Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring a goal during a match against Sweden Tuesday. AP photo.
PARIS (AP) — Even though it comes around comet-like just once every four years, or perhaps precisely because of that, the World Cup’s grip on the planet’s imagination remains impressive. French fans’ delirious chants of “We’re going to Brazil!” after their team dug deep to defeat Ukraine in the playoffs and Cristiano Ronaldo’s joy at his hat trick that qualified Portugal showed how much this most global of sports tournaments means to nations and people alike.
Illogical, really, given that the World Cup isn’t soccer at its best. The best sides in club soccer are stronger, more balanced and often better to watch than many of the 32 national teams bound for Brazil.
The World Cup sinks its claws into people not by treating them to consistently dazzling play — you see better games on a more regular basis in the Champions League — but by tapping into base emotions of national pride. Next June, people who for three years of four have little or no interest in the sport will rally behind “their” team and paint flags on their faces.
All fine, of course. There are worse ways to let off steam. Sunk into your sofa and perhaps skipping sleep to soak up the drama of one nation besting another, it is comforting to know that billions of people around the globe are doing the exact same thing for the month when soccer takes over. As a shared human experience, the World Cup has few rivals.
As for every World Cup, expectations will build over the next seven months until the hype becomes almost unbearable, more so this time because the host is soccer-mad Brazil, a five-time world champion and home of the great Pele.
As always, the tournament will throw up surprises. A team that defends solidly but counterattacks swiftly could oust defending champion Spain well before the final.
There’ll be a feel-good story in Bosnia-Herzegovina, playing its first World Cup as an independent nation two decades after its war that killed more than 100,000 people.
Injuries that have sidelined Lionel Messi this year could prove a blessing in disguise in 2014, because they are forcing the four-time world player of the year to rest before the tournament where he must excel with Argentina to be considered an equal to Pele, a three-time World Cup winner.
But, at risk of spoiling this party, history also shows that the World Cup delivers hoped-for thrills only erratically, certainly of late. Not since Argentina 3, West Germany 2 way back in 1986 has the final game been a true classic.
From the first World Cup in 1930 and for the next 56 years, through 12 tournaments, both finalists always managed to score in the showcase game and, with the only exception of 1974, always from open play, not the penalty spot. In short, action flowed both ways.
That fine run ended in 1990 with Germany 1, Argentina 0. That sorry match, a stinker, started a new, less appealing pattern: In four of five finals since, the losing team has failed to score. France is the only exception — in 2006. But its solitary goal in losing to Italy came from a penalty kick, put away by Zinedine Zidane before he melted down and headed-butted Marco Materazzi.
Lopsided letdowns, stalemates and frustrating, often bad-tempered, disappointments have become a norm for the showcase game. The last time a World Cup crowd saw a losing finalist score in open play (it was Rudi Voeller for Germany in 1986) Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Tom Cruise was fighting the Cold War in “Top Gun” and Bananarama were chart-toppers.
Partly to blame is the weight of World Cup expectations, crushing for some. Fear of letting down entire nations makes coaches and teams cautious and inhibits players. Take Wayne Rooney. Decisive and strong-willed for Manchester United, the forward hasn’t scored in eight World Cup games for England.
As in South Africa four years ago, weak teams in Brazil — think the likes of Algeria, Australia, Greece, even England — will try to hang on for dear life against the game’s powers, packing their defenses and taking few risks. Understandable, perhaps, but dreary. Anyone who stayed awake, for example, through the tedium of Spain 1, Paraguay 0, in the 2010 quarterfinals should demand their 90 minutes back from FIFA.
Players will arrive tired from exhausting club seasons. The distances in Brazil will be taxing, too. When the World Cup was last played there, in 1950, France withdrew because it objected to the great distances between fixtures. Brazil’s team, for example, will fly some 4,000 miles next June from its base camp in Rio de Janeiro to its group games in Sao Paulo in the south, Fortaleza in the north and Brasilia in the middle of the country.
The World Cup isn’t going to go away, no matter how poor the show. The 2010 edition generated revenue of $3.6 billion for FIFA, a whopping sum that allows the governing body to grow the global game and grease the palms of its power-brokers. Presidents, princes and sheikhs beat paths to FIFA’s door for the prestige of hosting the tournament. Which begs the question: As the source of FIFA’s power and wealth, is the World Cup actually poisonous for soccer? Those who want fresh and more responsive, transparent leadership at the very top of the sport might be forgiven for thinking so.
As with South Africa, the World Cup will be looked to for proof that the $13 billion being spent by Brazil on stadiums, airport renovations and other infrastructure has been worth it. If streets aren’t filled with police tear gas and protesters, as they were in June at the warmup Confederations Cup, Brazil could be a ball. Passions outside the host country will run high regardless.
Cross fingers that the soccer lives up to the occasion.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester