The road to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup has officially begun, as 207 nations will compete across 816 matches to become one of 31 countries to join hosts Brazil for what could be the greatest World Cup of all time.
Never in the history of football will so many great players, at the very peak of their powers, have been brought together.
Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, will be just 27 when the World Cup rolls around in 2014. Cristiano Ronaldo will be 29, Wayne Rooney will be 28, Mesut Ozil will be 25 and Brazil's great hope, Neymar, will be just 22—not to mention many, many more.
Brazil will be an extraordinary experience for not just the players, but for the millions of fans who will attend the competition and watch at home—the very life-blood of the sport.
Here we look at 10 things to expect and look forward to at Brazil 2014.
There is no arguing: Lionel Messi is the greatest player on the planet.
From the very moment he made his debut for Barcelona on October 16, 2004 at just 17 years of age, he has been destined for greatness.
Since then, some 404 matches later, he has scored an amazing 286 goals and has contributed 124 assists across club and country.
In short, and in modern football, there is no one who can match him as a player.
If anything, the player he is most often compared to is his Argentine compatriot Diego Maradona.
Maradona is the last great player to have left his mark on the game, and as Brazil 2014 approaches the question on everyone’s lips will be, "Can Messi emulate Maradona's performances in Mexico '86?"
Well, yes Messi can.
In 1986, Maradona was 26 years old and was at the peak of his powers.
In 2014, Lionel Messi will be 27 years old and at his peak.
If any player can make the tournament his own, it is Lionel Messi.
Twitter has over 140 million users worldwide, and as the World Cup approaches, that figure will surely grow.
The first global sporting event that used and felt the power of social media was the London 2012 Olympics, where Twitter was the obvious, quickest and easiest route for athletes, news organizations and fans to get instant messaging and news stories across.
That power was felt from the very first moment of the Olympics, before an athlete had even broken sweat, when over 9.6 million Tweets were made about the Opening Ceremony alone.
To put that into context: There were more tweets about the opening ceremony that about the entire Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Social media is growing. By Brazil 2014, Twitter will have become an essential part of digesting a football match through information, statistics and just having a good laugh.
Fans and qualifying nations hoping that matches at Brazil 2014 would be played on a regional basis to cut down on travelling have been dealt a blow.
Now that the fixture list for the competition, kicking off on June 22, 2014 has been announced, we can already see the massive logistic problems that lie ahead.
Each group of four teams consists of six qualifying matches with the top two heading through to the Last 16.
Strangely enough, each group game will be played in a different stadium.
Group A: Sao Paulo, Natal, Fortaleza, Manaus, Brasillia and Recife.
Group B: Cuiaba, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Allegre, Curtiba and Sao Paulo.
Group C: Belo Horizonte, Recife, Brasillia, Natal, Cuiaba, and Fortaleza.
Group D: Fortaleza, Manaus, Sao Paulo, Recife, Natal and Belo Horizonte.
Group E: Brasillia, Porto Allegre, Salvador, Curtiba, Manaus and Rio de Janeiro.
Group F: Rio de Janeiro, Curtiba, Belo Horizonte, Cuiaba, Porto Allegre and Salvador.
Group G: Salvador, Natal, Fortaleza, Manaus, Recife and Brasillia.
Group H: Belo Horizonte, Cuiaba, Rio de Janeiro, Porto Allegre, Sao Paulo and Curitiba.
In short, certain unlucky teams and fans could end up travelling over 2,000 km between some matches.
Oh, and pray your team avoids Group F in particular.
Brazil, while not being a continent, is comparable with one.
At 8,515,000 km squared, and with a population of over 190 million people, Brazil is just slightly smaller than the United States.
So fans will have to travel huge distances to cover matches. And not only that, fans will also have to deal with the fact that, because Brazil is in the Southern Hemisphere, it will be winter.
One other important factor to consider is that because Brazil is so huge, the north of the country is right beside Central America and will be stifling hot, while the south of the country is close to Argentina and could realistically see freezing temperatures.
Having travelled the length and breadth of the world, quite literally, fans will be more than happy to know that the stadiums at Brazil 2014 will be amongst the very best in the world.
The stadiums and respective locations are:
- Maracana, in Rio de Janeiro (capacity 85,000)
- Arena Itaquera, in Sao Paulo (68,000)
- Fonte Nova, in Salvador (50,000)
- Arena Amazonia, in Manaus (46,000)
- Arena Pantanal, in Cuiaba (42,500)
- Arena da Baixada, in Curitiba (32,864)
- Mineirao, in Belo Horizonte (70,000)
- Arena Pernambuco, in Recife (46,140)
- Arena das Dunas, in Natal (45,000)
- Castelao, in Fortaleza (58,400)
- Beira-Rio, in Porto Alegre (56,000)
- National Stadium Mane Garrincha, in Brasilia (42,200)
The very mention of the Maracana is enough to bring misty eyes to the most hardened of Brazilian football fans, as it was here in 1950, in front of 199,854 fans, that Uruguay pulled off the biggest final upset of all time when they beat Brazil 2-1.
Today the stadium has been completely renovated and remodeled and will be the largest in the competition, hosting the final on July 13, 2014, with a capacity of just over 85,000.
Never mind Frank Lampard's goal that never was at South Africa 2010. The most controversial goal-line incident of all time happened in 1966 when Geoff Hurst "scored" against Germany in the World Cup final.
Even today, the goal is an incident of hot debate, but those days might be behind us as FIFA looks set to bring in goal-line technology (GLT) for the 2014 World Cup.
Here's what FIFA president Sepp Blatter told El Mundo Deportivo (via Goal.com):
Brazil 2014 will have technology to avoid "phantom goals." We have two good systems which correspond to the needs we have been considering: reliability, immediacy and [methods that are] uncomplicated to use.
Will it improve the game? We'll have to wait and see.
The London 2012 Olympics showed that a correctly run, brilliantly strategised and motivated volunteer force can be a very powerful entity.
The volunteer force from the Olympics were praised from all sides and were one of the most important factors in making London a hospitable and welcoming city for people from all corners of the globe.
With that in mind, Brazil 2014 has already begun recruiting its volunteer force with a view to training them in before the dry run that is the Confederations Cup in 2013.
Since opening its programme, over 110,000 people from over 130 countries have applied to take part as a volunteer in Brazil 2014, so it will be very interesting to see how FIFA handle the massive logistical challenge in Brazil when compared to London.
Will the volunteer system be as successful as London's? We'll have to wait and see, but if you would like to apply, click here.
Following on the disaster that was the Jabulani in South Africa 2010, FIFA has unveiled the name of the official match ball for Brazil 2014—the Brazuca.
The term Brazuca "is used by Brazilians to describe national pride in the Brazilian way of life. Mirroring their approach to football, it symbolises emotion, pride and goodwill to all" (via fifa.com).
The much-loved phrase was chosen following a public vote when over 700,000 Brazilian fans chose Brazuca over Bossa Nova and Carnavalesca. In the end, Brazuca won by a landslide as it had gained 70 percent of the one million votes counted.
FIFA and Adidas have a long partnership stretching all the way back to Mexico 1970 when the Tango became the first official World Cup match ball.
Since then, the black and white hexagonal ball and the silken skills of Brazil's famous 1970 team have gone hand-in-hand, and it would be no surprise to see FIFA capitalise on nostalgia as the 2014 marketing campaign ramps up.
Whether the ball will be a success is still too far away to predict, but if one thing is for sure, it will almost certainly mean more goals.
You can almost hear the commentators screaming about "an unstoppable Brazuca from the edge of the box" now.
For those of you who are interested in that sort of thing, click here to read History of the World Cup Football 1930-2010
Let's face it, Brazil 2014, for most of us, will represent a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. So it would be foolish to travel halfway around the globe just to see your team lose and get knocked out in the first round!
It takes roughly eight hours to get to Sao Paulo from Miami, 11 hours from Europe and 17 hours from Sydney. It's not close, people, unless you live in South America, of course.
In a clever move, the Brazilian FA have lobbied FIFA to allow them to use 12 stadiums in 12 different cities. This might not sound like much, but in past World Cups FIFA had insisted upon a maximum of 10 stadiums from a minimum of eight cities.
Having being given allowance to spread the competition across 12 cities, Brazil 2014 will be spread across almost the entire country, allowing for outside-football tourism more than ever before.
Many fans will want to sample the world famous nightlife of Rio de Janeiro and Buzios. Others will want to take in some of the world's greatest natural wonders like Iguazu Falls, the Amazon River and its amazing rainforest.
Some may want to go horseback riding across the Pantanal, which has the greatest concentration of fauna in the entire world. If you're wondering how majestic the wetlands of the Pantanal are, they are 20 times the size of the Everglades.
If that doesn't float your boat, you could go surfing, whale-watching, trekking and, of course, there is always the football!
Expect great scenery, great nightlife, great adventures and hopefully great football.
Can Spain make it four in a row? That's a question for another day, but make no bones about it, they will be there.
Looking through World Cup qualification now, you can almost predict the 31 nations who will join Brazil for the tournament to end all tournaments.
Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Greece, England, France, Russia, Spain, Denmark and maybe Ireland or Sweden could and should make it from Europe.
Argentina will sail through qualification without Brazil to contest, and they should be joined by, probably, Chile, Uruguay and Ecuador and/or Colombia.
Africa is hard to call, but it is almost impossible to look past Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Egypt, and Senegal, while almost every other nation in the continent has a chance to take that fifth and final berth.
South Korea, Japan, Australia and Iran are the favourites to qualify from Asia, whose fifth team will most likely play off against Colombia.
At the moment, it looks like Iraq could be that team and if the Iraqis ever do qualify for the World Cup, it could mean the beginning of a new dynasty in world football due to the standard and sheer amount of wealth and players in the country.
The CONCACAF contribution to the World Cup will almost certainly be made up of Mexico, the United States and, most likely, two others. At the moment, that extra one could realistically come from four of five different teams so we'll have to wait to see who rises to the top.
From here, you can see that the standard of football on show will be very good and that that different weather conditions will suit different nations, so there will be many, many factors to include when picking an eventual champion.
As for a dark horse, I fancy Belgium to do something big. They might even make it as far as the semifinals.