The greatest show on earth
FIFA, world football's governing body, had discussed holding a World Cup since the early days of its conception in 1904, but the Olympic football tournament adequately served the purpose of establishing the best team in the world in the opening decades of the 20th century.
However, by the mid-1920s, with the growth of professionalism and the game establishing strong roots in Europe and South America, FIFA decided to go ahead with their own tournament which was awarded to Uruguay, the Olympic champions of 1924 and 1928.
After some teething troubles and withdrawals, 13 countries entered and the European nations -- Belgium, Romania, Yugoslavia and France -- all travelled to South America on the same ship. During their two-week voyage they called in to Rio de Janeiro to courteously pick up the Brazilians who would go on to become the most successful team in World Cup history.
Fast forward to 2014, and it is the same Brazilians hosting what has been the most trouble-plagued World Cup in history after a torrid build-up underscored by public anger at the tournament's multi-billion-dollar price tag.
Also read: Football: Joy for Brazil as World Cup opens
Despite the off-field problems, the tournament itself promises to be a classic.
From dramatic backdrops such as Rio de Janeiro's famed Sugarloaf Mountain to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon, the World Cup promises to showcase the vast diversity of Brazil.
Defending champions Spain are bidding to make history by becoming the first side from Europe to win a World Cup in South America but have made a disastrous start to their campaign, losing 5-1 to 2010 finalists Netherlands. The hosts, on the other hand, look set to make a mark after winning the opening match of the tournament 3-1 against Croatia.
Brazil World Cup could settle Ronaldo-Messi debate
One is the world's best known footballer, the other the most valuable. They have scored the same number of Champions League goals and are loaded down with titles. But superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are stuck in a World Cup dead end.
Between them Messi and Ronaldo have monopolised the past six world player of the year awards. But each have attended the last two World Cups and failed to even get near the trophy. Messi has scored just one goal at the finals, Ronaldo only two.
Now though the weight of Argentinian hopes rests on Messi's slight shoulders. Portugal are desperate for Ronaldo's goals to get out of one of the most difficult groups in the contest.
The Brazil World Cup could finally decide whether the name of Messi or Ronaldo is etched into football legend alongside the Peles and Diego Maradonas and Zinedine Zidanes. It is the competition which transforms reputations.
The softly-spoken Messi is 26, just 1.69 metres (5ft 7inch) tall and 67 kilogrammes (148 pounds) in weight. But his goalscorer record and brilliance pack the same weight as the 29-year-old Ronaldo -- 1.85m (6ft 1inch) and 80kgs (176 pounds) -- who revels in his glamour lifestyle.
Messi capture three Champions League wins with Barcelona while Ronaldo responded by adding a crown for Real Madrid last month to his earlier success with Manchester United.
Both average more than 50 goals a year in all competitions for their clubs.
Ronaldo is the world's most recognisable and marketable footballer, according to the Repucom, a sports marketing research company.
But Messi remains the world's most valuable footballer on the market, according to the Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory. It put the Argentine's value at 216 million euros ($294 million), while because of his age Ronaldo was worth just 114 million euros.
Reaching Pele Heights
The case for the elevation of Messi and Ronaldo to the almost deified heights of Pele and Maradona would surely be unanswerable were either to lift the trophy on July 13 in Rio.
“Both players are incredibly great athletes and both have outstanding qualities. Both can win a match in their club or national team on their own,” said Ottmar Hitzfeld, the respected German coach who will be in charge of Switzerland at the World Cup.
But the World Cup, high pressure over one month, is vastly different from the Spanish league and Champions League duties which Messi and Ronaldo so brilliantly execute week in, week out.
Maradona is adamant that, “Messi doesn't have to win the World Cup to be the best in the world.”
For the 1986 world champion, “one world title more or one less can't take anything away from anything (Messi) has achieved to be where he is today.”
With Messi having enjoyed a less than stellar campaign with Barcelona this season -- and having seen Ronaldo take the FIFA Ballon d'Or for the world's best player away from him -- the World Cup is his chance to crown a loaded career trophy haul.
Ronaldo, in contrast, comes into the World Cup on the back of Real's first Champions League win in 12 years -- though his exploits have taken a toll as he struggles with thigh and knee problems.
Yet none other than Pele has in recent months spoken of how he believes Ronaldo is now even more effective than Messi.
Judging players from different eras is an impossible task, but Pele says he could have been even better had referees given strikers the protection they get in the modern game -- a point which could equally be applied to Maradona.
“In my day we just didn't have the same protection as there is today. I reckon with today's rules I could have scored 1,000 goals more,” opined Pele, who famously netted a tally of 1,281.
Even a World Cup coronation for Messi or Ronaldo will not entirely end the debate -- the Portuguese famously said two years ago of their rivalry that “you cannot compare a Ferrari with a Porsche because it's a different engine.”
But it would remove the main argument of those who maintain that until either man captures that missing trophy they cannot elbow Pele and Maradona aside.
Five greats who made their name at World Cup
Considered by many the greatest player in football history, Pele won three World Cups with Brazil. He was a teenager when he helped the "Selecao" lift the trophy in 1958, then four years later he won again despite playing only one match because of an injury. Pele's career was at its peak when he led Brazil to victory in 1970. He remains the only player to win three titles.
Maradona was joint FIFA player of the 20th century with Pele. "El Pibe de Oro" inspired Argentina to victory in the 1986 tournament. The English will never forgive him for his "Hand of God" goal en route to winning in Mexico. And perhaps his own people, the Argentines, will never forgive him for being a terrible national coach four years ago in South Africa. But as a player, Maradona was peerless in his heyday, although drug problems marred the end of his career.
|Ronaldo the striker is the most prolific scorer in World Cups with 15 goals. . -Photo by AP
He is the most prolific scorer in World Cups with 15. He was a youngster in the Brazil squad that won the 1994 World Cup, then helped Brazil reach the final both in 1998 and 2002. He had convulsions hours before the 1998 final in France and didn't play well in a 3-0 loss to the hosts, but four years later in Yokohama he scored twice in the final to give Brazil its fifth world title. Ronaldo's last World Cup was in 2006.
People who don't know football remember Zidane for the headbutt that put Marco Materazzi on the floor in the 2006 final. That earned Zidane a red card and an ignominious end to a glorious career. The connoisseurs cherish a player gifted with uncommon skill and technique, coupled with a penchant for big-game goals. The three-time world player of the year helped France win the 1998 World Cup on home soil — scoring on two headers in the final — and the 2000 European Championship. Soon after, he was sold by Juventus to Real Madrid for a then-record fee of $65 million.
Fontaine holds a record that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon: Scoring 13 goals in a single tournament. Fontaine took six games to achieve his feat in 1958 in Sweden, where he was a last-minute inclusion for France. Entering the tournament, the Moroccan-born Fontaine was a little-known forward outside of the French league. Yet he tormented opponents with his speed and finishing touch — and even with someone else's boots. He had to borrow a pair after damaging his own boots in practice.
Beckenbauer defined the role of libero, and his elegant and effortless style earned him the nickname the Kaiser. Beckenbauer is the only man to captain (in 1974) and coach (1990) a team to the World Cup title. Beckenbauer made 103 appearances for Germany and is considered the football power's greatest player. He also served as coach and president of Bayern Munich, where he won every available club honor as a player. At 68, he has given up official functions but still works for television and remains vastly popular in Germany.
He never won a World Cup, never was top scorer and played only one final tournament. Yet it was more than enough to turn Johan Cruyff into a World Cup great because less than a handful of the game's greatest stars combined beauty, speed, vision and elegance like he did. At the 1974 event in West Germany, Cruyff led the Oranje with guile and cockiness as the Netherlands beat teams like Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil with free-flowing "Total Football" to reach the final against the host team. In his finest moment, the lanky playmaker used his dumbfounding body feints and speed to cut through the German defense from the opening kickoff to force a penalty and give the Netherlands the surprise lead. Shockingly, with the cup for the taking, Cruyff and the Dutch machine sputtered and stopped.
Of all the spectacular moments in Eusebio's two-decade career, perhaps the most memorable was the comeback he inspired by Portugal against North Korea in the quarterfinals of the 1966 event in England. After Portugal fell 3-0 behind, Eusebio scored four goals in just over 30 minutes, demonstrating the athletic prowess and sure-eyed finishing that made him one of the world's top scorers in the 1960s. Born into poverty in Africa, Eusebio became known as the Black Panther for his agility and hard-charging attacks. He was awarded the Ballon d'Or in 1965, and twice won the Golden Boot - in 1968 and 1973 - for being top scorer in Europe. He died in January.
The only goalkeeper ever voted European footballer of the year, Lev Yashin helped to redefine goalkeeping, producing acrobatic saves and marshalling his defense as few had done before. After bursting onto the international scene with spectacular stops against eventual winner Brazil at the 1958 tournament, he led the Soviet Union to fourth place in 1966, a result the team has yet to better. During a 20-year professional sports career, Yashin's exceptional reflexes even allowed him to be a multi-sport champion, winning the Soviet Cup ice hockey trophy with Dynamo Moscow.
Regarded by many as the greatest Italian player, Meazza played in two World Cups, and Italy won both. Born and bred in a Milan suburb, the diminutive Meazza was 24 when Italy hosted the tournament in 1934. Used on the right wing rather than his favorite center-forward position, he unsettled defenses with his dribbles and set up the move that led to Angelo Schiavio's winner in the final against Czechoslovakia. Four years later, his only goal was from the penalty spot against Brazil in the semifinals, his last appearance in an Italy shirt. AC Milan and Inter renamed their venue Stadio Giuseppe Meazza (better known as San Siro) after his death in 1979.
Sources: FIFA, Agencies