The greatest competition of all time?

If you stop to think about it – the current World Cup being played out in Brazil can lay claim to being the greatest sporting event mankind has ever seen.

This may sound like a very grandiose, overblown claim, but it’s a simple statement of fact. The facts are that soccer / football is the world’s most popular sport by far, and the World Cup is not only the largest tournament within the sport of football, but is the most-watched and most-attended event in the world anyway.

So when you put all that together in Brazil, which is undeniably the most soccer-mad country in the world – then you have the biggest sports tournament the world has ever seen.

What’s more, Brazil is the world’s fifth most populated country, after China, India, the United States and Indonesia, with over 200 million inhabitants. And whilst soccer is played in all the first four countries on that list – even the most soccer-mad people from those countries would be hard-pressed to describe them as footballing powerhouses. In fact, from the top four populous countries on the list, only the USA has even made it to the current World Cup finals – and they’re considered rank outsiders.

So it’s for all these reasons that it’s a simple statement of fact to say it’s the biggest sports event in our collective history. Quite whether it will live up to that billing in practice is quite another matter – but it’s already got off to a pretty electrifying start (though you can be forgiven for not seeing things that way if you happen to be Croatian!).

What’s more – each World Cup generally gets bigger, bolder and more brash than its predecessor – though there’s surely not be another to match the sheer size and excitement of the current event for many a year? The 2018 equivalent event is scheduled to be held in Russia. And no doubt the Russians will put on a grand event in the way that we know they can following the winter Olympics. But when it comes to excitement about the game itself, the whole Samba soccer atmosphere – and the general style and thrilling way in which everything football-related happens, then Russia surely won’t come within a mile of Brazil.

As for the following 2022 World Cup which is due to be held in the tiny state of Qatar – the less said the better.

And the World Cup has gradually become a far bigger and more popular event the world over than its main competitor, the Olympic Games.

So let’s have a look at Brazil’s football history. After all, the current event isn’t the first time the World Cup has been held in Brazil; it happened once before, 64 years ago in 1950. At that time, most people had to wait to read the newspaper to see how their nation had fared in the event. There was some radio coverage but not a huge amount and matches weren’t held to coincide with the wishes of the mass worldwide audience in the way they are today. In the days before mass communication, the World Cup was far smaller event – with some countries not even bothering to turn up for some tournaments.

Having said all that, the 1950 World Cup in Brazil was still considered to be an enormous event in the country itself – which was already passionate about the beautiful game and playing some beautiful football.

The 1950 tournament was the only one that didn’t have a normal final match in the way every other World Cup before or since has had. Instead, the four countries that won their individual mini leagues during the finals tournament played off in a round-robin format with the country finishing top declared the winner. It was thought at the time that this would avoid the “dead rubber” games and would stimulate interest in the tournament for longer.

The four nations involved in the final league were Brazil, Sweden, Spain and the 1930 inaugural World Cup winners Uruguay. Uruguay were making their first appearance in the World Cup since the 1930 event.

So the winner would simply the side that finished top of this final group. All the six games were played either in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. Brazil played all their final games at the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio. The famous stadium had been purpose-built for this tournament and was to host the final in front of a world record crowd of almost 200,000 fanatical spectators.

Meanwhile, all the games not involving the home nation from this final round-robin tournament were played in São Paulo.

Brazil were easy victors in their first two games; thrashing Sweden by seven goals to one then doing the same to Spain with a 6-1 win; surely, then, the trophy would be theirs for the first time in their history?

Before the last game which would turn out to be the decisive one, Brazil were atop the group with just one match left to play against neighbours Uruguay, who were second and just one point behind. But Brazil’s near neighbours and fierce rivals were no pushovers. Uruguay were far more of a force in world football than they have generally been since so this was to be no walkover by any means, though the home side was still expected to win – and the whole nation expected them to.

So on July 16th, before a record official home crowd of 199,954 fans (though other estimates have put this figure as high as 205,000 spectators) the two teams took to the field in the in the Estádio do Maracanã. All Brazil had to do was draw the game to put their name on the trophy for the first time ever.

The two sides went in goalless at half time, but in the second half, things progressed as expected and the home nation went one up soon after the break, with a goal from Friaça. But then the unthinkable happened and the Uruguayans equalised. Then, in the 79th minute, things got even worse for the 200,000 largely Brazil fans as Uruguay went 2-1 up as Alcides Ghiggia scored past Brazil’s keeper Moacyr Barbosa, and Uruguay won the World Cup for the second time in their history.

To say this defeat shocked a nation is to flirt with ludicrous understatement. In Brazil, football comes close to being a religion – and the same was true 64 years ago. To make matters worse, they’d lost to their neighbours Uruguay. To this day, the final match of the 1950 World Cup is known as the Maracanãzo in Brazil – and the team members weren’t truly forgiven for many years.

In fact, up to that time, Brazil had always played in white kits, but after the tournament, they changed their strip to reflect the colours of the national flag in a collective effort to wipe the “shame” of losing from their memory.

Perhaps, though, the defeat stirred Brazil on to become the world’s greatest soccer nation? They’ve certainly come a long way.

For the current World Cup, Brazil are 3-1 favourites with the world’s largest betting exchange, Betfair.

And if you’re the type of fan who also enjoys a bet on football, then it may be folly to bet against the hosts – though you may also think the home pressure could get to Brazil as it did in 1950?  After all, it’s probably true to say that Argentina would be favourites with Betfair if the tournament was being played in any other country – given their strength in depth and the presence of one Lionel Messi – widely regarded as the greatest player in the world today.

Messi is also favourite to win the Golden Boot with Betfair; the prize for the tournament’s top-scorer.

But it was another recipient of the Golden Boot award, Pelé (the winner of the trophy in 1970) who was to turn his country’s footballing fortunes around to a greater extent than anyone else, beginning in 1958.

Four years before that, in the 1954 World Cup which was held in Switzerland, Brazil went out in the quarter-finals to pre-tournament favourites Hungary (a side which featured the legendary Ferenc Puskas) by four goals to two in what has been described as one of the dirtiest games in the tournament’s history, and which became known as “the Battle of Berne”.

But in Sweden four years later, Brazil managed to win their first ever World Cup with a vibrant and exciting side including a 17 year-old called Pelé who scored two wonderful goals in the final as Brazil beat the host nation 5-2.

Four years after that, Brazil were able to repeat the feat, this time winning the 1962 World Cup hosted by Chile where they beat a very strong Czechoslovakian side 3-1 in the Estadio Nacional in Santiago in the final. This win came despite the absence of the legendary Pelé who had been injured earlier in the tournament – which was also a game against the eventual finalists Czechoslovakia. By this time, the 21 year-old Brazilian legend was already considered to be the world’s greatest player.

In the 1966 World Cup, won by host nation England, Brazil only managed a third-place finish in the group which included qualifiers Portugal and Hungary, along with Bulgaria who also failed to qualify.

But it was to be a different story in Mexico in 1970 with what is widely considered to be the greatest World Cup side ever – Brazil, and its greatest ever player, Pelé . Quite simply, the Brazilian side which also featured captain Carlos Alberto, along with Gérson, Rivelino, Jairzinho and Tostão, ran riot in style. The team landed their third from four World Cup titles by beating fellow double former winners 4–1 in the final. In doing so, Brazil won the right to retain the Jules Rimet Trophy on a permanent basis. During this tournament, Brazil achieved a perfect win record with six out of six, to go with their equally perfect winning record achieved in their qualifying games.

It was this World Cup more than any previous one that really brought the tournament to a worldwide live audience through TV satellite communications for the first time – and Brazil (and Pelé  in particular) achieved truly legendary status as a result.

In the two World Cups that followed, it’s fair to say that Brazil failed to live up to their former glories. In 1982, for the Spanish World Cup, it was a different story and many consider this team to be the equal of the 1970 side despite the fact that Brazil lost 3-2 to Italy in the last second round group stage which saw them go out to the eventual winners. Brazil played with a style and flair that had been missing from their previous two campaigns.

During the two tournaments that followed, Brazil were again disappointing losing to France on penalties in the quarter-finals of Mexico 86, and losing to Argentina in the first game of the knockout phase at Italia 90.

But at the USA in 1994, Brazil were crowned Champions again – beating Italy in the final on penalties (the first time the competition had been decided in this way). They then lost the final to hosts France four years later after Ronaldo suffered a black-out before the game and clearly wasn’t himself. But they were back again to win the World Cup in 2002 in Japan and South Korea in a team which featured Ronaldinho.

This made it five wins in the tournament for Brazil putting them one ahead of Italy and two ahead of Germany / West Germany.

Now, half the world  and all the home fans expect Brazil to make it six on home soil in what is, unquestionably, the biggest sporting event the world has seen to date in the final in the Maracanã on Sunday July 13th.

These days, the refurbished old stadium “only” holds around 74,000 fans. But they’ll be more passionate than ever whilst the worldwide TV and internet audience will run to several billions. The world is waiting, watching and expecting Brazil to be crowned champions in its greatest sporting spectacle ever; so will they?