For a long time I thought the life of a Brazilian soccer player would be the best life of all.
Brazil is the Disneyland of futbol. Brazil has won five World Cups, more than any other nation. Soccer's longest-running icon, Pelé, came from Brazil. The country has a soccer-playing style of creative flash. Soccer fans from Brazil, whenever you see them around the planet, always seem to be organizing a conga line.
Yes, I decided, life as a Brazilian soccer player must be pretty darned sweet.
And then along came the 2014 World Cup.
As you have surely heard, Brazil will be serving as host country for the globe's biggest team sports event this month, only the second time that has occurred in the nation's history. Kickoff is Thursday in Sao Paulo. And the more I hear about what might lie ahead, the more I know I was mistaken when choosing the ideal great-athlete job preference. In fact, if I were currently a member of the Seleção, which is the Brazilian national team's nickname, I might consider quitting soccer and taking up badminton.
Don't get me wrong. This World Cup will produce plenty of thrills and memorable moments. That happens by definition when something so big is at stake.
Over the next few weeks, even the most casual sports fan in America will sit up and pay at least some attention to soccer on television. The mix of nationalism and athleticism on bright green grass, unspooling in a distinctive foreign land, is irresistible eye candy.
However, back in 2007 when this World Cup was awarded to Brazil, expectations were that the upcoming month would be a wild and crazy festival of good times and corner-kick romance, with happy people flowing through the streets in the 12 cities where the games will be played and the Seleção being showered with confetti.
It's clear now that the scene could be quite different. My wish is that bliss and good times do reign. In covering the Olympics, I enjoy being around Brazilian fans more than any other fans. They are numerous and intense. Americans would be stunned to learn there is a country that actually loves sports more than they do.
However, Brazilians also can smell corruption and incompetence from many kilometers away. The government has been roundly thrashed for the way it has botched the World Cup planning and execution. Among other concerns is that shambolic and lax security could make life dangerous for Brazilian players, who have become indirect targets of the country's rage.
The World Cup will be played in 12 different cities and stadiums aren't all finished. Citizens, especially dwellers of the slum-like favelas, are irate about the $11.5 billion that was spent building out the soccer venues and infrastructure. Fraud is widely suspected and presumed. Last week, subway and train operators went on strike in Sao Paulo, where the World Cup opener is scheduled. In protest, angry commuters vandalized some train stations.
Meanwhile, at the new Sao Paulo stadium, certain sections will be roped off and empty for the opening game because they aren't completed or safe. The same situation will exist at other venues, some of which are expected to become useless white elephants after the tournament. World Cup rules require only eight host cities, but the politicians wanted to spread around the graft ... er, the soccer action.
"We made a mistake," said Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes the other day in an Associated Press interview. "We should have fewer cities hosting the World Cup."
Which brings us back to the Brazilian national team. Longtime soccer observers believe that the general sour public attitude might spill over into enmity for Seleção, unless it plays perfectly every minute and wins every game by three goals or more. And that won't happen.
For as I have learned, being a Brazilian soccer player isn't the romp through garlands of roses that I imagined. Several years ago, British soccerphile author Simon Kuper asked star striker Rivaldo about dealing with his country's rabid fans.
Rivaldo's answer: "The pressure in Brazil is a little complicated. They threaten your family, they damage your car and it's a little complicated."
A little complicated? Sounds more like a little petrifying — with glorious tradition behind it! During the 1950 World Cup, fans in Sao Paulo were so vicious to the players during a languid 2-2 tie with Switzerland that national officials moved all remaining Brazil games to Rio, in hopes of avoiding boos and torment and further defeat. The strategy didn't work. Uruguay won the Cup.
I'll still be pulling for Brazil this time. Here in the Bay Area, certain residents still wax fondly about 1994 when the Brazilian team set up training shop at Santa Clara University. They bunked out at a Los Gatos hostelry. Their fans followed. They turned that city's downtown into a nightly carnival of dancing and singing. The team's open practices at Buck Shaw Stadium were packed. Brazil went on to win the whole thing.
Ever since, the Bay Area soccer community has had a bond of sorts with their South American green-and-gold compatriots. My guess is that at public World Cup watching parties in San Francisco and San Jose and the East Bay, you'll see people wielding the caxirola noisemakers that fans in Brazil will be shaking in Rio and Sao Paulo. (Thank goodness the annoying vuvuzela craze of South Africa is behind us.)
Brazil is favored to win the Cup by many oddsmakers. This puts even more weight on the Seleção shoulders. What happens if the team lets down the country? What happens if the team wins, but a stadium section somewhere collapses? My only wish is the most basic wish. I hope that after the July 13 championship game, Brazil can emerge from its month in the international spotlight with at least a few smiles and positive memories. I hope, too, that all the Brazilian players avoid damage to their cars from their "complicated" fans.
Me? I'm thinking that my new ideal job is cricket player in India.