8:36 PM EDT, June 7, 2014
Reporting from Sao Paulo, Brazil
When the World Cup was awarded to Brazil seven years ago, FIFA, soccer's world governing body, wanted the tournament played in eight cities.
Brazil insisted on 12 — and Brazil won.
Now that victory is coming back to haunt the host country, which has seen its ambitious plans drive the cost of the tournament well past $11 billion, making it the most expensive and most controversial World Cup in history.
And the first game hasn't even been played.
But there's another hidden cost to that ambition. Brazil is the largest contiguous nation to play host to soccer's premier event, and by staging games at both ends of the continent-sized country, organizers have created a nightmare for teams like the U.S., which will travel nearly 9,000 miles to play three games during the 10-day group stage.
In the last World Cup, four years ago in South Africa, the U.S. covered 192 miles, traveling to its four games by bus.
"We made a mistake," Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes said at a news conference Thursday. "We should have fewer cities hosting the World Cup than we have."
In public, Brazilian officials say they chose the World Cup sites to show off the country's diverse beauty and splendor and to bring economic and infrastructure development to the host cities, spread from the steamy Amazon rain forest city of Manaus in the north to the cool nights of Porto Alegre, on the banks of the Guaiba river in the southeast.
Privately, however, people in Brazil have long surmised the additional venues were chosen to reward supporters of the ruling Workers Party and to buy off political foes.
But regardless of the reason, the decision has teams facing long trips and challenging weather conditions that will leave players battling fatigue, dehydration and jet lag as well as their opponents.
And that will have a detrimental effect on the games.
In the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June 2013, a kind of dress rehearsal for the World Cup, eight exhausted Italian players asked to be substituted at halftime of their semifinal loss to Spain. That game was held in the coastal city of Fortaleza, which will play host to six games this summer.
So to acclimate for the conditions this summer, Italian Coach Cesare Prandelli had his players work out on treadmills and bikes in a sauna.
When England opened its World Cup training camp in Portugal last month, Coach Roy Hodgson enlisted the help of a scientist who asked the players to train in multiple layers of clothing to simulate South America's heat and humidity.
Still, at least one FIFA medical official was so concerned about the potentially detrimental effects of the weather that he pushed for later kickoff times in Brazil, where important domestic games rarely begin before 4 p.m. local time. The rest of FIFA was more concerned with European TV viewers, though, and held to a schedule that will have 24 of the World Cup's 64 games start at 1 p.m. local time.
Ironically, that decision figures to most hurt the very teams those viewers will be waiting up to watch. In Europe, the domestic leagues play the majority of their games in cold, damp weather, making it tough to adjust to energy-sapping heat in places like Brazil. That's the reason commonly used to explain why no European team has won a World Cup played in the Americas.
"We've got very capable players for playing the kind of game played in places like Liverpool and Manchester," England team adviser Mike Tipton, an expert in thermoregulation and environmental medicine, told reporters. "That doesn't translate to playing in a hot, humid environment."
As a result, Tipton said, cold-weather teams may have to play a style they're not accustomed to — one involving less running and passing, for example — while teams from hot, humid environments "will just be playing their natural game."
Travel will be another issue for the Europeans, all of whom play their domestic games in countries no bigger than Texas. In Brazil, on the other hand, England's players will travel about 3,500 miles, more than eight times the length of their homeland, for their World Cup opener in Manaus.
"It's very, very difficult to win a World Cup for a European team in South America," said U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who played in three World Cups and coached Germany in one.
But that could be good news for Klinsmann's current team, which figures to have an advantage in its three first-round games in Natal, Manaus and Recife, the most distant as well as the hottest and most humid World Cup cities.
That's because 10 players on this year's U.S. World Cup roster come from Major League Soccer, whose teams are separated by three time zones and as much as 2,600 miles. Moreover, unlike most of the world's Tier 1 leagues, MLS plays a summer schedule that includes hot, humid games in Houston, Dallas and along the East Coast.
"Not only do you play in different places and travel far, you play in different climates from one week to the next," said the Galaxy's Landon Donovan, who has spent the majority of his professional career in MLS and played in three World Cups before being cut from the U.S. team last month. "So we deal with all sorts of different issues. And in that way I think it's absolutely not an issue with us.
"Guys that play in Europe … for the most part you're taking a bus, a train or a one-hour plane flight."
Like it or not, though, no World Cup team is going to be able to change the schedule or the weather. So Klinsmann, who has visited Manaus, where he had lunch with the mayor, says he'll be telling his players to drink plenty of water and enjoy the Amazon.
"It's an experience. And therefore I want the players to take it all in," he said. "This is something unique. The people there are extremely excited. It's a different face of Brazil.
"And that's what a World Cup is about, to see the different faces of a country. And Manaus is one of those different faces. I'm really looking forward to it now."
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