Heat could cool European footballing ardour

The searing South American heat will stifle European teams and tired defences may concede goals. Ayon Sengupta on the course the 2014 World Cup could take.

A little merciful the world is to us, who are blessed with no discerning skills, but the sole grand ability to stay awake late, with neither rhyme nor reason. Every four years, now and then, we outlast — without an eyelid batting — the simple sleepy souls, who take far too many coffee breaks, but still fail to keep up with us or the game, unfolding thousands of miles and many time zones away. The quadrennial FIFA football feast, usually playing late on our television sets (in India and the subcontinent), finds a way to even things out.

The World Cup, though played by just 32 nations (a fairly big number compared to the 16, a few decades ago), is followed by millions and millions, from every nook and corner of the world and even the International Space Station today. The 2010 final between Spain and Holland in Johannesburg was seen by 909.6 million people, with each match in the edition averaging 188.4 million viewers. The opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, which had 204 participating nations, had an audience of 900 million.

And this time, the yearning to watch — the chances to be voluntarily bitten and turn into a football zombie — is more, as the 2014 tournament is extra special, marking a return to the land of ‘jogo bonito’ (beautiful game). In Brazil, winner of five world titles, football, as the cliché stands, has evolved as a way of life and Shobhan Saxena, a journalist based in Sao Paulo, rightly captured the mood in his recent essay for the Open magazine: “After living in Brazil for close to two years, during which the country has been preparing for the World Cup, I have realised that equating football with opium is to misunderstand the sport as well as Brazil. In this country, it is anything but an addiction. Brazil does not see football as a sport… It’s a social activity… It comes from within.”

So, despite the spiralling protests (against the economic and social implications), security concerns and behind-schedule infrastructure work, Brazil 2014 promises to be a grand success. Football and footballers will take over soon from organisation and organisers and the world hardly has any complaints against them.

The host, enjoying a rich vein of creative capacity, starts as the firm favourite and the possibility of a sixth win has already brought optimism from across the streets of Rio to the rainforest-cleared parts of Amazonia, where a few games will be played in newly built stadiums.

Brazil’s front three of Fred, Hulk and Neymar can easily shred opponents — irrespective of the cartoonistic ring to their names — with an unbridled attacking game. The overlapping fullbacks, Marcelo and Dani Alves, will keep pressing forward, effectively making it a 2-5-3 system when Brazil is on the ascendancy. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team ran Spain, the defending world champion, ragged in the Confederations Cup final at a filled-out Maracana. In the World Cup too, the opponents will find it hard to take on Brazil — the playing XI as well as the high decibel support from the stands.

The team, though, will be worried about its South American neighbour and arch-rival, Argentina. Former Ballon d’Or (four times) winner, Lionel Messi, who will turn 27 during the course of the event, will be all too eager to shepherd his side to the trophy. Manager Alejandro Sabella has set his team around the skipper, dropping Juventus’ Carlos Tevez in the process. The vitality of Argentina’s 4-3-3 formation will depend largely on the form of its ‘regista’ Fernando Gago and the tireless work of its midfield runner Angel Di Maria, while a susceptible defence will always keep it worried.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo (though he has injury concerns), the current World Player of the Year, will want to upset his Argentine counterpart’s plans — with a possible quarter-finals clash on the cards.

However, the greatest European challenge to the South America hegemony will come from the bookmakers’ third and fourth favourites, Germany and Spain. The two teams, masters in ball retention, however, might suffer from the lack of quality centre forwards as the World Cup progresses. Joachim Loew has only picked the aging Miroslav Klose and the erratic Lukas Podolski and they definitely are not preferred choices for Germany’s starting XI. Bayern Munich’s attacking midfielders Thomas Muller or Mario Goetze is expected to masquerade as a false No. 9 in a headless system, made famous by Spain during its triumphant EURO 2012 campaign.

The originators, too, in case of the unavailability of the injury-ravaged Diego Costa (Brazil born), might opt for a variation of the same formation, with Cesc Fabregas, most probably, slotting into the false No. 9 role. The No. 1 ranked team in the world, however, will be at a disadvantage in the hot and humid conditions of Brazil, given the advanced age of its squad. Xavi Hernandez (34), Xabi Alonso (32) and Andres Iniesta (30), the midfield fulcrum of Vicente Del Bosque’s squad, in all probability are playing together for the last time in a big ticket international event. It will be fallacious to suggest a dramatic fall in their quality, but the triad will surely feel the effects of the sticky tropical heat, with one of the Group games, against Australia, starting at 1 o’clock in the afternoon in Curitiba, where summer temperatures can go up to 30 degrees with high humidity content.

European teams, yet to win a World Cup in the American continent, will find it hard to adjust to these weather extremes. A physically-imposing, high tempo approach may not be possible in Brazilian conditions, tiring players much before the regulation 90 minutes of play.

“Before any tactics, freshness will be the most important factor because of the heat,” BBC quoted the former Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier as saying. “The South American teams will have a great advantage because they are used to playing more to feet and getting the ball moving around because they know that when you lose it, you have to run a lot to get it back.”

This heat and the subsequent fatigue will test the defence the most, where a moment’s indecision can prove costly, and hence there is a grand chance of this World Cup turning into a goal fest, much like the Confederations Cup a year earlier. 4.25 goals were scored per game there, way above the World Cup averages (see table). The presence of great attacking talent in the 32 teams only adds weight to this speculation.

Telecasts from Brazil will feature 34 cameras per match, with around 3,000 staff, from 48 countries, following every on-field move of the players. We indeed are blessed, even if we have failed to book a ticket to Brazil.