The extra opponent facing many of the teams in the 2014 World Cup is Brazil’s tropical climate. Since the tournament's inception, no European team has won the World Cup in South America in six attempts. It seems that this is one treasure that the often-pillaged continent stubbornly refuses to relinquish.
Some countries will be more fearful of Brazil's conditions than others. Much has already been made of the sweltering temperatures that England and Italy will face in Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas. There, the humidity is so great that the air will sometimes seem as thick as cotton wool. As Steve McManaman, the former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder, has somewhat incredulously noted, “a team will typically lose 100 pints [of water] which is absolutely phenomenal. You‘re talking about 10 pints a player.” Meanwhile Paul Scholes, perhaps the most accomplished English midfielder of his generation, has described the discomfort that extreme heat can cause at the tournament. “The World Cup in Japan and South Korea was horrendous,” he wrote for Paddy Power. “We struggled in 37 degrees [Celsius)] and I struggled more than most, especially against Brazil in Shizuoka. Before the game we didn’t even go onto the pitch because it was that hot … it was ridiculous.”
Brazil, with its merciless noonday sun, promises to serve up a similar obstacle. Yet, not everyone will be so concerned. The only teams to have won a World Cup outside their home continent are Spain, the defending champions who claimed the title in South Africa four years ago, and Brazil who won in Sweden in 1954 and Japan in 2002. Spain, coached by Vicente del Bosque, proved in 2010 that they have the ideal game to cope with Brazil’s conditions: their philosophy is based around retaining the ball for as long as possible, the simple logic being that the less of the ball their opponents have, the less they are likely to score. A variation on this approach is what they call “resting in possession”, which allows them to keep the ball whilst the other team chases round after it in exhausting and fruitless pursuit. It may not always be exhilarating, but it is highly effective.
It’s also worth addressing the myth that all Latin American teams have always felt at home when playing on their own continent. In March I spoke with Carlos Alberto, the captain of Brazil’s victorious 1970 team, at his home in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He pointed out that his country’s 1-0 win over England in the group stage of the tournament was vital, because the losers would have to leave Guadalajara and face West Germany up in the hills for the quarter-final – and nobody wanted to do that. England, of course, went on to lose that match, taking a two-goal lead before succumbing to fatigue and three late German goals.
On that note, there are two factors which may prove to be a great leveller this year. The first is that most of the world’s leading players are entering this tournament already tired from the exertions of the previous season. Indeed, as South American football expert Tim Vickery has noted, Brazil’s very own Oscar is at risk of being too jaded to perform at his best. The second factor is the vast amount of travel that teams will have to undertake between games, in a country that is the size of a continent. The sheer scale of Brazil will mean that this tournament will be like playing the UEFA Champions League over the course of six weeks as opposed to twelve months: we might even refer to it as the first Jetlag World Cup of the modern era.
The sophistication of training methods will mean that this year’s competitors are as closely matched as they have ever been, in fitness terms. The decisive factor, then, will likely be skill, an area which abundantly favours Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain. And, in the end, there’s something reassuring about knowing that these are the four teams that we can count on to perform, come hurricane or shine.