As the seleção host Croatia tonight, the Arena Corinthians draped in canary-yellow, the world will be watching and Brazil expecting. The road to São Paulo has been a long one – taking in 820 games, 203 teams and 2,350 goals in qualification – while excitement has been palpable since 2007, when the South Americans were announced as hosts.
Every World Cup is special, but Brazil 2014 promises to be above and beyond that – all signs point towards a classic. With sweepstakes drawn, bets placed, weekend plans rearranged, form and formations obsessed over, now begins the business end of World Cup fever: the first of the games.
For the next four weeks, not much else matters.
And the draw has served up a tantalising opener. Heavy favourites Brazil go into this evening’s game with the weight of expectation on their shoulders, home and abroad. Defeat, even at this stage, seems unthinkable – only Spain, in 2010, lost the first game and went on to win the tournament. After an indifferent start to his Barcelona career, Neymar will need to be at his scintillating best.
Croatia, on the other hand, have little to lose. They’re not the team they were four or six years ago, but still boast Luka Modric, Real Madrid’s diminutive midfield magician, while Eduardo da Silva, the Brazilian favela-born striker, is one of the tournament’s many intriguing in-stories.
Day two, three and four are irresistible: even Saturday’s late-night showing of Japan (with Kagawa and Okazaki) vs Ivory Coast (Yaya Toure, Bony and Drogba) should impress, but the pick of the weekend? Netherlands vs Spain, a replay of 2010’s final – this time with the promise of flourishing, attacking football. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal was appointed to reinstall this flair – and a little pride – after the battering ram tactics of South Africa’s last game.
Holland need to avoid their trademark squad spats, while Spain, impressive in qualifying and friendlies, need Diego Costa fit – the Xavi-Iniesta axis will take care of itself.
England, meanwhile, emerged bruised but otherwise unscathed from an unexciting trio of warm-up games (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will soon recover from a knee injury), and now, on Saturday, face Cesare Prandelli’s Italy, and the sweltering, damp heat of Manaus, Amazonas. Pundits and newspapermen are clambering over themselves, desperate for Raheem Sterling’s promotion to the starting XI, but expect the nippy winger on the 60-minute mark. The key is stopping Andrea Pirlo, the great Italian conductor, from dictating play. A wise man wouldn’t bet against a draw.
Germany vs Portugal is Monday’s glamour tie. João Moutinho, the assist master, will look to put Ronaldo, everyone’s favourite egotist, through against Neuer, the best keeper in the world. Joachim Low has had injuries to contend with, but, after eight years as Germany boss, he’s expected to deliver here.
The weekend’s others, including Argentina’s game with Bosnia-Herzegovina, shouldn’t spring too many surprises. Stoke keeper Asmir Begović should demand double-time against the Albiceleste’sridiculous array of attacking talent (Higuaín, Augero, Di Maria and Messi), while France and Uruguay, with or without Luis Suarez, should produce convincing wins against Honduras and Costa Rica respectively.
The low-down? There’s not a minute worth missing.
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