Already the most expensive and with an unprecedented 2.96 million spectator tickets sold, this year’s World Cup is widely touted to be the best one yet.
|(right) Cristiano Ronaldo|
The occasion is momentous for the host country, where “the beautiful game” is not merely a sport, but a way of life. Armed with powerhouses Thiago Silva, Neymar and Hulk, the winningest team in the event’s history is seeking its sixth trophy and the chance to finally redeem its loss in 1950 to Uruguay at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, where the final is to be held again 54 years later.
But the road to the World Cup is never easy, with each country facing challenges both on and off the field. Brazil’s moment of glory as host is overshadowed by ongoing criticism over alleged corruption, construction delays and unfulfilled promises.
|Neymar da Silva Santos Junior|
Until a week before kickoff, workers rushed to put final touches on the stadiums, including those in Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo, where South Korea will play its second and third group matches.
Outside the arenas, the situation is even bleaker. Citizens are frustrated at having footed the bill for government pledges of improved health care, public transportation and other infrastructure that failed to transpire, and protests abound in the streets of Rio de Janeiro and online by hacktivists who demand fairness.
On the other side of the globe, Korea’s own journey to Brazil has been plagued with critical struggles of its own. With five World Cup match wins in its history, it is going into its ninth appearance as the most successful Asian squad in the event to date. But head coach Hong Myung-bo is faced with living down the very expectations he helped to build up as a star defender in the Taeguk Warriors’ dramatic journey to the World Cup semifinal of 2002 ― the year, he notes, that changed Korean football forever.
It’s not 2002 anymore, and that Guus Hiddink-led success will not easily be repeated. The young squad that the 2002 Bronze Ball winner ― himself with under a year of experience as boss ― has put together lacks the kind of leader that he used to be. There is no captain Hong or Park Ji-sung on the field to carry the banner this year, and it shows in the team’s struggles with cohesion. Fans doubt Koo Ja-cheol can help his team repeat its bronze medal success of the 2012 Olympics, given its staggering recent defeats with him wearing the armband.
After gasping through qualifiers by one-goal differences, losing half of its 16 matches under Hong, having just a few weeks together to train and entering the Cup with the second-lowest ranking of all contenders, the national team faces an uphill battle to survive the group stages.
With just days left until its June 17 match, Hong will make last-minute efforts to mend the holes in his lineup. But in the face of the team’s final test, he said what is important for the young squad is how quickly they can overcome their disappointments, learn their lessons and stay focused.
“Koreans are very nostalgic about the World Cup. I’m fully aware of this. They ask why our team can’t perform like back in 2002,” Hong said recently. “From our perspective, we just need to actually play and see how well we can fulfill their expectations. ... We’ll try our best so we can come away without regrets.”
For South Korea, Brazil and every other team, it is too late to fix the woes of the past. Instead, it has all come down to this moment, when 32 nations will share one goal and make history.
Win or lose, it’s time to play the beautiful game. The world is watching.
By Elaine Ramirez (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Reporter Elaine Ramirez will tweet from the sidelines of South Korea’s matches in the 2014 World Cup at twitter.com/elainegija. Comments are her own. ― Ed.