by Rob Boylan
It's down to a few hours until kick off between Brazil and Croatia to start the 2014 World Cup now. It's sort of on this side of the world this year, so there will be no 5am kick offs to worry about. It's been a controversial few weeks for FIFA, the world governing body. Allegations of corruption abound, both in Brazil and Qatar, while mass physical and artistic protests in Brazil over the state of the economy and corruption in their own government have been the most vivid mark of the World Cup so far.
I never thought I'd see Pele's name and reputation tarnished, but by shilling for FIFA, it's happened.
It's hard to boil all of the teams down to 11 players to watch out for. The first thing to start with is injuries. Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Alex Oxlade Chamberlin and Luis Suarez are all dealing with injuries that may or may not haunt their tournament, so they're out to begin with. Players like Julian Green, Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas are all behind someone in the pecking order and probably won't get as much playing time as I'd like to see them get.
Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
One of the greatest keepers in world football history and could be playing his last World Cup.
Sergio Ramos (Spain)
Thiago Silva (Brazil)
Mats Hummels (Germany)
David Luiz (Brazil)
Defense is rarely a joy to watch since, by definition, it's trying to stop the the positive attacking flow of the match. This is a diverse group anyone would kill for though. Plus David Luiz will certainly have the best hair of the tournament.
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast)
Michael Bradley - USA)
Midfield is the hardest set of players to pick. I settled on these four, but could have easily settled on 10 other combinations without touching on any of these players. In the grand scheme, Bradley probably sticks out like a (bald) sort thumb, but he's the most exciting USA player right now. In South Africa, he was saddled with a lot of grief about being the coach's son, but he's proved he deserves his place in the middle of the park now, and he's having a hell of a season. He's also pissed off and has a chip on his shoulder about not getting any offers from European clubs and could have something to prove to the likes of Arsene Wenger.
Neymar Jr. (Brazil)
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Mesut Ozil (Germany)
Daniel Sturridge (England)
Andres Iniesta (Spain)
All three could easily be in the starting IX, and they probably are on many others' lists. Ozil had a tough year at Arsenal and has something to prove. Liverpool's season ended disappointingly for Sturridge, who can run teams ragged (just ask Ozil). Iniesta is getting a bit long in the tooth for international football, but he still scored the winning goal for Spain in 2010 and you'd be an idiot to put money against him to have a great tournament.
As for predictions?
I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but I really have a hard time seeing anyone but Brazil winning. Spain and Germany are still very strong, and Argentina and Portugal have the two best players in the world, but strong home teams tend to do very well at the World Cup.
They're not the Brazil of old, they don't have the flair that they had with Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, or Pele and Garrincha, but they're still a damn good side and South American teams have won every World Cup in South America (though, Brazil did not win at home in 1950).
Brazil wins 2-1 over Germany.
Brazil kicks off against Croatia at 5pm on ESPN. Opening ceremonies begin at 4pm on the same channel.