Soccer, football, futbol, futebol… Call it what you like, the sport which requires nothing more than a ball (and a couple of tin cans for goalposts) is synonymous with South America. And finally, after a 64 year wait, football’s centerpiece is coming home. The last time the World Cup was played on South American soil was in 1978 (in Argentina) but we haven’t had a Brazilian World Cup since 1950.
Much of the pre-tournament news has been about the unprepared stadia and the widespread protests at the perceived waste of taxpayers’ money. But you can rest assured that when it all kicks off on 12 June, with Brazil v Croatia, the negativity will all be forgotten and the entire continent will be stricken with a severe case of football fever which lasts at least until the final is played on 13 July, probably longer.
If my experiences in Argentina during World Cup years are anything to go by, the whole of South America will grind to a shuddering halt for those four weeks. Except this time it’ll be even more ridiculous than usual. When there’s a game on (even if it’s as random as Iran v Nigeria) it will be impossible to find a taxi or get a haircut. Government buildings will close and hospitals will slow to a crawl. Newspapers will cease to cover politics, current affairs or finance and will focus on football and football alone. And everyone, no matter their age, gender or usual interests and hobbies, will become a fanatico for a month.
Brazil, who have won the tournament 5 times, and whose play coined the phrase joga bonito (the beautiful game) is far and away the most successful football nation in the world, but the entire South American continent is a rags to riches football success story. With nowhere near as much money or infrastructure behind them as European teams, South American nations have still managed to win 9 of the 19 FIFA World Cups so far (Argentina and Uruguay have won it twice each) and even tiny nations like Paraguay and Chile consistently punch far above their weight on the global stage.
Football courses through South American veins with more fervor than Catholicism or nationalism could ever hope to. It is played on beaches and in plazas; at gas stations and in shanty towns. And everywhere it is played, it is played with passion. Football is the great leveler. For many young South American boys it is the only possible exit from a spiral of poverty and crime. In South America parents encourage their male children to speak with their feet, not their fists or their mouths.
The rise from poverty to obscene wealth enjoyed by great players such as Maradona, Pele, Rivaldo and Ronaldo has inspired generations to come to follow in their footsteps – even though only a handful will ever make it. In some extreme cases players have even been sole breadwinners for their families since before they could read and write…As a child the enigmatic Argentine playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme was forced by his own father to play in the street games around which the illegal gambling industry revolves. Carlos ‘Apache’ Tevez had a similar introduction to the sport.
In many spheres of life, South Americans suffer from an inferiority complex. They see themselves as a continent who has squandered its many talents and resources and is lagging behind the rest of the world as a result of its own laziness. Anthropologists and sociologists have written books on the subject and politicians have made it the focus of their election campaigns. This inferiority complex applies to all walks of life bar one…
On the football field, boots or no boots, South Americans can stand tall, entertaining the world and winning tournaments while they do it. South American footballers are the aristocrats of the game, and – win or lose – they play it with a style and panache that other teams can’t come close to matching.
Thanks to Zaqi and Lanpernas Dospuntozero for the images used in this post.