What started with 203 teams on 15 June, 2011, now boils down to 32 in Brazil. Yes, the FIFA World Cup finals start today, with the winners sure to be feted when they return home with the trophy after the final on July 13, even more so if the hosts win on home soil for the first time.
Whether the Netherlands finally manage to break their duck, Spain become the first side to retain the title since Brazil in 1962 or Germany win their first World Cup since 1990, what is sure is that the winners will be treated as heroes.
However, the history of the World Cup shows that as well as heroes, individual players, teams and even officials can often return as villains or in bizarre circumstances, and we do not have to go too far back for a good example.
When Nicolas “Le Sulk” Anelka told France coach Raymond Domenech to “go screw yourself, dirty son of a whore” at halftime during his side’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it became a national incident.
Nobody would have been any the wiser, except French daily L’Equipe ran the story on its front page, Anelka was sent home and the players went on strike.
“We are the only team at the World Cup who aren’t playing for their country’s pride. We need to push out some of these little shits,” said Bernard Saules, a senior member of the French Football Federation.
The situation soon escalated, with politicians getting involved and Thierry Henry summoned to the Elysee Palace for a meeting with then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy on his return to Paris.
French Minister for Health and Sports Roselyne Bachelot took the moral high ground.
“I told the players that they are perhaps no longer heroes for our children,” Bachelot smarmed.
The Italians have also had their hearts broken, usually by those pesky Koreans.
Back in 1966 in England, a shamed Italy lost 1-0 to North Korea at Ayresome Park in Middlesbrough and crashed out of the World Cup in the process.
Embarrassed and fearing a backlash from their supporters, the Italian bigwigs did their best to conceal their plans for the journey home — the flight home was scheduled for the most antisocial time possible and they refused to disclose in which city it would land.
However, back in the days before Facebook and Twitter, the supporters still found out. Hundreds were waiting in the early hours of the morning at Genoa airport armed with rotten fruit. They chased the players out of the airport, pelting rotten tomatoes (oh yes, a fruit, dear reader) and pursued, presumably Benny Hill style, the team coach for several kilometers.
In 2002, Italy were again bundled out by Koreans, this time South Korea 3-2, but there was no angry mob waiting when they touched down at Milan airport, nor any rotten tomatoes.
In the eyes of all Italians, their team had not been beaten, but instead robbed by one man — tubby Ecuadoran referee Byron Moreno.
With Moreno Italy’s public enemy No. 1, RAI TV hatched a plan to invite him to Italy for a visit. The station had threatened to sue FIFA over loss of earnings, citing incompetent officials, but it settled on a different way of getting even.
Moreno got to repay the debt by helping to promote the station’s new (obviously highbrow) comedy show, Stupido Hotel.
On one surreal evening, referee Moreno hung out with scantily clad dancers (boo!), engaged in a staring contest with former Brazil and Italy player Jose Altafini (erm...), and listened to the audience sing a song in which he was pushed under a train (hooray!). After that, he had a bucket of water tipped over his head (he had it coming).