It’s almost here. The biggest sporting show on the planet is almost with us. Make the most of this one; it is being played at the home of the World Cup’s most successful side.
The following two venues are not quite so appealing.
So it is time to look at preview the eight groups.
All eyes will be on Brazil. The hosts go into all World Cups as one of the favourites, but this is the first to be held there for 64 years. And they still talk about that final in 1950, when they were upset by Uruguay in the final in front of the biggest football crowd ever. Never mind the fact they have subsequently gone on to win five World Cups, this one is already stirring memories that failure to win at home.
It is like a different angle on the All Black 2011 Wait of a Nation angst.
They should make it out of the group, probably as top qualifier. But don’t expect the much hyped razzle-dazzle; in fact we haven’t seen a lot of that at World Cups since 1982. And don’t forget that Felipe Scolari is in charge.
If there is not enough pressure on the team itself, think of Neymar. For a player to be a true great he needs to shine on the biggest stage. The same applies to Messi.
Mexico. Ah yes, whacky Mexico. 44 players and four coaches in qualifying. They were facing elimination with three minutes left on the CONCACAF qualification round. Then, enter Miguel Herrera, and his focus on home town passion, helped with coming up against an ill-prepared side, and it was all too easy.
Chest-pumping team talks tend to get you only so far though; this is another step up. But they did show enough in Wellington to show that when they click they will be hard to keep out. Having the tournament played just down the road, and with possibly the largest contingent of travelling fans tagging along, should help them too.
They are normally good for a Round of 16 exit and this should be no different.
Remember when you follow Mexico’s progress just think how this could have been the All Whites.
Croatia. The 1998 semi-finalists, as the cultural stereotype has it, are typically a bit of an enigma.
Their main weaknesses are a lack of depth, and the ability to play well outside Europe. Their key is Luka Modric, whose transformation at Real Madrid into a defensive midfielder has been a surprising success.
Cameroon famously became the first African side to make a World Cup Quarter-final in 1990, but despite qualifying almost every Finals tournament since have not really produced a lot more.
Widely written off before the tournament has started is probably the kind of unification they need. There is a lot of experience in the midfield, led by Alex Song, and relying on an aging striker in 1990 did the trick.
Last Chance to impress:
Brazil’s Fred. The last World Cup for the player with one of the coolest names ever.
Samuel Eto’o. We may never know how old he is, and Jose Murinho has not really helped, but this will be the last time he graces the world’s biggest stage.
Darijo Srna. The Croatian skipper is that country’s most capped player. Imagine what a big name he would have been had he not shown such loyalty (11 years) to Shakhtar Donetsk.