The biggest, loudest, longest, wildest party in the world kicks off Thursday in Brazil, as 32 teams descend on the soccer-crazed nation for the 2014 World Cup.
Nobody is under more pressure to win than the host Brazilians, five-time champions whose green and yellow flag is synonymous with soccer, whose team brings the entire country to a halt when it plays, and whose multiracial players, with their samba-inspired moves and unbridled joy for O Jogo Bonito (The Beautiful Game) are worshiped across the globe.
Most neutral fans following the World Cup will be pulling for Brazil. It’s hard to root against a collection of players so imaginative with the ball and so exuberant about their sport.
And to think this national obsession began with a man named Charles Miller, son of a Scottish father and Anglo-Brazilian mother, who was born in Brazil, educated in England and returned in 1894 with two leather soccer balls and a rulebook.
Rowing and horse racing were the most popular Brazilian sports at the time, but Miller was determined to convert locals to soccer. It wasn’t an easy sell.
According to the book Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil Through Soccer, a newspaper account of an early match read: "In Bom Retiro, a group of Englishmen, a bunch of maniacs as they all are, get together from time to time to kick around something that looks like a bull’s bladder. It gives them great satisfaction or fills them with sorrow when this kind of yellowish bladder enters a rectangle formed by wooden posts."
Miller founded the Sao Paulo Athletic Club and was able to round up some players for a few teams. Over time, the sport exploded. The English invented soccer, but the Brazilians made it an art form. There are now 6,000 Brazilian professional soccer players wowing fans on every continent.
Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country and soccer is one area in which Brazil has no equal.
Brazil is the only country to have participated in every World Cup. It has won an unparalleled five times and lost in two other finals. And the Brazilian team is a favorite to win again this summer, with its latest one-name wonder, Neymar, leading the way.
Brazil is a place where fans engrave their coffins with team logos, where soccer stars are known by just one name — Pele, Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Neymar — and where children of every race and socioeconomic background grow up dribbling not only soccer balls but any round objects they can find, from oranges to rolled-up socks to wads of masking tape.
"Every kid in Brazil gets as his first gift a soccer ball, and spends every single day on the streets, on the beach, or in the park playing 4-a-side or 5-a-side with his friends," said Paulo Nagamura, a Brazilian midfielder who plays for Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer. "You put two stones down or a pair of shoes to mark the goals. There isn’t much space, so Brazilian kids learn to be creative with the ball. The only way to beat your opponent is with fancy moves we call The Ginga (The Dance).
"We move with the soccer ball the way we dance, using our hips. Samba and other Brazilian music have a huge influence on how we play. Coaches don’t teach Brazilian kids how to play soccer. We learn on the streets, the way American kids play street basketball. They try to copy the moves of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and I tried to be like Romario and Ronaldo."
ESPN commentator Ian Darke says the world is about to witness a World Cup like never before. "The place will just simply come to a standstill with every game. It’s going to be the wildest night imaginable, even when they win their first game against Croatia, if they win it, of course. It’s just going to be the most enormous happening. I can only imagine what it would be like if Brazil were playing in the final against Argentina. Bigger than big, that’s football in Brazil."
Michelle Kaufman, The Miami Herald