"It's time," Neymar said succinctly. "The time everybody had been waiting for has arrived."
On Thursday, Brazil kicks off the 2014 World Cup at home. Forget FIFA and its comical cast of villains because the World Cup succeeds in spite of FIFA, not because of it. The World Cup is about bringing the world together for one magical moment every four years. No other sporting event-or any other type of event, frankly-brings the world together like the World Cup.
Giving proper respect to the Olympics and Winter Olympics, the World Cup is the most important sporting event on this planet and the one month every four years where, truly, humanity holds hands in a healthy manner. Last time around, even North Korea was able to take part-though, we shouldn't dwell on what happened there too long.
This time around, even the United States has started paying attention to the sport. Facing one of the favorites, Germany, and the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, may not help America's chances of advancing in the tournament, but watching the best in the sport should ultimately generate greater interest for folks states side.
Normally, politics take a backseat for the month of games. This time, though, the politics are interwoven into the buildup to the tournament, as corruption, frivolous spending and general discontent have led to groups organizing and promising protests.
Without discounting the strength of those rallies or the messages pushing them forward, the World Cup should succeed, as it always does, on the strength of sport on the pitch. Analyzing the first few days of the tournament, it is impossible not to get excited by what is coming, even if one cannot help but hate the corporate exploitation of that excitement.
First up, Neymar will stand over the first kick of the tournament, as the 22-year-old wears the famous no. 10 shirt and leads Brazil against Croatia (Mario Mandzukic is suspended, but Nikica Jelavic played well standing in during friendlies). Croatia is not a team to be taken lightly, but the current incarnation of Brazil feeds off the home crowd to an extraordinary extent. If the seleção continues to harness the energy of the 12th man, as it did in the 2013 Confederations Cup, no other team has a chance this summer.
On Friday, Spain and Netherlands play a rematch of the 2010 South Africa World Cup Final (3:00 pm Eastern Time), and fittingly, this match takes place in Salvador, Brazil's famously African-influenced city. Spain's Brazilian-born striker, Diego Costa, has returned to health and should be available for the opener. Costa previously debuted for Brazil before spurning his mother country in favor of Spain, the world champion. That could get incredibly interesting if Brazil and Spain meet at any point in the tournament--especially in the final.
Spain is the second-favorite and not a bad pick to repeat as the world champion. Incidentally, the last country to pull off that feat was Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
Rolling into its first Saturday, the World Cup features European heavyweights Italy and England going head-to-head in Group D (6 pm Eastern Time). Surprisingly, England looked impressive in the lead up to the World Cup, and the only real worry for the Three Lions appears to be the unconvincing form of right back Glen Johnson.
For Italy, Andrea Pirlo will continue to be the bearded man gracefully executing the plan, and newly engaged (and mature?) Mario Balotelli will continue to be the (frustrating) attacking player packed with potential for the Azzurri. If "Super Mario" can replicate his play from the European Championships in 2012, Italy could quickly turn into contenders. Worth mentioning, Ciro Immobile is another player to watch for the 2006 champion, as the 24-year-old led the Italian Serie A with 22 goals last season.
Before we get too caught up in the excitement of the schedule or realize that Lionel Messi with Argentina and Ronaldo with Portugal have yet to be properly acknowledged, one must remember what makes the World Cup special.
Even in this hyper-connected modern world of 2014, incredibly, the best way to bring the world together is by rolling a ball onto a field. "It's time."
Shahan Ahmed is a contributor in Yahoo! Sports, covered the 2013 Confederations Cup for Yahoo! Sports and previously provided content related to the UEFA Champions League, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and German Bundesliga. Follow Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA
- Sports & Recreation
- Salvador, Brazil
- World Cup
- Confederations Cup