Midfield General

The Little Countries That Could

Belgium and Uruguay are ready to reap the dividends of diversity.

LONDON -- On the long voyage to World Cup triumph, Belgium and Uruguay are two icebergs that the favorites would rather avoid. Both nations, despite being underdogs in this year's tournament, have the ability and the nous to upset their bigger and brasher rivals. Yet it's remarkable, given their small size and history as geopolitical doormats, that they remain competitive at all.

Belgium, for example, has less than a tenth of the population of Russia, its rival in the group stage, but is regarded as a far greater threat. And then there is Uruguay, which despite fewer than 4 million citizens -- barely a sixth of the population of greater São Paulo -- is one of the teams Brazil would least like to meet on its way to the final. How is this so?

In Belgium's case, the reasons are more readily apparent. A nation sewn largely from a patchwork of three peoples, the Flemish, Walloons, and Germans, its football team nevertheless features several stars of African descent. This is in part a result of the country's long, prosperous, and frequently brutal colonial rule over Congo. But plenty of other African immigrants left to find better earnings in the Continent's supposed buffer state. Currently, Belgians of Moroccan descent -- including midfielder Marouane Fellaini and winger Nacer Chadli -- make up the biggest non-European group; for many Moroccans, French is a second language. Like France with its North African and Caribbean contingents and Germany with its Turks, Belgium's national team has benefited from multiple populations: one from Western Europe, one from Africa, and one from Eastern Europe.

Over time, this ethnic blend has led to an uncommon harmony among the current squad, whose young players -- notably Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku of Chelsea, and Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United -- are the envy of many of their competitors. Perhaps the long and uneasy relationship between the Flemish and Walloons has made it easier to put smaller prejudices aside.

Uruguay represents a more curious case, in that its players are footballing aristocracy disguised as minnows. Like Belgium, it is a relatively young and some would say artificially created nation, yet on the field of play the Uruguayans are old hands.  They have won the World Cup twice, first at the inaugural event in 1930, and then in 1950, when Brazil last hosted the tournament.  The latter occasion, when Brazil succumbed in front of a world-record 200,000 fans or more, is referred to there as the "Maracanazo", a national tragedy still felt today.

Uruguay owes much of its success not just to its passion for football but also to the early inclusiveness of its culture.  In that 1950 tournament, at a time when neighboring Brazil still regarded its black players with suspicion, Uruguay boasted a black captain, the brilliant Obdulio Varela. Moreover, Uruguay's victories in the World Cup's formative years established a pedigree that endures to this day, with many of its footballers -- such as Liverpool's Luis Suárez and Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani -- playing abroad for some of the world's biggest clubs. 

The pattern doesn't stop there. Portugal, another formidable footballing foe with a population just a little smaller than Belgium's, has also drawn on players from Brazil and its former colonies in Africa, such as the midfield genius Deco and the legendary Eusebio, respectively. When Sweden had success, it was on the shoulders of world-class strikers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose parents emigrated from the former Yugoslavia, and Henrik Larsson, whose father was from Cape Verde. For Norway, it was John Carew, whose dad came from Gambia.

Belgium and Uruguay are two diminutive countries that have maximized their advantages through inclusiveness, and of which Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany -- the quartet of forerunners for this year's title -- will rightly be wary.  They, in the manner of Brazil's indigenous mosquitos and scorpions, are a useful reminder that small can often be deadly. 

Bruno Fahy / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Why Play the World Cup in a Malaria Zone?

Teams venturing inland in Brazil may have more to contend with than the opposition

Malaria is one of the world's biggest killers and soccer players are not immune. Even before the World Cup started, two of the players scheduled to participate fell ill upon returning to their home countries. So why are some matches being played in Brazil's malaria zone, and how will the teams cope?

For people who've never been to a malaria-infested country, it may be hard to grasp how top athletes like Kenneth Omeruo, a Nigerian defender who finished up the English season on loan from Chelsea to Middlesbrough, could allow themselves to contract the disease. Liverpool's Kolo Touré also came down with malaria -- not for the first time, he said -- after a sojourn in Ivory Coast. Didn't these guys have the money and smarts to protect themselves?

The truth is that it's not so easy. A single mosquito bite can be deadly, and players do a lot of their work outside. Sweat can wash away insect repellent, and prophylactic medications aren't always 100 percent effective. Many people who live in malaria zones don't take them, preferring to deal with the disease after the fact.

Fortunately, malaria is treatable if caught quickly. Going from infection to full fitness for an international soccer match is no sure thing, but both Omeruo and Touré are in Brazil and ready to play.

Touré and his teammates are especially in luck, as none of their matches in the group stage take them into Brazil's enormous malaria zone. Omeruo's Nigeria, on the other hand, has one of four matches in Cuiabá; there are four more in Manaus, in the heart of Amazonia. Visitors to Cuiabá need only avoid mosquitoes to stay safe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but those traveling to Manaus need to take drugs.

This is where things begin to get complicated. Malaria parasites in Brazil are resistant to chloroquine, which has relatively mild side effects and only needs to be taken once a week. Instead, players in Manaus should take atovaquone-proguanil, doxycycline, or mefloquine. Doxycycline increases risks from sun exposure -- not so good for daily training -- and mefloquine has side effects that were severe enough for the United States Army to ban its use last year. So atovaquone-proguanil it is. But players may still have to deal with side effects including headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.

Though FIFA and Brazil's government may have wanted to hold the World Cup in as many parts of the country as possible, scheduling matches in the malaria zone is a puzzling decision. Not only are the flights long, the players may experience medical problems that could knock them out of a game or even the entire tournament. If there's a price to be paid for spreading the wealth, they and their fans will be the ones paying it.

Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty Images