Maradona’s magic on the field during oppressive regimes “purged the shame of the country,” wrote Thompson, but he’s used his post-playing days as a field test for his invincibility: drugs, prostitutes, rehab, and stuff like this. No matter how much cocaine he does, Maradona can never snort his way out of Argentine folklore. Messi must seize his chance to win a World Cup and reach mythical status. At 26 and in his prime, now is his best chance.
For players like Messi, every World Cup means new gear—from Puma’s micro-massaging Italian jersey to Adidas’s official Brazuca ball, which has thermal bonded panels and divots like a golf ball for a less disruptive, more controllable flight, as explained in Science Uncovered’s “The Science of the World Cup.” Yet, the biggest advancement at this World Cup has nothing to do with what the athletes are wearing or kicking.
While players’ apparel continues to push science to its fiction point, officiating technology is stuck in prehistoric times. The set up of one main referee and two linesmen has not changed since 1891. As a result, goals were scored that didn’t count, shots that didn’t cross the line were awarded, and one player scored with his hand. All blatantly obvious to the millions watching but missed by the three people deciding the call.
After pressure on FIFA, soccer’s governing body will debut goal-line technology to aide officials. The system, operated by a German company called GoalControl, uses seven cameras on each goal to capture 500 images per second and track the ball within five millimeters. In case the official chooses to ignore the information a 3D image of the ball’s flight is beamed to screens in the stadium. Referees should remember to double-check all calls when Brazil is playing. If they make a wrong decision against the home side, then it may reignite the throes of 1950.
There you have it. A primer on the 5,760 minutes of the 64 games over 30 days. For free articles covering the World Cup, check out Zinio’s website and mobile apps. For full World Cup preview issues click these links to ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Esquire UK, FourFourTwo UK, World Soccer and ESPNFC. Full-blooded soccer fans should download a copy of the summer issue of Howler Magazine. To get you started, below are four in-depth articles that cover different patches of the beautiful game. The tournament begins on Thursday when hosts Brazil play Croatia.
“Portrait of a Serial Winner,” ESPN The Magazine, June 9
No matter how many goals Luis Suarez scores, he can’t shake his bad-boy image. The Uruguayan striker has bitten opponents on two occasions, been labeled a racist for a slur murmured at a defender, and simulated fouls throughout his career. Wright Thompson headed to Uruguay to pinpoint the headbutt that started it all. He unearthed a wild story, full of a botched hit-and-run and corrupt league officials, but he never found the referee Suarez allegedly assaulted as a 15-year-old boy. Instead, he begins to understand why Suarez—a poor kid from a broken family—looses his cool when the stakes get raised. “Basically, the theory goes, anything that threatens his ability to score, and win, isn’t processed in his subconscious as the act of a sportsmen but, rather, as an act of aggression against his wife and children.”
“5.7.82,” Esquire UK, June
In 1982, Brazil broke the shackles off the ugly style of play that plagued them under years of military dictatorship to reveal one of the most freewheeling teams of all time. A seven-year-old Tim Lewis was so mesmerized by the team on TV that his parents’ divorce hardly registered on his conscience. Brazil danced through their opening games until they met their kryptonite: an obtrusive Italian team that deployed the antithesis of Brazil’s exuberant play. Brazil lost, and the team’s most prominent players, Zico and Sócrates, described it as, “the day football died.” In this memoir, Lewis recalled the emptiness when Brazil exited the tournament but years later he arrived at a different conclusion than the star players. “That afternoon in Barcelona was not a simple question of athleticism trumping creativity, but the realisation that now the best teams would combine both.”
“Brazil’s Dance With the Devil,” The Nation, June 9
The public protests in Brazil against the World Cup have been well documented in the news. Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports editor, expanded his reporting into a book of the same name to shed a brighter light on the forces at work. One thing is for sure. Support for the cause is dwindling. “The word ‘FIFA’ is about as popular here as ‘FEMA’ in New Orleans after Katrina,” another journalist told Zirin. Most coverage has been reactionary, but Zirin’s words take a cautionary approach. “If we get swept up in the World Cup but forget the nobodies who are swept away, then we should not be surprised when FIFA or the IOC comes calling in our towns, and we find ourselves branded nobodies.”
“Shootout,” Bloomberg Businessweek, May 19 – 25
“Nike wants soccer, Adidas needs it,” wrote Brendan Greeley in Bloomberg Businessweek. The two apparel companies spend millions to court players, carve out markets, and turn Facebook “Likes” into dollars. To get a taste of the head-to-head battle, he went from discussions with cleat designers at Adidas’s headquarters in Germany to the unveiling of Nike’s World Cup line at a castle in Spain. Adidas still trumps Nike by about half a billion dollars in soccer revenue and owns lucrative sponsorship deals with FIFA and UEFA, but Nike has ample skin in the game. “Nike’s new ad also shows what the company has always done best. It hints at an event, owning it without ever having to pay for it.”