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Argentina soccer fans react as they watch a broadcast of the 2014 World Cup semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, July 9, 2014. (Reuters)

Argentina soccer fans react as they watch a broadcast of the 2014 World Cup semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, July 9, 2014.

(Reuters)

WORLD CUP

Fans reduced to extras in FIFA’s lucrative reality show Add to ...

We watched Brazil play Mexico sitting in rickety plastic chairs in the midst of a main favela thoroughfare. The bar was too crowded. Luckily, it had no front wall.

Every once in a while, a truck would pass through and we’d pick up our chairs and move to the side to stand in a puddle.

A couple of gringos attracted a small crowd. There were five of them in a little gang. Maybe 7 or 8 years old. All in bootleg Brazil jerseys and flip-flops.

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They stood right behind us, waiting patiently for breaks in play. Their hands were clasped behind their backs like old men. They wanted very badly to have a conversation.

These were the free-range children of the Third World. Unlike North American kids, they haven’t been trained to fear strangers. They don’t have much, but they maintain the most potent gift of childhood – curiosity.

At the half, they all began speaking at once in Portuguese. We responded as best we could in English. So, not very well. Their eyes widened. They had the look of people who think they’re being put on. They kept going in Portuguese. We shrugged. An impasse. One of them wandered off to smash a vicious-looking piece of lumber against the bumper of derelict car. The rest of us sat there silently for a while, stumped.

Eventually, one of them pointed up to the TV. There was an Adidas ad on.

“Dani Alves,” he said.

“Dani Alves,” I repeated. “Barcelona.”

He turned delightedly to his comrades. He’d found a way to communicate with this illiterate savage! “Messi,” he said.

“Messi,” I agreed. “Barcelona.”

“BARCELONA!” they all screamed.

This went on for five glorious minutes. They said the name of a player and his professional club. We concurred with elaborate gestures and courtesies. (“Ronaldo!” “El Gordo? (‘Fatso’?)” “No, no. CRISTIANO Ronaldo. Real Madrid.”)

We were not talking, but we were communicating.

This is the true power of football. It’s not the glamour or the big show or any of the notions that get pushed out front to sell you things.

Football is the world’s lingua franca. It’s our last real piece of common ground.

While that will never disappear, the opportunity to gather together and say the names is vanishing. We can argue about where Brazil 2014 stands in the World Cup pantheon. What did become clear over five weeks here is that this was the last great, global football tournament.

As it started, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter told a gathering of delegates “more than 400 billion fans will watch the games through televisions around the world.”

He hasn’t bothered to explain that improbable figure, which assumes that just about every one of us on the planet watched all 64 games. But you get his point.

When they last held the World Cup here, in 1950, about 200,000 people attended the final at the Maracana. No one is precisely sure of the number because tens of thousands sneaked in. This was a pre-souvenir culture. Tickets for that match were collected at the gate, and then discarded. A few weeks ago, FIFA traded a pair of seats to Sunday’s final for an unused 1950 ducat. It will be displayed as a museum piece.

That was the last untelevised World Cup. Eight years later, the organizers of the World Cup in Sweden would complain that their total gate revenue (roughly $1-million) hadn’t met expectations. They blamed TV for leeching away their audience.

They squared that accounting circle pretty quickly.

The total value of the broadcasting and marketing rights for this World Cup amount to roughly $4-billion. Every nickel of that goes into FIFA’s pocket.

Increasingly – and that’s really saying something – FIFA’s focus is on wringing every red cent from their once-every-four-years cash cow. They erect tax-free bubbles around the stadiums. Having spent a fortune to prepare, host nations get nothing out of this other than prestige (and that’s debatable).

We are long past pretending that holding a World Cup is a smart bottom-line proposition. That myth died in South Africa.

This has created a vicious economic circle. FIFA will not substantially share revenues with the hosts. As a result, the hosts are encouraged to do this on the cheap. Everyone talks a good game about the fan experience and infrastructure improvements, but it doesn’t materialize. The hosts shrug. Having put them in an impossible situation, FIFA stops pretending to care about preparations as soon as the journalists begin arriving.

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