As the 2014 World Cup gets underway, and ahead of the Uruguay versus Costa Rica title match, Michael Hudson follows UFWC champions Uruguay to Brazil.
While the public mood is muted in Argentina, and one of building resentment in Sao Paulo, enthusiasm for the World Cup is bubbling on the streets of Montevideo, capital city of reigning Unofficial Football World Champions Uruguay.
‘Welcome! Enjoy the World Cup – except when you play against us,’ a friendly customs officer greeted me at Colonia del Sacramento, an hour-long ferry ride from Buenos Aires. Two-time winners of FIFA’s showcase competition, Uruguayan fans on Montevideo’s main boulevard, the Avenida 18 de Julio, described a draw which places La Celeste in the same group as England, Italy and Costa Rica as ‘both a dream and a nightmare’.
At a Montevideo football tournament organised by Special Olympics Uruguay and the NGO Spirit of Football, youth players, army generals and the Minister of Sport, Liliam Kechichian, queued to first head and then add their names to a ball which had been carried from Battersea Park – where the first game took place to FA rules 150 years ago – via 23 countries and almost 17,000 signatures.
‘People are massively excited here,’ said UK ambassador and fellow ball signatory Ben Lyster-Binns. ‘There’s a huge amount of affection for English football, especially with Suarez doing so well at Liverpool. It’s great for us, obviously. The dream scenario is that we both go through, though if England win nobody will want to speak to me for at least a week.’
Football coach Facundo Doldan – among the many people sporting Liverpool tops – considered 2-2 a more likely final scoreline when the two nations meet in their second group game. ‘England and Uruguay will qualify. For me, England has the strongest football in Europe. You have a lot of speed with players like Sterling and Sturridge, and apart from Diego Godin our defence is too slow.’
Walkers on the Rambla Gran Bretana predicted a 2-1 win. ‘Maybe 1-1 if we don’t have Suarez,’ qualifies one fan. ‘Everyone here is thinking about the tournament. England is a really tough match but Italy will be the hardest. If we get through the group, I think we can beat anyone.’ A barman at the Shannon Irish Pub pauses momentarily. ‘2-2, I think,’ he says, ‘then let us play Brazil in the knock-out rounds.’
Over 100,000 tickets were sold for the warm up games against Northern Ireland and Slovenia which saw the host nation comfortably retain their title. The squad – including the injured Suarez, who is expected to return for the England game, departed for Brazil on Monday, 9 June. ‘We are a small country but we believe in our team,’ says a fan at the Estadio Centenario, the place where Uruguay won their first World Cup in 1930.
‘There are many obstacles in our way,’ captain Diego Lugano, released by West Bromwich Albion earlier in the month, tells a press conference in response to a question about the Suarez’s fitness, ‘but nothing can take away our dreams.’
Financial reality is the talk on the streets of Sao Paulo, where Uruguay take on England on Thursday 19 June. ‘We are always in favour of football, but this tournament is more about money than sport,’ one fan tells me. ‘The government doesn’t have money for schools, for education, but suddenly they can find whatever FIFA demands. And what do the people get? New stadiums that we didn’t need and tickets that lots of the most enthusiastic supporters can’t afford.’
‘In 1950 the world came here and Brazilian fans watched football in Brazilian stadiums,’ a local journalist says. ‘It was a different tournament then. Many would say a better one.’
While local supporters express dissatisfaction with government corruption and FIFA’s economic demands, there is increasing interest in the unofficial crown. ‘Imagine a universe where Venezuela, Georgia, Zimbabwe and Curacao are world champions. Or where Scotland is the most successful national team of all time,’ writes ANSA Brazil. ‘It’s a different, more democratic and more fun history of football.’
Uruguay’s opening game of the tournament is on Saturday, 14 June, in Fortaleza. ‘Costa Rica is the game we expect to win – which makes it maybe the most dangerous,’ a fan tells me in Punta del Diablo, an Atlantic village with a beach the Guardian described as ‘among the most beautiful in the world.’ La Celeste will hope that the fun continues all the way to Sao Paulo and beyond.
Who will win the World Cup? Can current Unofficial Football World Champions Uruguay win the official tournament for the third time in the country’s history? Or do you fancy another team’s chances? [link expired] are currently running a money back offer on World Cup outright bets if Brazil or Argentina win the tournament. So if you bet on Uruguay and they don’t win you can get your money back. T&Cs apply, see the [link expired].