If Roy Hodgson's team qualify for next year's finals, they will be heading for a luxurious stay at a hotel by Brazil's iconic beach
Nobody could ever accuse England of doing things by halves, particularly when it comes to choosing a base for a World Cup campaign.
Under Sven-Goran Eriksson in 2006, they opted for the cosy designer chic of Baden-Baden, where the boutique shopping of Victoria Beckham and other Wags caused more of a stir than anything the players did on the pitch. Having judged this a mistake and a distraction, the stricter regime of Fabio Capello pitched the 2010 camp in the isolated surroundings of the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus in Rustenburg, where the team seemed stifled.
Now, under the affable Roy Hodgson, the expectations for glory may have dimmed but the team are placed much closer to the heart of things. That was the case in Poland for Euro 2012 and for the Brazil World Cup next year it looks likely to be true again, because the England team have chosen as their base the biggest hotel on the most popular beach in the world's party capital, Rio de Janeiro.
England, of course, have not yet qualified. But they have their eyes firmly set on the Windsor Atlantica hotel in Copacabana, which they will try out in June for their friendly with Brazil at the Maracana. The 37-floor hotel dominates the skyline, but the team will not have it to themselves even if they do make it to the tournament. Unlike in previous campaigns, England will not commandeer the entire 545-bed hotel so privacy and security could be an issue. This means no easy escape from the inevitable hype and disappointment that comes with every World Cup since 1966. But the views from the hotel should put that in perspective, and perhaps even offer inspiration.
Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and their team-mates can mull on upcoming games or lament missed penalties from the comfort of the rooftop pool, which takes in stunning views of Rio's most celebrated sights. Inland and upwards are the open arms of the Christ the Redeemer statue. To the east is Sugarloaf Mountain and Leme. West are the Two Brothers mountains and the Vidigal favela. Between them lies the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the golden sands of Copacabana.
In this exclusive setting, footballers are an exception, according to José Geraldo Filho, the avuncular commercial co-ordinator of the hotel. "We usually avoid football teams. They attract a lot of attention and most of our clients like privacy. The behaviour of some of the teams is also too much," says Filho, who believes England's etiquette will be different from the antics of local players.
VIP guests are given a champagne check-in at the hotel, which boasts one of the finest Italian restaurants in Rio, two bars, breakfast rooms offering sushi, sashimi, Bahia cuisine and views of the beach and an adjacent swimming pool. It has its own hairdressers, sauna, steam room, gym and recently added an area for Pilates.
One room includes a water-massaging machine that fires warm jets on to customers lying on a bed. The stainless steel contraption looks like something that might be found inside Woody Allen's orgasmatron.If the wives and girlfriends of the players want to emulate the epic shopping exploits of Baden-Baden, there are numerous boutiques in nearby Ipanema and upmarket Leblon, as well as malls in Botafogo and Flamengo. The hotel also hosts an outlet of H Stern, a high-end jewellers that sells gold and silver bracelets embedded with gemstones.
The hotel opened two years ago after a change of owner and an expensive refurbishment. But the staff are accustomed to high-profile clients and major events. The former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton stayed here during last year's Rio+20 United Nations summit. The prime minister, David Cameron, brought a business delegation here soon after and Prince Harry also made this his base during a royal tour in which he played football in Flamengo.
Next on the guest-list is Usain Bolt, who is coming to Rio later this month for a 150-metre "mano a mano" sprint with four other runners on Copacabana beach. Workers are now building the platform track above the sand where he will race. At other times, the same stretch of beach has hosted rock concerts, epic new year firework displays and, of course, carnival. With so much going on, England are unlikely to be the only show in town.
If the players wander across the Avenida Atlântica on the beach – and they will surely want to watch, or try, futevolei (foot-volley) – they will have to mingle with the masses. Although the hotel provides security for its own area of umbrellas and chairs, the staff say they have no right to block it off from the public.
Security is a major concern. The headline of a recent Star article, "England World Cup Hotel is in Murder Central" may be overblown, but Rio's long-standing reputation for violent crime is no myth. A paramilitary police campaign to regain control of the favela slums that ring Rio has pushed the problem out of sight and improved safety levels in the wealthy districts of the city. However, murder and armed robbery remain at levels that would be considered alarming in Europe and theft is not uncommon in Copacabana, despite the heavy presence of tourist police.
The players will, of course, get their own protection, and the FA says the hotel's record speaks for itself. "As you know, the hotel has had some high-profile visitors in recent years. It will be very secure," said Adrian Bevington, the director of communications for the Football Association, who has visited three times.
While England have one of the best hotels, the quality of their training ground remains uncertain. This is important not just for the facilities, but for the potential stress of the commute if the team are allocated a distant site.
Roy Hodgson visited three possible sites during his fact-finding mission last summer including two associated with the Flamengo Sports Club. The nearest and oldest – which is on the western side of the lagoon – has one large pitch and two five-a-side grounds, as well as three swimming pools. This makes it a popular venue for locals as well as more than a dozen members of Brazil's Olympic swimming teams who train there. A camp here would be convenient, but could add to the goldfish bowl effect that will already be a factor given the crowds that throng near the hotel.
A higher degree of privacy and more advanced facilities are available at Flamengo's new training ground on the outskirts of the city, but unless something is done about Rio's appalling traffic, that could prove a stressful journey. Other possibilities include the Fluminense and Botafogo clubs, not far from Sugarloaf Mountain, which would be an easy commute. But with several teams likely to make their base in Rio, competition for the best facilities may be tough. "We can't confirm which ground we will use until we have signed a contract," said Bevington.
The England management has previously expressed frustration that the World Cup organising committee did not make clear earlier which hotels would be associated with which training grounds.
Travelling fans face other risks. This is an area that is notorious for its colourful nightlife. With several all-night bars on the beachfront and strip clubs in some of the back alleys, this is known by some as the Bermuda Triangle because once you go in, you are never sure if you will come out.
For the hotel this can sometimes be a problem when drunken guests bring back girls who subsequently slip them a sleeping potion and clean them out.
"We warn them, but when they've had their third caipirinha and come back here with a lady, they forget all about security. Then they complain to us," said Filho.
Such problems, he says, are a sign that Brazil is a developing country that is still overcoming a historical legacy of dictatorship and slavery (the statue outside the hotel is of Princess Isabel, who made the proclamation that abolished the practice in 1888, making Brazil the last major country in the world to do so).
The Windsor hotel group exemplifies the country's ambitions. Entirely Brazilian-owned, it has grown rapidly in recent years and now runs 10 hotels in Rio, with more in the pipeline. By the time of the Olympics in 2016, they expect to have 5,000 beds.
But world-beating ambitions have tapered off. The economy has slowed dramatically in the past year. Talk about the country's success story is increasingly mixed with old worries about political corruption, strangling bureaucracy and woeful infrastructure.
Players and supporters will experience many of these pros and cons from the moment they arrive at the shabby and inefficient Galeão international airport and then drive past poverty- and crime-ridden favelas into the centre of the city. But they are also likely to appreciate the country's friendliness, alegria da vida (joy of life) and considerable efforts to raise living standards.
Transport will be a major issue, particularly given the vast distances that many teams will have to travel. Hodgson warned last year that the World Cup could pose "major logistical problems".
Brazil wants to use the upcoming mega events to accelerate development. The government is spending some €12bn in preparation for the World Cup alone. To spread the benefit, games will be played in a dozen stadiums spread across thousands of miles, from the tropical humidity of the Amazon region to the cool southern coastlines.
One stadium — in Manaus — is being built from scratch. Others are under renovation, along with airports and roads. The first of these major projects to be completed – the Salvador stadium – will host its inaugural match next week with president Dilma Rousseff in attendance.
But many other projects have been plagued with delays as a result of strikes, bad weather and poor planning. Further behind schedule is Recife's Arena Pernambuco. Rio's iconic Maracana – which is being expensively refurbished – has also missed several completion deadlines. The latest date for an unveiling is 25 April, but contractors believe this is unrealistic and work may continue closer to the Brazil-England friendly on 2 June.
"This can not be delivered in April. Even working 24 hours at this pace, there are still three or four months of work," Armando Abreu, director of the Society of Engineers and Architects of the State of Rio, told the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, which has run a gallery of the delayed construction projects.
The Rio government insists preparations are on course, but the local population have their doubts. Given the appalling traffic, weak infrastructure, frequent flooding and other problems that strike the city at the best of time, the most common expression in the past year has been "imagina na copa" – "Imagine what it will be like during the World Cup."
The same is true nationwide. Brazil and Fifa say the stadiums will be ready in time for the World Cup. But there are still some concerns about whether they will be operational for this year's warm-up event, the Confederations Cup.
Critics of the organisation are not hard to find. The former World Cup hero Romario – who is now a politician and a TV pundit – says the government should stop pretending this will be the greatest World Cup of all time. "It's a troublesome lie," he wrote on his Facebook page. "It won't be the greatest and we will be embarrassed."
Clearly it is as much of a challenge for Brazil as for England to manage expectations distorted by endless hype and disappointment. But that won't stop both teams and their supporters from dreaming of a return to the Maracana for next year's final.