Everything you need to know about the World Cup
With the World Cup's opening game between Brazil and Croatia less than four days away, Gabriele Marcotti sets you up with the essentials you must watch for throughout the tournament. Anything he doesn't cover below is a nice, but optional, extra ...
The tournament favourites
Brazil, obviously. That's what happens when you're at home, you've won more World Cups than anybody else and you see this as an appointment with history, even though this Brazil team isn't on a par with previous versions. Spain, reigning world and European champions, are up there too, although you wonder if after winning three major tournaments the streak is coming to an end.
Germany are teeming with talent, especially among attacking midfielders, and tend to go far in tournaments: They've reached the final four at the past three World Cups and in six of the past eight. And Argentina have a fearsome array of goal-scoring talent led by Lionel Messi, although not too much at the defensive end.
Belgium have an exceptional generation of rising stars -- Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois to name just three -- and whether it's an accident of genetics and probability or is by design is up for debate. Under coach Jorge Sampaoli, Chile play an intoxicating, attacking style that many will find difficult to cope with. Then there's the usual gaggle of European teams that have the capability of getting hot and raising their game: Holland, England, Italy and France.
Likeliest to fail
The draw has been pretty brutal to some big teams. One out of Uruguay, England and Italy is going home early, which means so long to either Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney or Andrea Pirlo. It's a similar deal in Group B, as either Chile, Holland or Spain will be vacationing early. Indeed, things won't look too good for whoever finishes second, either: They'll most likely get to enjoy the hospitality of Brazil in the round of 16. Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal are also getting a rough ride with Germany, the United States and Ghana.
Why a European team won't win it
Well, because no European nation has ever won a World Cup in South America, but it's one of those stats that is somewhat bogus. The continent has hosted only one World Cup in the past half-century (Argentina, 1978) so it's hardly statistically significant. Beyond that, the world is a much smaller place today; there's far more cross-pollination while state-of-the-art stadiums, chartered jets and five-star training facilities all pretty much look the same, no matter where you are.
Ronaldo vs. Messi
A year ago, we thought this would be the ultimate showdown between the world's two best players (and two of the greatest ever). Some even wondered who Brazil would support in a hypothetical final: a guy representing their former colonial masters or, ahem, an Argentine? Now though, both are somewhat limping into the competition. Messi had a rough, injury-slowed club season, an off year by his standards. Meanwhile, Ronaldo is recovering from tendinosis in his knee, an injury for which a Ghanaian witch doctor (no, really!) has taken credit.
The pressure on Brazil
It's not just the fact that the last time they hosted a World Cup (1950), they somehow let the cup slip from their grasp in the most dramatic way, allowing their tiny neighbours Uruguay to come back and beat them in front of the largest crowd ever assembled to watch a team sporting event (177,000 if you like your numbers; 200,000-plus according to estimates). Brazil didn't invent the game, but took it to the next level and several beyond.
To get it right this time, they called upon the last two Brazilian coaches to deliver the World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira -- think Mike Krzyzewski teaming up with Jim Boeheim. Aside from a few individuals (poster boy Neymar, defensive juggernaut Thiago Silva and attacking full-back Dani Alves), the current team isn't as good on paper as previous Brazil sides. But if they atone for 1950, they'll take their place in history. If they don't? The 1950 team will have some company in infamy.
The threat of protests
Brazil has one of the highest income-inequality rates in the world and a healthy tradition of taking to the streets. It's also one of those places where rich and poor often live side by side. That provides fertile ground for protests, like those we saw at last summer's Confederations Cup, which were mostly peaceful.
It won't all be World Cup related -- although there are legitimate gripes about corruption and overspending -- but with the world watching, folks are going to make their voices heard. To what degree it impacts the competition itself remains to be seen. Barring an unlikely violent crackdown, it shouldn't.
How big a deal are weather and travel?
Brazil is huge, of course, but the good news is no team will face more than a four-hour flight to and from its base camp and there will be only two time zones in play. Travelwise, those who opted for traffic-choked central Rio de Janeiro (England and Holland) might be more affected. Climate will matter for those games up in the hot, humid north; elsewhere, it will be temperate and maybe even a bit chilly in places like Curitiba and Porto Alegre. Some nations might be marginally more used to it, but the reality is that everyone will be affected up north, which means slower tempos, water breaks and wobbly legs late in games.
Possible surprise ...
Bosnia have a very strong spine -- Asmir Begovic in goal, Miralem Pjanic in midfield and Edin Dzeko up front. Ivory Coast have plenty of big names and experience (Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou), while Switzerland are packed with young talent (Xherdan Shaqiri, Ricardo Rodriguez, Josip Drmic). All three have relatively manageable groups. Advance to the knockout phase and history shows that anything can happen.
One last thing ...
And, no, I can't impress this enough times. Winning the World Cup is not a measure of anything other than your ability to raise your game a couple of times every four years. Sometimes the best team in the world wins it all; often it doesn't. It's the global game's version of March Madness. Take it seriously, sure, but take it for what it is: a spectacle, the greatest show in sports, Burning Man with cleats and jerseys ... not some kind of evidence of self-worth, sporting or otherwise.
(Unless you win at all, of course. Take it from me -- my country has won it twice in my lifetime, I know what I'm talking about -- that when it happens, you get to enjoy a four-year buzz.)
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.