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World Cup 2014 | The search for the Hexa

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2014 Jayaditya Gupta

Sao Paulo: On 16 July 1950, Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 in Rio de Janeiro to win the World Cup. In that simple fact lies a national tragedy that has haunted Brazil since, in ways that perhaps only Indians, prone to allowing such events to dominate their lives, will appreciate.

The immediate fallout of that result was the cancellation of the trophy award ceremony. Everything had been so geared to Brazil winning the cup that there simply hadn’t been a Plan B.

The long-term effects were more dramatic. Brazil’s national team didn’t play a match for two years, and, when they did, they had ditched their unlucky white strip for the yellow that has since become synonymous with the squad.

Changing the jersey was easy enough for the team. But for Brazil as a nation, ditching the ghost of that match—called “our Hiroshima” by one well-known commentator - has proved impossible, despite a record five World Cup wins since.

For 64 years, Brazilians have addressed the issue by not addressing it. Instead, they have allowed it to hang over their heads, a dark cloud that is at odds with this otherwise sunny land. Now they have a chance of redemption. That is the scale of the task facing the 23 young men in Brazil’s squad for this World Cup, to win the tournament and set right what in their minds has been a historic wrong. No pressure then.

As in 1950, 2014 is also an election year. Whereas the entire country backed the earlier tournament as a sort of coming-of-age party, things are different now. As the magazine Epoca put it, this is the cup that divides Brazil.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

President Dilma Rousseff, whose hitherto smooth campaign for the October polls has been severely undermined by criticism over the World Cup, was forced on Tuesday to make a prime-time TV address asking the country to back the tournament. In another age, she could have taken it for granted, but Brazil is deeply conflicted by the almost obscene spending on the tournament.

Which doesn’t make the job of the Selecao—as the Brazilian team is known—any easier. It helps though that the fans are solidly behind the team, marking a clear distinction between the team, the World Cup and the government.

That stand was evident during the Confederations Cup, the host country’s standard dress rehearsal for the main event. That, to the government’s and Fifa’s (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) huge embarrassment, was when the first anti-World Cup riots broke out and there were fears that the crowds would turn against football—and footballers—too.

But the crowds had other plans. When the Brazilian anthem was played before the match, they carried on singing the second verse though the music had stopped after the customary first. It was a simple, yet powerful statement, and still sends shivers down the spine when watched on YouTube. The anthem had long been seen as a symbol of Brazil’s many military dictatorships. Now, the people were taking it back. The players were initially caught off guard but then joined in the singing, several of them moved to tears by the emotion of it all.

Rousseff has figured out how, in the battle between protestors and football fans, the national team could be a bridge. “The national team represents nationality,” she said. “It’s above governments, parties and the interests of any group.”

That team has been deployed in various social and cultural battles, including—and here’s something India could take note of—a campaign against domestic violence.

The team’s personable, fresh-faced captain, Thiago Silva, is visible on almost all the dozens of TV channels, giving interviews in his calm and measured tone. Brazilian flags are everywhere, in almost every shop, lanchonette (sandwich bar), on streets and even in the corridors of the grand Municipal Market.

It helps that the team seems to have shed its defensive style of play and reverted, to some extent, to the beautiful game that is at once a blessing and a curse. At the least, they have in Neymar a star capable of producing some of the magic of his fabled fore-runners.

Rousseff herself is a symbol of just how far most of South America has come. The last time a World Cup was staged here, the host country—Argentina—was under one of the most repressive military dictatorships (as were nine others, including Brazil). Several players, most notably the Dutch great Johan Cruyff, stayed away from the tournament in protest. This time, democracy —however messy and flawed— has ensured that the world’s best players are in town.

The stage is set for the World Cup to return to its spiritual home. This is, whatever the doubters say, the greatest football tournament, the pinnacle for every footballer. Ask Lionel Messi about it. Or ask any of the smaller teams, from Algeria to Uruguay, about the thrill of representing their country with a billion people watching.

The irony is that Brazil have a more than decent chance to achieve the hexa—their sixth world title. They have not lost a competitive match in Brazil since 1975 and they have the crowd behind them. If they can break the hex, they should have their hexa.

Jayaditya Gupta, executive editor of Espncricinfo and a columnist for Mint, will be writing from South America for the duration of the World Cup.

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