2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Is Brazil truly the favorite?

Published: June 11, 2014, 8:42 pm, by Scott Kaniewski
A large part of Brazil's championship hopes rest on the shoulders of Neymar. Brazil opens the tournament on Thursday, June 12 against Croatia. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A large part of Brazil’s championship hopes rest on the shoulders of Neymar. Brazil opens the tournament on Thursday, June 12 against Croatia. (AP Photo/Andre Penner).

In just 24 hours from now, 32 countries around the world will pin their hopes on their national soccer teams when host nation Brazil kicks off World Cup 2014 against Croatia in the tournament’s debut game.

The Brazilians will be on a quest to be the first home team to win the World Cup since France did it on home soil in 1998. And nearly all pundits agree, including a bunch of financial institutions who took time out of their busy schedules figuring out how to fix the world economy to predict the tournament winner, Brazil is most definitely the favorite.

Before then you have to go back to 1978, when Argentina did it. But Argentina’s victory was a string of titles for home nations. West Germany did it in 1974 and England in 1966. Uruguay (1930) and Italy (1934) also did it in the first two World Cups, respectively.

Nearly every year a host nation takes advantage of raucous crowds to go on surprising runs through the world’s most watched event. With the exception of South Africa four years ago (though give them credit, as the worst team in the 2010 tournament they did upset an already disrupted France team) the last several tournaments have seen shock performances from home sides. In 2002, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, huge underdog South Korea worked its way to the semifinals. Brazil went on to win that tournament.

The 1998 World Cup saw host France win it all, destroying an extremely potent Brazilian squad 3-0 in the finals. In 1994, the United States, with the help of an own goal by Colombian Andres Escobar (who was murdered on his return to his country), made it out of group play. The US subsequently fell 1-0 to Brazil in a game the Americans played impressively.

Host Italy in 1990 reached the semifinals. In 1986, host Mexico won its group and first knockout-stage game before falling to West Germany.

But just how good is this Brazilian squad? For as long as the team survives (or as long as advertisements continue to flaunt him) you’ll never stop hearing about Neymar. And he’s brilliant. He and the Brazilian attack shouldn’t have problems scoring.

But there are already grumblings about the team’s defense. And when Brazil managed just a 1-0 win over Serbia in Sao Paulo on June 6, you could’ve sworn the Selecao had lost.

But a defense with David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Thiago Silva (Paris-Saint-Germain) and  Maicon (Roma) there can’t be too much concern. Maybe it’ll just take time to jell. That won’t be a problem in a group that includes Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon, essentially three tuneup games before the knockout stages.

Throw in the fact that Brazil, as heavy favorites and at home, are carrying a huge weight on their back. A weight big enough to counteract the numerous protests raging across the country? (US scrimmage with Belgium called off because of traffic, subway strike) And don’t look now, but Selecao’s biggest rival and next door neighbor Argentina just looked stellar in a pair of friendly victories over Slovenia (2-0) and Trinidad and Tobago (3-0) earlier this month.

Brazil's Pele is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates after Brazil won the World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, on June 21, 1970, in Mexico City's Estadio Aztec. (AP Photo/File)

Brazil’s Pele is hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates after Brazil won the World Cup final against Italy, 4-1, on June 21, 1970, in Mexico City’s Estadio Aztec. (AP Photo/File)

But maybe that will drive the Brazilians. They are the only team to take home the Jules Rimet trophy five times. Home teams thrive like no other in the sport of soccer. It’s an amazing phenomenon. And now one of the world’s best is hoping to use that home-pitch advantage and keep that sixth trophy within its own borders.