Ultimate home field advantage: Host nation luck
For the elite nations in soccer, being named by FIFA as a host nation is almost like putting one hand on the championship trophy before the first match is played.
Only eight nations have won World Cups, and six of them have done it on home soil.
England in 1966 and France in 1998 won their only titles in front of adoring home fans. Uruguay (1930), Italy (1934) and Argentina (1978) won the first of their multiple titles as host nations.
Sweden (finalist in 1958), Chile (3rd place in 1962), South Korea (4th place in 2002) and Mexico (quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986) all have had their best finishes while playing as host nations.
South Africa in 2010 became the first host nation to not advance past the first round.
Hosting a World Cup has been the ultimate homefield advantage in sports, which is why Brazil playing as host of the 2014 event has such intrigue.
With titles in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, Brazil has won the most championships.
With titles in Sweden, Chile, Mexico, the United States and South Korea, the Seleção (The Selection) has remarkably won on four of the five continents where World Cups have been played.
In contrast, Spain in South Africa in 2010 is the only European nation to win a World Cup outside of Europe. Argentina (Mexico in 1986) is the only other champion to win on more than one continent.
But the place where Brazil most desperately wanted to win a World Cup is the place of its greatest national sports failure – at home.
In 1950, Brazil hosted the World Cup and was supremely confident that it would bring home its first title.
The Brazilians rolled through group play by an aggregate score of 8-2. To avoid the chances of an upset, Brazil had convinced FIFA to change the second round from a knockout phase to a second round-robin, with the champion determined by points.
Brazil blasted Sweden, 7-1, and then Spain, 6-1. In the final round, with one match remaining, Brazil needed only a draw with Uruguay to claim victory, and the 200,000 fans who crowded in the newly built Estádio do Maracanã anticipated another rout to crown a champion.
The Brazilian Football Confederation had 22 gold medals with the names of the players ready to present to them as kings of soccer.
But after taking a lead in the opening minutes of the second half, Brazil faltered. Uruguay equalized and then with 11 minutes remaining scored a second goal to win, 2-1, take the title and crush the dreams of a nation.
Beloved before the game, the Brazilian players were vilified after. There were also reports of suicides from fans because of the loss.
The loss became known as “The Maracanazo,” and was a source of national humiliation.
Well past a half century later, the national conscience of Brazil has still not fully recovered. Some say it took that long for the nation to recover the courage to try to host a World Cup again.
And now 64 years later, another group of Brazilians are out to erase the only erasable blemish on the national team’s record.
The world has changed. Brazil has changed.
It is no longer the emerging nation looking for international respect, as it was in 1950.
The 2014 World Cup is a source of controversy, as many Brazilians are using it as a platform to protest for social issues they feel the billions of dollars spent would have served better.
If Brazil’s play on the pitch is not successful – i.e. win the title – then the thoughts of “what was this all for?” will magnify.
It’s into this cauldron of national regret and social unrest that Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who managed the 2002 world champions, and his 22 players take to the pitch.
They will draw the attention of a nation.
In their first World Cup experience, young stars such as 22-year-olds Neymar and Oscar are expected to match the legendary glories of Pelé, Carlos Alberto Torres, Romário and Ronaldo.
The challengers will be tough and plentiful.
Spain is the reigning champion and at the top of the FIFA world rankings. The Red Fury is looking to join Italy (1934, ’38) and Brazil (1958, ’62) as back-to-back champions.
Three-time champion Germany, who is in Group D with the United States, is ranked higher than No. 4 Brazil.
Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands will field strong teams that will again be among the usual suspects who can win.
There will be dark-horse contenders such as Belgium, Uruguay, Switzerland and even England.
Still, the confidence of the nation is high, because Brazil beat 2014 World Cup participants Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay on its way to the finals of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
The Canarinhos (Little Canaries) ripped Spain, 3-0, at the Maracanã to win the title.
But everything about Brazil soccer is about higher expectations.
It is not enough to just win. Winning must be accomplished while playing with rhythm, style, flare and grace.
But if Brazil does not perform well and play beautifully from the start, the criticism and pressure that will be there anyway will grow more intense.
As it advances through each round, expectations will build, but negative thoughts of 1950 will inevitably make up more and more of the conversation.
The reminders of that failure will be all-consuming.
Brazil will be expected to reach the championship match on July 13 at a refurbished Estádio do Maracanã that has been scaled down to about 79,000 seats.
Should it get there, a nation will simultaneously hold its collective breath in anticipation of a glorious victory, while fearing a repeat of its most ignominious defeat.
There is no logic to the almost religious-like passions soccer ignites in Brazil. It simply is what it is.
It is for that reason that hosting the 2014 World Cup could play out to be the biggest advantage for Brazil or disintegrate into its worst handicap.