The Samba party in Sao Paulo is about to kick off

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The eagerly awaited bonanza that is the Football World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events on the planet in terms of world viewership, is about to start in a couple of days’ time in Brazil’s second biggest city. The world’s eyes are set on the centre stage where 32 teams are fighting it out for the prestigious trophy after going through a gruelling qualifying campaign over the last couple of years.

Brazil is one of the largest growing economies of the world but with a huge gap between the rich and poor classes with thousands of thriving shantytowns and favelas, where drug trafficking and lawlessness prevails. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these slums in less than ideal conditions, especially in Rio and Sao Paulo. Protests against the Government and metro strikes in Sao Paulo by workers demanding pay rise is threatening the transport system, which is going to be heavily tested in the days to come. Hopefully that doesn’t divert the attention from a country which is not only hosting the World cup but also the Olympics in the coming years, signifying a major shift in the world dynamics. Brazil is home to the magical Amazon with the landscape and rainforest it has shaped flourishing the fauna and flora of the region spanning a big chunk of the South American continent! Once a Portuguese colony, it is indeed one of the powerhouses of the region alongwith Venezuela, with a rich diverse culture, where people of different backgrounds and races live together, observed so markedly in their national teams. The World Cup no doubt and the Olympics later will no doubt attract hundreds of thousands of tourists to this majestic place.

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Sao Paulo at its best!

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Maracana and its shanty towns!

Brazil, the five time champion is the overwhelming favourite, not only with the football fans all over the world but also with the bookies; with Argentina, a close second. Whether it would be a Neymar or a Messi show, only time will tell. History has shown World cups have made heroes and villains alike. I started following football in the 80s, when Paulo Rossi led Italy to their World cup win in Madrid in 1982. We all fell in love in ’86 with Diego Maradona, whether it was his ‘Hand of God’ goal against the English or his mesmerizing goal against the same opponents and his sheer dominance and brilliant display of soccer skills. The Argentinians defeated West Germany in the Aztec Stadium, Mexico in the final, watched by over a 100,000 people. I had missed the era of Johan Cruyff’s Total Football in the 70s and the Brazil’s team of 1970, which was arguably the best ever team by a wide margin, only the recent Spanish sides claiming to be the distant second. In 1970, the Brazilian team led by Carlos Alberto with Pele, Tostao, Rivelino and Jairzinho, utterly dominated all its opponents, winning all the qualifying matches and the six matches, winning the final 4-1, leading to an unprecedented third title and their hands on the Jules Rimet Trophy forever.

Come the 90s, it was West Germany’s turn to dominate under Lothar Matthaus, defeating a defensive Argentinian team in a one sided final. Four years later, the Brazilians won their fourth title in USA, with Romario and Bebeto pushing forwards with a tight defence marshalled by the defensive midfielder captain Dunga. Their match against the Dutch was one of the most memorable ones. The familiar scene of Roberto Baggio shooting the penalty high above the crossbar sealing Italy’s fate in the shootout. In 1998, it was the Zidane show at Stade de France, with his two headers helping France win their first and only title against the formidable Brazil. The 2002 Cup held for the first time in Asia, with Japan and South Korea co hosting, sprang lots of surprises. We all had our support for the Turks who reached the semis. Brazil ably serviced by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho lived up to their reputation. Ronaldo scoring both goals against Germany in the final and winning the Golden Boot!

The 2006 World Cup was won by the Italians but was made ever so famous with the Zidane head butt which led to his ouster from the final, eventually France losing on penalties. The next few years were dominated by the exceptionally talented Spanish side which won the Euros and then the World Cup in 2010 in a highly one sided final against the Dutch. There was no single star amongst the star studded Spanish team which were perennial underachievers in previous International tournaments. Even the second string players could stake claim to most of the European and World sides easily. That seems to be the case currently too, such is the abundance of talent there.

Who will claim the big prize, we can only speculate till the final at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Who will be the star of the show, the likes of Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Hazard, Suarez or anyone from the obscurities emulating the likes of Schillaci in 1990?

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Traditionally the South American teams do well on their continent, the heat and humidity being a big factor. That gives more chance to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay amongst the six South American teams. Germany, Spain and Belgium are the European powerhouses on paper and form. We can never discount the Italians and Dutch. England would probably struggle to reach the second round in a tough group, France are lucky to have an easy ride in the first round. The African teams can spring a surprise or two but they and the Asian sides are unlikely to put any pressure to reach the second round this time. Brazil has got a well-oiled defence, with the world’s best defenders arguably in their team, and an attractive midfield with a decent strike force, an ideal combination. Argentina has arguably the best forward line and Germany the most balanced team. Spanish stars are dominating the clubs world over, but no one is giving them any chance above fourth place. Their midfield is not only their positive but also a negative point, at times keeping too much possession without pushing forward and teams well dug in can cause lots of problems and affect their scoring capability, the prolific Diego Costa of Atletico Madrid might be their saviour if he is given a chance ahead of Villa or the extended midfield with Fabregas in front.

All said, fingers crossed, I would slump on my comfy sofa, have a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the summer certainly wishing for a dream Brazil-Argentina final!

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