A five-time champion, host nation is hoping to finally win a world cup at home, easing the pain of the 1950 loss to Uruguay. (Full FIFA World Cup 2014 coverage)
A Brazilian fan clicks a selfie ahead of his teams opening match of FIFA World Cup.
Let play begin. Although accusations of disrepute hang over FIFA and its officials, it's the players on the field who can restore the World Cup's global shine beginning this week in Brazil, the country that created the legend of the "beautiful game." (Seen the new Google Doodle?)
Fans everywhere will be looking to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to show what exceptionally gifted entertainers they are. And if Luiz Felipe Scolari is as good a prophet as he is a coach, the final at the end of this 32-nation, 64-game tournament could end with his Brazilian side facing Argentina in the final in Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. (Also read: Brazil Races Towards Kick-Off)
Precedence suggests he might be right. South American teams have won all seven World Cups that have been staged in the Americas since the event began in 1930. But Brazil, the most successful and often the most thrilling team to watch, has never won the trophy in its own vast country.
The one chance it had, back in 1950, ended in defeat at the hands of its much smaller neighbor, Uruguay. Brazil today has more than 200 million people; Uruguay's population, meanwhile, has risen to 3.4 million. But it takes only 11 men on each team to play a game of soccer and only one player to score the winning goal in a World Cup final.
In the 1950 final, that player was Alcides Ghiggia. At 87, he is today the only member of that Uruguayan team who is still alive. He told FIFA.com in an interview recorded in Spanish at the start of this year: "What I always say is that only three people have ever been able to silence the Maracana: the pope, Frank Sinatra, and me. The stadium went totally quiet, you couldn't hear a sound."
Brazil has won the World Cup five times since then - in Sweden in 1958, in Chile in 1962, in Mexico in 1970, in the United States in 1994 and in Japan in 2002. Each victory came miles from home, and no other country except Spain, the winner in 2010 in South Africa, has won outside of its continent.
The style of Brazil's triumphs, particularly the first three, which all involved the peerless Pele;, might have soothed the shock of 1950, what became known as the Maracanazo. But that term, literally the Maracana Blow, has been handed down the generations until now.
There is a possibility that Brazil and Uruguay could meet again at this World Cup, in the quarterfinals at Fortaleza on July 4. For that to happen, Brazil would have to win its group and then a game in the first knockout stage. Uruguay would have to progress as the runner-up from its own tough group.
Ghiggia, who is still healthy enough to travel, says he would give his life to revisit Brazil and witness another triumph for his country.
Brazilians might well say, "Bring it on." Bookmakers regard Argentina as a greater threat to Brazil this time. However, neither of those countries is the current South American champion. Uruguay is, having won the Copa America, the region's prized trophy, when it was last staged in 2011, in Argentina.
It was also Uruguay that went furthest among the continent's teams at the last World Cup, in 2010, finishing third.
"Other countries have their history," said Ondino Viera, the Uruguayan coach at the 1966 World Cup. "Uruguay has its football."
Viera played and lived this obsession through his 96 years until his death in 1997. His modern equivalent, Oscar Washington Tabarez, is a primary school teacher turned soccer trainer who embraces "la garra charrua," the warrior spirit of Uruguay's native Indian population.
That winning mentality has had its dark side. There was a time in the 1990s when Enzo Francescoli, a marvelously elegant, gliding creator looked like a prince of light among his teammates who took no prisoners in the physical way that they downed their opponents.
Among today's Uruguayan players, Luis Suarez seems to combine the two extremes of the country's soccer past. He ranks maybe one rung below Messi and Ronaldo among world talents at the moment. Playing for Liverpool, Suarez was, by a wide margin, the outstanding striker in England's Premier League this season.
His spirit of chasing down every ball is certainly the spirit of the charrua. But his mean streak was evident in England, where he served two long bans, one for a racist taunt to Patrice Evra, a black Manchester United player, and another for biting the arm of a Chelsea opponent, Bransilav Ivanovic. He had served a similar ban for biting when he played for Ajax in Amsterdam. And in South Africa in 2010, his deliberate hand ball in the quarterfinals deprived Ghana of a semifinal opportunity.
Suarez, in a race against time to overcome injury before the World Cup, is the good, the bad, and the essence of what makes Uruguay such a threat beyond the sum of its tiny population.
But if he doesn't make the first games of this tournament, Uruguay has other talent. Its problem is in defense, but in attack it has the envious choice between the experienced Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and the rising stars Abel Hernandez and Christian Stuani.
Few nations boast such proven strikers. Brazil has Neymar, but is short of others to help him. Portugal has Ronaldo, and prays for his health. Argentina might be the one other force blessed with such attacking potential.
But striking on the big day is something else. That is why Ghiggia is remembered by Brazilians and Uruguayans alike, even by those who never saw him play.
He was a light, mercurial winger, only 1.69 meters, or 5 feet, 6 inches, tall. There were more than 200,000 people packed into the stadium that day in 1950, anticipating the crowning glory of the host nation's first World Cup.
The archives of that decisive encounter in Rio, complimented by the way that Ghiggia remembers it, make fascinating reading.
On the morning of the game, the local newspaper O Mundo led with a photograph of the Brazilian team and a presumption: "These are the world champions," it wrote.
Uruguay's captain, Obdulio Varela, reportedly laid copies of that paper on the bathroom floor and suggested that his teammates urinate on them.
In the locker room, Uruguay's coach, Juan Lopez, outlined a tactical plan that concentrated on defense against the forward power of Brazil. Once the coach left the room, the captain had his say. "Juancito is a good man," Valera reportedly said. "But today, he is wrong. If we play defensively against Brazil, our fate will be no different from Spain or Sweden."
Ghiggia also recalls three Uruguay team directors speaking to the senior players, suggesting that the team had accomplished enough.
"They said we should just try to behave ourselves well on the pitch," Ghiggia said in the FIFA video. "And they said we should be happy just to lose by three or four goals."
Varela, the captain, bided his time. He waited until the teams were in the tunnel and then delivered a rousing speech. "Muchachos, los de afuera son de palo. Que empiece la funcioo," he famously said, which translates roughly as, "Boys, outsiders don't play. Let's start the show."
He concluded with the line that every underdog now uses: On the field, we are 11 against 11.
Brazil, as expected, was first to score. The goal came two minutes after half-time, from the foot of Sao Paulo's Friaca. Varela created a hiatus, a latter day example of gamesmanship, by arguing vehemently that the goal should have been disallowed for offside. He went so far as to demand that the English referee, George Reader, listen to him through an interpreter.
The goal stood, but the Uruguayan skipper used the moment to provoke his team to even greater intensity. This, he said, was the time to attack.
The equalizing goal came at 66 minutes, when Ghiggia cut the ball back for Juan Alberto Schiaffino to strike. Schiaffino, already renowned by followers of Penarol, was later to earn his fortune in Italy, playing with A.C. Milan, and then Roma, and even transferring his national allegiance to represent the Italian national side.
Ghiggia was never to leave Montevideo. His fame was secured 11 minutes from the end of the World Cup final in the Maracana when he burst down the right. He saw Brazil's goalkeeper, Barbosa, make a move to prevent a repeat of his pass to Schiaffino. So Ghiggia instead shot into the gap between the keeper and the post.
"I thought about my family, my friends, and my teammates as they came to hug me," the winger recalled. "But when the game was over, you could see people crying. Even though we won and were happy, you couldn't help feel sad. People were crying inconsolably."
More than crying. There were deaths that day from heart failure in Brazil, and deaths from excitement in Uruguay. Jules Rimet, the Frenchman who led FIFA in those more innocent times, concluded: "The silence was morbid, sometimes too difficult to bear."
© 2014 New York Times News Service
Story first published on: Thursday, 12 June 2014 13:07 IST