THE IRONY OF Brazil having won a record five World Cups is that in the World Cup it really wanted to win the most, the Brazilians came up short.
In 1950, Brazil was the host nation for the first World Cup staged after a 12-year absence due to World War II.
In the only World Cup not decided by a one-match final, Brazil needed only to tie South America rival Uruguay to clinch its first championship.
Despite being inspired by a paid crowd of 199,954 fans at the newly built Estadio do Maracana, Brazil blew an early one-goal lead and lost, 2-1 - earning Uruguay its second title.
It's ironic because the World Cup historically has featured the greatest homefield advantage in sports.
Of the seven nations that have won Cups, six - Argentina, England, Italy, France, West Germany and Uruguay - captured titles as hosts.
But as if to make up for its failure to win the only championship it has hosted, Brazil has become the ultimate road nation, setting an unequaled ability to win World Cups regardless of geographical boundaries.
With the 2010 World Cup to begin today in South Africa, Brazil has a chance to win a sixth title and to do so by winning on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.
Brazil won in Europe (Sweden in 1958); South America (Chile in 1962); North America twice (Mexico in 1970 and the United States in 1994, when the final was in the Rose Bowl); and Asia (Japan/South Korea in 2002).
How impressive is the Brazilians' ability to be road warriors?
Argentina, which won at home in 1978 and in Mexico in 1986, is the only other champion to win outside of its continent.
European nations have combined to win nine of the 18 World Cups, but none has ever won off of European soil.
"It could be all of the different variables such as altitude or climate," said former U.S. captain and ESPN soccer analyst John Harkes. "It could be just the luck of the draw in the World Cup.
"I can just say the home advantage is huge. Being a player in '94 on the host country and having the group of fans behind us that we did gives you a feeling of confidence that goes through the whole team.
"Everybody has this bond and no matter who you play, you always feel that chance for an upset because of that 12th man. It's a little reassurance to say, 'We're home. You're coming into our lion's den.' "
Brazil has never cared whose lion's den it entered, and so it has to be a favorite, along with No. 2-ranked Spain, to win the title.
This generation of Brazilian stars like Kaka, Lucio, Maicon, Dani Alves, Robinho and Julio Cesar will be eager to earn a championship seat with the other legends of Brazil.
"In most countries, kids grow up dreaming to play in a World Cup," Harkes said. "Kids in Brazil grow up dreaming to win one. It's just their mind-set."
Spain has a history of crashing in World Cup play. Its best finish was fourth place in 1950 in Brazil. It has advanced to the quarterfinals only three times since then.
This is a different Spain, however.
This collection, which includes elite stars like Xabi Alonso, Iniesta, Xavi, Fernando Torres and David Villa, rivals Brazil with its artistry. Many in Spain believe that winning the 2008 European Championship has ended a national curse for choking in big tournaments.
Along with Brazil, Spain has been the best nation in the world over the past 3 years.
Having played in South Africa last year when it shockingly lost to the United States in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, Spain should have a comfort level that, along with its newfound swagger, could make the difference.
Really, the favorites in this tournament are the usual suspects. Reigning champion Italy as well as England and Argentina are all believed to be capable of winning the Cup.
The Netherlands and France might be spectacular enough to challenge, or flame out early. You never know with either of those nations.
It doesn't seem likely that any national team not hailing from Europe or South America is ready to break the stranglehold those two continents have had on the championship.
However, Africa has never hosted a World Cup, and it will be interesting to see how playing in Africa not only inspires South Africa but the other five qualifying African nations.
Serving as host has inspired other nations to accomplishments far beyond their anticipated means.
Sweden made its only Cup finals appearance in 1958, losing at home to Brazil.
Chile finished third in Chile in 1962. The USA shocked worldwide critics by advancing out of pool play in 1994. South Korea, which had no history of success, placed fourth in 2002 while co-hosting with Japan.
Like the USA in 1994, South Africa will be looking for a home advantage that will help it defy critics and avoid becoming the first host nation not to advance out of the qualifying round.
The Ivory Coast and Cameroon are probably viewed as the best of the African nations, but the best finish ever by an African nation was Cameroon reaching the quarterfinals in 1990.
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