On the flight down to the Confederations Cup last summer, I read a newspaper article in which a Brazilian government minister urged visiting fans to look beyond the Brazil of samba and soccer. Upon arriving at Sao Paulo Airport, I was bemused to encounter an enormous banner looming over the luggage carousel that proclaimed "Welcome to the land of samba, carnival and football."
As I quickly learned, the message Brazilians dream of delivering to the world, and the message they ultimately deliver, can be two very different things.
That reality has rarely felt more immediate than today as Brazil prepares to host the World Cup, the planet's single greatest collective human experience. It is part elite sporting occasion and part rollicking soap opera, acted out over the course of 64 football games staged in 12 cities over 32 days. In that time, national heroes will be forged, blood feuds reinforced, soothsaying octopi feted, and the occasional dive shamelessly executed. It's an all-consuming experience that writer David Goldblatt has described as an instantaneous "global eclipse."
Parallel narratives have paved the path to kickoff. The sports pages salivate over the prospect of the world's finest footballers, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Neymar, grappling with the trifecta of challenges presented by Brazil 2014: a menacing slate of opponents, a grinding travel schedule and continental microclimates ranging from winter conditions in the south to rainforest humidity in the Amazon and the unforgiving heat of the northeast. Every squad has obvious flaws, making this the most wide-open World Cup in the modern era.
At the same time, the front pages have reported enough horror stories to fill a Wes Craven franchise: the trauma of ongoing demonstrations and social protest, soaring crime rates, heavy-handed policing, a fragile transport infrastructure, uncertain stadia readiness and the looming distraction of FIFA's unfathomable decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup.
The enormity of the stakes and the specter of off-the-field menace combine to heighten the anticipatory thrill ahead of the tournament. Brazil 2014 promises to be a World Cup in which hope and fear, joy and anger, rumor and fact coexist. Will we experience ecstasy and history as Felipe Scolari's Brazil lift their sixth World Cup, on home turf at an exuberant Maracana Stadium? Or will we witness a nation consumed by demonstration and destruction? At the Nigeria-Uruguay clash I flinched through this past June in Salvador, there was the spectacle of riot police battling protesters around the stadium, while a cloud of tear gas hovered over the players' heads on the pitch.
Much will depend on the home team's ability to go deep into this tournament. In their vaunted glowing Technicolor jerseys, the Selecao will vie for glory as an inexperienced, counterattacking squad propelled by cyberpunk starlet Neymar and an emotionally resounding pregame national anthem rendition that makes Chicago Blackhawks fans seem retiring in comparison.
There is a Brazilian saying: "O peso da camisa," which translates roughly to the "weight of the jersey." Few Selecao shirts will weigh more than the 2014 version. The players will take the field knowing they have to win, and that one misstep could cause the nation to tear itself apart.
Brazilian triumph would do more than smother the bruising pre-tournament stories of the country's organizational readiness and the social protests that have pockmarked the nation. It would heal a wound opened in 1950 when Brazil last hosted the tournament. That year, regional rivals Uruguay shell-shocked the home team in the final game, a national disaster that none of Brazil's subsequent five victories have come close to healing.
Brazil's South American neighbors, including Lionel Messi's Argentina, hope history will repeat itself. This is Messi's third World Cup. For all of his success at club level, Argentina's past two tournaments have ended at the quarterfinal stage. Brazil 2014 is his chance to join the exclusive duo of players -- Pele and Diego Maradona -- who have reinforced their status as the world's best player by leading their team to World Cup glory.
The European powers will do everything they can to ensure that is not the case. As you will be reminded countless times before the July 13 final, no European team has hoisted a World Cup in South America. The Spaniards seek to become only the third nation able to defend their title, and with Euros thrown in, to go back-to-back-to-back-to-back in major tournaments -- a feat that would rank among the most remarkable in sports. Withered by injuries, Germany must prove they are mentally strong enough to shrug off an insipid Euro 2012 performance if they are to end an uncharacteristically long 18 years' wait for silverware.
Tournament dark horses include the effervescent Chileans and talent-stocked Belgians. For what it is worth, England are facing up to their impending doom with an uncharacteristic dose of realism. Jurgen Klinsmann's United States brace themselves for the "devil's hand" they have been given in Group G alongside Ghana, Portugal and Germany. As Michael Bradley told me, "This will be a World Cup where teams that do well will suffer. We want to be the team that can suffer the most."
The ultimate winner is impossible to predict. Last month I had the arduous task of sitting down with four Brazilian supermodels to discuss the tournament for Vogue magazine. Adriana Lima talked about her hope that the tournament would allow the world to see a Brazil "beyond football and supermodels." With sadness, she then addressed the specter of social protests. When I asked her to handicap the outcome and the potential winner, she shrugged a model's dramatic shrug and admitted it was impossible to tell because of her nation's complexities.
Borrowing a quote from bossa nova singer Tom Jobim, she said with a smile: "As you are about to find out, Brazil is not for beginners."