SATURDAY APRIL 29, 2017
 
Blog EGOS & ICONS
COUNTING DOWN TO BRAZIL 2014
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It's essentially one giant tune-up tournament, so there's precious little lasting glory on offer as the latest edition of soccer’s Confederations Cup gets underway Friday in Brasilia.

Even so, the event will be closely watched for indicators of what's to come, both on the field and off, because the arrival of this small-scale dress rehearsal means we're now officially less than one year away from the kickoff of World Cup 2014.

Sure, South Africa 2010 might not seem all that far behind in the rearview mirror, but it's Brazil in the spotlight now. And while hopes remain high for a top-notch tournament in 2014, it's fair to say there've been some stumbles.

Just over two weeks ago, as the Confederations Cup drew near, president Dilma Rouseff was boasting about the "beauty and modernity" of Brazil’s sparkling slate of new or renovated stadiums and decrying the "mutt complex" of inferiority to Europe and North America, the sense that her nation would fail to meet the challenges of hosting.

Unfortunately for Rouseff, that stirring speech was delivered at almost the exact moment a renovated stadium in the coastal city of Salvador was stricken by a tear in its new roof, which buckled under the weight of accumulated rainwater one day after it had been accidentally bent out of shape during an inspection.

FIFA was gracious enough to agree with local organizers that the Salvador collapse was an "isolated incident." But soccer's governing body has been less patient when it comes to everything else on the lengthy list of concerns that have plagued preparations both for the Confederations Cup, and next year's big show.

As far back as March, 2012, FIFA exec Jerome Valcke was openly fuming that local organizers needed to "give themselves a kick up the backside," sparking a nasty feud with Brazilian officials over missed deadlines, delays and other disappointments. Valcke even threatened to strip Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, from hosting duties if its stadium isn't completed on time.

There was more humiliation in recent weeks when a June 1 friendly against England at Rio de Janeiro's renovated Maracana was called off by safety concerns just two days beforehand, then given the go-ahead in a surprise reversal the following day. The match, a 2-2 tie, went off without issue … at least in the stands. Things weren't so successful, however, in the television truck, where host broadcaster Globo struggled with the quality and consistency of its feed, entirely missing large chunks of the second half and causing widespread fury among European viewers.

brasil_football.jpgThen there's the myriad of off-field shortcomings that threaten to leave Brazil's World Cup glass less than half full. Badly-needed infrastructure improvements for airports, roads and rail links have all fallen by the wayside, and won't be completed in time. There are concerns about the quality and reliability of telecommunications systems and hotels, and visitors are being warned to expect sky-high prices on almost everything. In a country where many are desperately poor, there is anger that $3.5 billion has been budgeted for the World Cup, three times the amount spent by South Africa. And despite a government pledge in 2007 that all stadium construction would be privately financed, much of the funding has come from the public coffers.

Still, in a nation of seemingly perpetually sunny outlooks and equally enchanting weather, the spirit of joga bonito is likely to infuse everyone with just enough joy to soothe any headaches come tournament time. Of course, the local outlook will also be largely determined by the fortunes of the home team. Brazil's beloved Selecao will be under enormous pressure to win their first trophy since 2002, and in doing so avenge an infamous home defeat to Urugauy in the 1950 final, the most recent World Cup to be held there.

Long revered for their style and flair, the hosts are increasingly anchored by stalwart defensive play rather than a free-flowing attack these days. And while Brazil finds itself lagging behind nations like Greece and Switzerland in the world rankings, the mantle of most beautiful team has undoubtedly shifted to Spain, who aren’t just defending World Cup champions for the first time, but also own the past two European titles, won in 2008 and 2012. Unbeaten in qualifying for next summer's tournament, they've now played 22 matches since their last defeat.

With the clock ticking down to 2014, FIFA is still fretting about the many uncertainties that persist, in both sporting terms and practical ones, over Brazil's readiness for a World Cup. Too bad the hosts can't be more like all-conquering Spain. When it comes to entertainment value, consistency and reliability, they’re the most sure thing in soccer.

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