Sao Paulo stadium (400x224)Notwithstanding the background noise around FIFA corruption and revolution in the air, the opening game of the World Cup needs to be good in order to captivate the global audience for the next month or so. More than ever before, the competition needs a successful host nation to drive the overblown 32-team format to the knockout stages.

Recent World Cups have disappointed, the last three, in particular have suffered from weak home nations (with the exception of Germany in 2006), sterile football and, Spain apart, the lack of truly outstanding teams. Since 2010, we’ve been fortunate to have witnessed the rise and rise of players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and the consolidation of Spain as the exceptional team of its time.

Club v Country
The past five years or so have also seen the UEFA Champions League seduce the football-watching public. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the UCL has succeded the World Cup as football’s blue riband event. If there is a club v country argument, the UCL has already won it. Club football, in all its splendour, is more engaging than the international edition.

UEFA’s decision to create a “Champions League for countries” in its Nations League, is a half-hearted attempt to tip the scales, but at the same time, it may damage the much more manageable, and ultimately enjoyable, European Championship.

The World Cup, though, has become more a commercial circus than a high quality football extravaganza. It will go on because commerce and TV will insist it does and both feed off each other. Each competition starts off with high enthusiasm but after too many meaningless matches involving either weak, unambitious countries or identikit tactics, the group stage starts to tail-off. By the time we’ve seen two or three penalty shoot-outs in the knockout stage, it all starts to look too familiar, by which time, the same old names emerge at the business end of things.

Brazil have the chance to kick things off in positive style. They may not be of 1970 vintage – who is? – and they lack the philosophy of Socrates, but we know what they can do. Is it Neymar’s stage in 2014? History tells us that when a young player comes to the World Cup with high expectations around him, it doesn’t always work. Diego Maradona spent four years building up to 1982, only to have a miserable tournament. It took until 1986 for him to claim his crown. In 1978, Zico was supposedly the “white Pele”, but he failed to deliver – in 1982, he was outstanding. Lionel Messi has yet to impose his brand on a major competition – his time could be now. Neymar is no Pele, who launched his fabulous career as a teenager in the 1958 finals in Sweden, but a lot of people will expect Brazil 2014 to be his show.

Brazil v Croatia

Croatia provide the opposition in the opening game, but the locals will be mistaken if they think the red and white chequerboard shirts will roll over to the samba beat. The prediction from one Times journalist that Croatia will reach the final may be a little bold – they may not reach the last 16 – but they have some talent in their squad. All eyes will be on Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic (if he plays), both of whom have been linked with Chelsea this summer. There is also Nikica Jelavic of Hull and ex-Arsenal striker Eduardo to come Mandzukic company up front. Also worth looking out for is Marcelo Brozovic, who may soon defect from Dinamo Zagreb to more lucrative climes.

When Brazil finished runners-up to France in 1998, Croatia came third, with a memorable 3-0 win against Germany in the quarter-finals. They’ve done nothing since and failed to qualify in 2010.

This is the third time that Brazil have faced Croatia. The first was a 1-1 draw in Zagreb in a 2005 friendly. A year later, the two sides met in Berlin in the 2006 World Cup, with Kaka (remember him?) scoring the only goal.

Brazil have won 15 of their last 16 games, although inevitably, World Cup hosts do suffer from a lack of competitive fixtures in the build-up. Croatia have already played a game in Brazil this past week when they beat Australia 1-0 in Salvador.

Host nations never lose their first game in the competition, not even lighter-weights like South Africa, the USA, South Korea and Japan slipped up in their opening fixture. Brazil are not going to buck that trend. If they do, watch out for fireworks in Sao Paulo…

Six pointers for the sofa…

Men to watch: Neymar and Oscar for Brazil; Modric and Mandzukic for Croatia.
Expect: Jeering if all goes horribly wrong….and a big police presence in SP.
Likely score: 1-0 to Brazil.
Unlikey score: 2-0 to Croatia.
Count: How many times “samba” is mentioned by the commentators.
Most common camera shots: Sepp Blatter and bulldozers and other vehicles that suggest the workmen are still in residence.