FIFA World Cup returns with plenty of intrigue -- on and off the pitch

by Michael Leonard | Sports Editor Published:

Growing up, I fell in love with two sports: Soccer and swimming.

Once every four years, swimming gets about one week in the sun during the Olympic Games -- and then goes back into obscurity.

It used to be the same way with soccer in this country, if it got that much attention.

I'm happy to say that is no longer the case.

In 2014, the United States is part of the world community that loves -- or is at least more accepting -- of the world's game.

Of course, the center of that world of over the next month is Brazil as the 2014 FIFA World Cup Finals will be contested.

As play opens this week, it should be a joyous occasion for soccer fans, and it is.

However, the business of the beautiful game has been showing its ugly side in the run up to the tournament.

Before getting into that, here's a few of my predictions for the World Cup:

• Winner: Brazil --Yes, it's an unoriginal thought and the Brazilians will be under enormous pressure to win. Still, home-field advantage for the most successful soccer nation in history should lead to an unprecedented sixth World Cup title.

• Final: Brazil vs. Argentina -- The prospect of this one is mouth watering. Any game featuring Lionel Messi vs. Neymar would be worth the price of admission and, when it comes to soccer, these two countries hate each other.

By the way, how much pressure is Brazil under to win? Consider that many Brazil fans want to erase of the stain of the last time it lost a World Cup final on home soil. That was a 2-1 loss to Uruguay -- in 1950.

• US prediction: 1-1-1, second in Group G -- Ever since the US was selected into the "Group of Death" last December, naysayers have been braying that the US doesn't even need to bother going to Brazil.

Did I mention I despise pessimists?

Will it be easy? No, but it's not impossible. I still think Germany wins the group, but I believe a 1-1-1 split can happen.

And no, excluding Landon Donovan didn't influence my prediction.

The on-field exploits in Brazil should be fun, but outside the stadia, things have turned very sour.

Protests in Brazil concerning the government's handling of the World Cup have been widespread. Spending $14 billion mostly on stadia --some of which were not complete just days before the tournament started -- while not delivering on promised transportation and roads upgrades will do that.

The fact such protests are happening in the most soccer crazy nation in the world speaks volumes.

Despite the vuvuzela-saturated nature of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the tournament came off hitch free -- and at a cost of $10 billion less.

If there are issues in Brazil, add that to the ever-growing list of black eyes for FIFA.

In truth, though, FIFA biggest problems don't lie in Brazil, but in the next two World Cups.

Given the ongoing situation in Ukraine, things are going have to settle down for anyone to feel secure making the trip to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.

Then there's the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

What started out as a shocking decision (Qatar was awarded the World Cup over the US, Australia, Korea and Japan) has already turned into a disaster.

Forget the fact average temperatures in Qatar in June hover above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Forget that cost estimates for this World Cup are set north of $200 billion.

Reports of migrant workers being treated as slaves and dying while building the new Qatar stadia are beyond disgraceful.

To top it off, British newspaper The Sunday Times reported what many have suspected. It accuses Qatar's Mohamed Bin Hamman, a former FIFA vice president, of bribing FIFA officials to help steer them to vote to award Qatar the world.

Keep in mind, Bin Hamman was banned for life from FIFA in 2011 due to corruption charges.

Yes, I'm a US soccer fan and would love to have World Cup come back to the states in 2022. However, I'd have been OK if FIFA went with the clean bids from Australia, Korea or Japan.

Given what's going on in Qatar, if FIFA doesn't revoke the World Cup and schedule a new vote, whatever meager credibility the organization still had is gone.

I love soccer and the World Cup. I'm certain there will be many moments over the next month that will positive and breathtaking.

That said, count me among those who believes FIFA needs a complete overhaul.

Email: mleonard@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9442

Facebook: MLeonardRPC

Twitter:@MLeonard_RPC

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