Host Brazil to exorcise World Cup ghosts
By KEVIN BAXTER
By KEVIN BAXTER
Los Angeles Times
(MCT) — Brazil was so confident of victory in the last World Cup final played on its home soil, the country started to celebrate before the game had even started.
Millions of T-shirts with victory slogans had already been distributed. On the morning of that game in 1950 one newspaper printed a team photo with the headline "These are the world champions." And Jules Rimet, the president of FIFA and founder of the World Cup, prepared a speech congratulating Brazil, whose players had already been presented with gold watches inscribed "for the world champions."
It isn't hard to guess what happened next. Needing only a tie with Uruguay to win the title Brazil, playing before an overflow crowd of 200,000 in Rio de Janeiro's massive Maracana, gave up a goal to Alcides Ghiggia with 11 minutes remaining to lose both the game and the World Cup, 2-1.
At the final whistle one distraught fan committed suicide while three others suffered fatal heart attacks. The rest of the country went into mourning at what became known as "the Maracanazo," a national tragedy serious people there still liken to the bombing of Hiroshima or the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
"It was the first time I saw my father cry," said legendary Brazilian star Pele, who tried to make up for that disappointment by leading his country to three championships — although none of the World Cups were in Brazil.
But the 2014 World Cup has returned to Brazil and the home team is once again favored to win the title before a sellout crowd in Maracana Stadium.
Some Brazilians are taking no chances, though. In a suburb of Rio a colorful graffiti of Brazil's star striker Neymar kissing good-bye to the ghost of the Maracanazo — roughly translated as "the Maracana Blow" — has drawn crowds that come to kiss the wall it's painted on for luck.
Yet Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led the country to its last world championship 12 years ago, believes the 1950 World Cup final was a blessing not a curse.
"My vision of 1950 is entirely different to what most people think," Scolari told reporters at a FIFA workshop earlier this year. "Before 1950 Brazil had never gotten to the final, they were the pioneers of the five titles we have won since then. Those players got there and made Brazilian history.
"We built our success on top of them. We are going to try to get back to the Maracana for the final and properly remember the team of the '50s because they were wonderful and fantastic and that's how I'd like Brazilians to think about them."
Although some oddsmakers have Brazil as a 3-1 favorite to win the World Cup, Scolari's young team will be under tremendous pressure with many in soccer-mad Brazil saying only a victory can justify the $11 billion the country spent preparing for the tournament.
"We suffer pressure in all of the things we do," Neymar, Scolari's prized 22-year striker, said in an interview with WSJ Magazine. "It's normal in life. But if you're an athlete this pressure is bigger because you are an example for many people."
Scolari's roster includes just five holdovers from Brazil's disappointing 2010 team, which went out in the quarterfinals for the second consecutive World Cup. But the team is hardly inexperienced since 16 of its 23 players — including Neymar — were on the squad that blitzed Spain, 3-0, in last summer's Confederations Cup final.
For those players, the ghost of the Maracanazo is viewed the same way young Boston Red Sox fans once viewed "The Curse of the Bambino": as a page out of history too old for them to relate to. But even ancient curses have to be exorcised. Which is why the only tears Pele wants to see this July are tears of joy.
"I don't want to remember what happened in 1950," he told FIFA.com. "I have to have faith and believe that victory is possible, because you just never know. Football is a big box full of surprises and the best team doesn't always win.
"I just want to be positive and think that Brazil will win the Cup. That's what I want to believe."
FIFA World ranking: 4.
Last World Cup: 2010.
Best World Cup finish: Five-time champion (1958, '62, '70, '94, 2002).
How qualified: Host country.
Fun fact: Brazil hasn't lost a competitive game at home since September 1975, a string of 57 consecutive games.
The skinny: Brazil is young and talented but inexperienced at the World Cup level, with just five of the 23 men on its roster returning from 2010. But coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has been here before, leading Brazil to its last title in 2002 before guiding Portugal to the semifinals in 2006. He took over Brazil again in November 2012 and was charged with ushering in a new team, which he did with great success in last year's Confederations Cup as Brazil won for the third straight time. That may not be a good thing though: No reigning Confederations Cup champion has ever won a World Cup.
FIFA World ranking: 50.
Last World Cup: 2010.
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1990).
How qualified: Beat Tunisia in CAF playoff.
Fun fact: This will be Cameroon's seventh World Cup, most by an African nation. But it has advanced beyond the group stage just once.
The skinny: Cameroon is stocked with talent but it's going through a transition with several well-known figures _ Geremi and Rigobert Song among them _ having given way to youngsters such as Joel Matip, 22, and Nicolas N'Koulou, 24. The new mix was unimpressive in qualifying, a lack of form Cameroon confirmed this spring in losses to Portugal and Paraguay before playing Germany to a draw Sunday. As for how it does in Brazil, that will be decided by forward Samuel Eto'o, who has clashed with teammates and, at 33, is no longer the player who won four African Player of the Year awards.
FIFA World ranking: 20.
Last World Cup: 2006.
Best World Cup finish: Third place (1998).
How qualified: Beat Iceland in UEFA playoff.
Fun fact: Croatia did not compete as an independent country in the World Cup until 1998, seven years after it declared independence from Yugoslavia.
The skinny: Real Madrid's Luka Modric has earned the nickname "the Croatian Cruyff" for his elegant and precise passing. But under coach Niko Kovac, Modric and midfield mates Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic may be asked to sacrifice their attacking skills for a defensive posture _ especially with Croatia drawing the unenviable task of playing host Brazil in the opener. The team will be without experienced defender Josip Simunic, who was left home while serving a 10-match international ban for making a neo-Nazi salute after the qualifying win over Iceland.
FIFA World ranking: 19.
Last World Cup: 2010.
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1970, '86).
How qualified: Beat New Zealand in intercontinental playoff.
Fun fact: Coach Miguel Herrera has ordered his players to abstain from sex, red meat and alcohol until after the World Cup
The skinny: Herrera rescued Mexico at the end of a disastrous qualifying campaign, leading the team to a win over New Zealand in a playoff in November to grab one of the last invitations to Brazil. He hasn't lost since, going 6-0-2 to raise expectations at home once again. During his short tenure, he's come to rely on a team composed primarily of players from Mexico's domestic Liga MX, but he lost one of those players Saturday when midfield key Luis Montes broke his right leg moments after scoring in a World Cup warm-up with Ecuador.
Group A schedule
June 12: Brazil vs. Croatia at Sao Paulo.
June 13: Mexico vs. Cameroon at Natal.
June 17: Brazil vs. Mexico at Fortaleza.
June 18: Cameroon vs. Croatia at Manaus.
June 23: Cameroon vs. Brazil at Brasilia; Croatia vs. Mexico at Recife.