The FIFA World Cup in Brazil is still a year away. But on the eve of the test event, the FIFA Confederations Cup, the mystique of the great tournament is gathering steam.
Some observers contend that the world's largest sporting spectacle (for a single pursuit) is returning to what is called its "spiritual home" for the first time in more than 60 years.
Brazil has hosted the World Cup but once, that being in 1950, when it was defeated by Uruguay in final group play. It was devastating to national pride then and a lingering wrong to be righted this time around. It's the chance that has finally come to score the greatest of all victories on beloved home turf.
"Pele's most vivid memory of the 1950 World Cup was his father crying after Brazil lost that game to Uruguay," said CBC Sports reporter Brenda Irving, who is in Rio de Janeiro for the Confederations Cup.
Irving heard Pele, arguably the greatest of all players, a bona fide "god of football," speak the other day after he unveiled the one-year countdown clock in the lead-up to the much anticipated 2014 World Cup.
"Football is everywhere here," she reported. "It's on the beach, in the streets and in the favelas."
Favelas are the shanty towns which predominate in many urban areas of Brazil and where more than 11 million people in the football-mad nation reside well below the poverty line.
"Football gives them something to dream about," Irving explained. "We look out our window every morning and, even at 7 a.m., there is someone kicking the ball around on the sand. With little money, football is one of the few sources of entertainment for them."
The overriding, ominous note is that Brazil has dropped drastically in the world's estimation of great football powers. Although it is the dominant team in World Cup play, having participated in each of the 19 editions of the tournament -- the only country that can boast that -- and a winner of five titles, recent success has been evaporating.
Almost incomprehensibly, Brazilians are ranked 22nd on the FIFA chart and, heading into the Confederations Cup at home, there is still much work to be done. A return to the more dramatic style of play which is characteristic of past Brazilian glory is the mantra of an expectant people. The defensive, strategic style favoured by recent managers just hasn't washed.
"Their style reflects the culture of Brazil," pointed out former Canadian international Craig Forrest, who, along with with former Canadian women's team member Clare Rustad, will provide studio analysis for the Confederations Cup on CBC.
"It's very colourful and, although Brazil has a large economy, there are millions of poor people that hold onto football like it was life and death. That's something which is almost impossible for many in this country to comprehend."
Forrest knows what he's talking about. He's seen the magic of the so-called "Samba Kings" first hand and even been a party to thwarting their individualistic approach to clobbering weaker opponents. Twice, he was Canada's goalkeeper in draws versus Brazil: the first was a 1-1 affair in Edmonton just a month before the 1994 World Cup, which Brazil eventually won; the second was a clean sheet at the 2001 Confederations Cup in Japan, a year in advance of Brazil winning another World Cup.
"Passion for this sport is common around the world, but the difference is their approach to it," Forrest estimated. "Winning is not enough. You have to win playing the Brazilian way -- with flare and rhythm."
The eight-team Confederations Cup, which, essentially, brings together the best countries from each of the continents plus the hosts and the reigning world champions from Spain, will only offer a glimpse of what lies in store one year down the line.
But make no mistake about it, countless devout Brazilian fans will be desperately looking for a sign from the home team that the lean days are close to being over.
When Brazil takes the field of play in the national capital of Brasilia against Japan to open the tournament on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2:45 p.m. ET), expectations will be overwhelming. The coach will be Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who led Brazil to its last World Cup triumph in 2002 and he'll be under immense pressure to keep the faith.
Along with dazzling 21-year-old forward, Neymar, Scolari and the entire Brazilian side will need to demonstrate an understanding that, on home soil, the game and the way it's meant to be played are matters of sacred significance.
Follow Brenda Irving on Twitter @BrendaCBCSports
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