Across the host nation's heartlands there is little love for tournament due to high ticket prices and low politics
In the heart of Recife, a stadium pulsates with the cheers, chants and boos of more than 50,000 fans in belligerent, festive mood. Most are in their team colours, filling the ground with black, white and red, but a handful wear fancy dress: there's an Elvis, Jesus, Superman, Centurion and Cobra (complete with giant plastic snake) adding to the carnival atmosphere already created by the batéria drummers and the pre-match barbecues and copious bottles of Skol.
The football is not bad either, with occasional touches of skill that would not be out of place at the highest level. Yet this is the home of Santa Cruz, a Serie C (third-division) Brazilian club from the north-east who claim the most devoted fans in the country, perhaps even the world. More often than not, this lowly team draw more fans than giants like Flamengo, Botafogo or Fluminense. For big derbies, attendances often outstrip those of Stamford Bridge or the Etihad.
But it is also in this heartland of Brazilian and world football that you can feel the greatest unease about the changes being wrought before next year's World Cup finals. Violence, corruption, gentrification and the poor form of the national team have eroded confidence in Brazilian football, which is undergoing a painfully accelerated transition as a result of next year's tournament. Attendances are down, violence is rampant, and the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is fending off allegations of corruption, secrecy and mismanagement of the preparations for 2014.
Recife will host five World Cup games at a new £180m stadium being built in the suburbs. It should help to develop one of the poorest areas in Brazil. But many inner-city fans feel distant – geographically, financially and culturally.
"I can't afford a ticket. I'm poor. I live among the poor. I don't know anyone who is going to a World Cup game," said Santa Cruz's most famous fan, Bacalhau, who has worn nothing but his team's colours for 38 years and had all his teeth extracted and replaced with tri-coloured dentures.
"I'm not really interested in the national team," complains another fan, Jesus Tricolor, who has been coming to games for 12 years dressed as the Messiah. "At the top level it is too corrupt so I have given up on them. Now football is all about money. The World Cup contributes nothing to society. It's just for the elite."
Fans in all countries love to grumble, but disappointment and suspicion about the way football is run in Brazil threatens to diminish what ought to be the best tournament in history. Over the past half century, Brazil has defined world football. In terms of success, style and fun, it has set the benchmarks that other nations have followed. We expect it to be the best and most passionately supported.
"England likes to say it is the home of football because it wrote down the rules, but the passion is here in Brazil. This is as good as it gets," said Walter de Gregorie, FIFA communications director.
That may once have been true, but at the moment it is anything but. Clubs like Santa Cruz are becoming an exception. In the Serie A, the average attendance plunged to 13,196 in 2012, down by 13.6% on the previous year. Japan's J League and Major League Soccer now attract higher crowds. Banks of empty seats are now the norm to the shock of many newcomers. "One thing that surprised me here in Brazil was how few people go to the stadium," the former Holland midfielder Clarence Seedorf said after moving to Botafogo last year.
The main reason is violence, which is starting to define the stadium experience just as it did in England in the 1970s and '80s.
Before the 2002 World Cup, the British embassy in Tokyo organised public talks to ease Japanese fears about English football hooligans. In Brazil, such an operation would be redundant because violence in stadiums here is far deadlier than anything in the UK.
Largely as a result of clashes between armed organizadas (supporters groups), there have been more than 150 killings in football since 1988. At Santa Cruz a fan was shot three months ago and fell into a coma. By one estimate, the death count in Brazil is now the highest in the world.
As in the UK, the authorities are trying to push the game upmarket to draw in more revenue and squeeze out unruly elements. Ticket prices have risen sharply, stadiums are being modernised and TV-rights sales are surging as more people watch pay-per-view TV rather than go to the ground. Yet clubs are deeply indebted and the best players continue to move to Europe, as the national team's biggest star, Neymar, has just done with a transfer to Barcelona.
"Brazilian clubs have never had so much money," said Tostão, a World Cup winner in 1970, told the Guardian. "But they also have never spent as much – far more than they receive. The management of Brazilian football lacks proficiency and seriousness."
Like many, Tostão blames the CBF. Long associated with nepotism and corruption, growing evidence of incompetence has made this organisation one of the most reviled institutions in the country. For decades it was headed by Ricardo Teixeira (the son-in-law of former Fifa kingpin João Havelange) but he was forced to resign last year amid a bribery scandal. His successor, José Maria Marin, who is accused of collaborating with the dictatorship that ruled the country until 1985, is thought to be under Teixeira's influence. Marin declined requests for an interview and the CBF has not responded to the Guardian's request for a comment.
The government has made little secret of its frustration with the CBF. (President Dilma Rousseff, who was tortured during the dictatorship era, is said to be very reluctant to share a public stage with Marin).
"There is little the government can do to interfere with an independent, private organisation like the CBF, but it supports the "professionalisation" of Brazilian football clubs, which means higher standards of transparency, accountability and due process," said Luis Fernandes, vice minister for sport. The former Brazil striker Romario has started a petition calling for Marin to stand down.
All might be forgiven if the national team were playing like world beaters, but the current squad is arguably the weakest in 60 years after the constant chopping and changing of players and manager. The five-time world champions have won only two of their six games since Luiz Felipe Scolari replaced Mano Menezes as coach in November and last week, Brazil slipped to a historic low of 22 in Fifa's rankings, below Ecuador, Bosnia-Herzegovinia and Ghana. Impatient supporters have booed the team off the pitch.
The public are desperate for the hosts to win next year and shake off the ghost of the last World Cup here in 1950 (when Brazil lost to Uruguay in the final), but it is hard to find anyone who believes that is possible. "The group of players we have now look unlikely to win the World Cup, even with home support," said the legendary Zico. "We are a year from the World Cup and still don't know who the first XI is. The Brazil team is still very young. A whole new generation came in at once. So now you get all the responsibility on a player like Neymar, who is only 21 and has never even played in a World Cup qualifier before. We need some players who have been there and done that so the spotlight is on them rather than the young, up and coming players."
The team's struggles have not stopped the authorities in Recife from hoping 2014 can prove positive and mark a turn away from football's descent into violence, debt and scandal. Ricardo Leita, the head of the local organising committee said the city's first all-seater stadium can help improve behaviour. "After the World Cup, we think the fans might change," he said. "We hope they will be different – calmer and less aggressive. That's our goal – to make football more civilised." But he acknowledges something essential will also be lost: "The supporters will be different. There won't be the same passion as you can see at a game between Santa Cruz and Sport [another local side]."
The concern at Santa Cruz, who were the first club in Brazil to accept black players, is that the core support may be left behind and the inequality that this tournament is supposed to address might grow worse. "More than 100 years after the abolition of slavery, I see the World Cup as a means of integrating society. It is training people to raise standards. Brazil will show its best side to the world," said Sylvio Ferreira, a former player-turned-psychology professor who heads the Santa Cruz advisory council.
"But it is also true that the World Cup is not for the lower class, it is for the middle class. That is the global trend. It's very cruel."