This is my third time being in the host country during the World Cup final stages. In England, 1966 was all about World Cup Willie and that ‘We’ll win the cup.” So, it turned out, and a victory so steeped in historical significance, as West Germany were beaten on the hallowed turf of Wembley.
I’d like to say that the word for the tournament should have been lionized. I really remember many things apart from the final. The kicking of Pele. The rise of Eusebio. The horrible tactics of the Argentina team, especially, Ratín. England playing in red, and the country full of bulldog spirit. I was wrapped up in it all. The West Ham trio of Hurst, Moore, and Peters were national heroes, so was manager, Alf Ramsey.
Twenty years later, I was on a working visit to Latin America, including Mexico in time for the final game. My boss had hooked up his tickets; I had to fend for myself. I did alright, snagging a pair from a tout at face value. My friend and I were right behind a goal, with a perfect view. The final was superb play and drama, with Argentina, blessed with the imagination and guile of Maradona, overcoming Germany, again. I was bitter that the Argentines were in the final, having cheated England out of the semifinals, with Maradona’s handball goal. But, I swallowed that as I feasted on my luck, seated at the final.
The endearing image of 1986 was Maradona, good and bad. It was his tournament.
The whole trip was intriguing, involving mainly meetings with central bankers, finance ministry officials, and commercial bankers, about how to get the region’s major debtors out of their debt crises, which had started with Mexico declaring default in 1982. Some of our meetings were interrupted by football, never the other way around, as we moved through Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico, as the region sought solace in the bliss that was football.
It’s only now that I notice that Germany was a constant, getting to the final each time I was present, and losing. Ominous? My Brazilian hosts must hope so. They have ready made excuses if they fall now, having lost one of their stars to injury. No more, Neymar.
But, they have Christ the Redeemer looking over them in many ways. The statue is the dominant image of Rio. But, religion is taken seriously here, and saying that football is religion is no mere cliche. I think Brazilians feel that they will win at home. But, they are afraid…of Argentina. The rivalries between the two countries are long-lived, deep-seated, and ready to flare up over football. Brazil could lose to any country, but not Argentina. It would be beyond grief, if they lose. The ecstasy side would be simpler…party, forever.
Brazil has left one great image, the image of David Luiz scoring against Colombia in the quarterfinal. The free kick was sublime: a knuckleball kick, with ball not rotating and hit the net from about 25 meters. Watch it. Then see his glory run. Pure relief for him and 190 million others.
Churches are decked in yellow and green bunting, their insides bathed in green light.
If praying counted, the match will be Brazil’s.
Fans are donning their green and yellow garb, teeth are not spared. My wife has turned our troupe into Neymar babies. One paper had masks of the fallen hero. We are all number 10.
Heavy rain has just started, a few hours before the match. An omen? Pull out the rosaries.