We are now less than five months off from the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Qualification was completed in November and early in December, the group stage draw determined the eight brackets of four teams.
Storylines are developing, and have been for some time, and following are 10 that will no doubt inspire considerable discussion between now and June 12 when Brazil face Croatia in the opening game in Sao Paulo.
Speaking of the World Cup’s first match, Arena Corinthians is scheduled to stage the Brazil-Croatia opener on June 12 but remains uncompleted less than five months from kick-off.
In late November, a crane collapse on the east side of the stadium killed two people and caused significant structural damage. According to an official statement from Corinthians, the venue may now only be completed in mid-April.
When finished, it will accommodate 65,000 spectators for World Cup matches.
Remaining in Brazil but moving nearly 4,000 kilometres northwest, the Amazon outpost of Manaus remains the most controversial of the World Cup’s 12 host cities, and its distance from the country’s major population centres is likely to cause a logistical nightmare in June and July.
Then there is the unwelcoming climate, in which England will face Italy on June 14.
Arena Amazonia will also stage Cameroon-Croatia, United States-Portugal and Honduras-Switzerland.
What started out as a protest over rising bus fares quickly turned into a massive public action last June, when Brazilians took to the streets demanding everything from better healthcare to improved education.
The Confederations Cup served as a useful backdrop for the demonstrators, who are likely to be seen and heard from again during the World Cup.
Many Brazilians are upset with the perceived excesses of FIFA and its signature event, and they’d prefer their government to concentrate on social infrastructure instead of football.
Only one team will be making its World Cup debut in Brazil: Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Balkan nation, presently ranked 19th in the world by FIFA, qualified automatically for the tournament after topping a group that included Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Liechtenstein.
In Brazil, they’ll face Argentina, Iran and Nigeria in Group F.
Argentina will play its first match of the World Cup on June 15 against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and once again the South American nation’s hopes will rest on four-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
In the past, a string of Argentina managers struggled to incorporate Messi into their attacking set-ups, but current boss Alejandro Sabella seems to have succeeded in getting the best out of the Barcelona maestro.
Messi scored 10 goals in CONMEBOL qualifying as Argentina finished atop the standings.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored 69 goals for club and country in 2013—a year-long run of form that earned him the Ballon d’Or in Monday’s ceremony in Zurich.
But can his recent success translate into a World Cup in which he takes Portugal into the semi-finals or even the final?
In Portugal’s qualification play-off against Sweden, it was Ronaldo who put his team on his shoulders and carried them through to the group stage draw, and similar dominance would almost certainly make his side legitimate contenders at the 2014 World Cup.
Iker Casillas’ situation is unique as he is the captain of a major soccer nation—the defending world and European champions—yet can barely get a start for his club team.
With Diego Lopez firmly entrenched as the No. 1 goalkeeper at Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid, Casillas has been left with Copa del Rey and Champions League appearances.
Nevertheless, he remains the Spain captain and the odds-on favourite to start between the sticks for Vicente del Bosque’s men when their World Cup defense begins against the Netherlands on June 13.
Reigning Olympic gold medalists Mexico had to progress through the inter-confederation play-offs before punching their ticket to the World Cup.
Given the side manager Miguel Herrera started for those matches against New Zealand, there are all sorts of questions about who he may or may not start in Brazil.
Herrera, a former Club America boss, deployed a completely domestic XI against the All Whites, omitting the likes of Javier Hernanez, Giovano dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Javier Aquino.
The result was a far more compact, energetic side than the one that struggled through CONCACAF qualifying and, as a result, Herrera will have no shortage of selection conundrums to deal with before Mexico’s first match against Cameroon on June 13.
There have been four South America-based World Cups and in precisely none of them did a European team prevail.
Add the two tournaments in Mexico to the mix and Europe’s record becomes 0-6.
In 2010 Spain became the first European nation to win world football’s biggest prize in the Southern Hemisphere, but history is not in Europe’s favour ahead of the 2014 competition in Brazil.
We knew after Frank Lampard’s goal against Germany wasn’t given in 2010 that goal-line technology would be in place before the next World Cup.
The Premier League has been using it all season and already FIFA has trialled the technology at its Club World Cup event.
There will be the usual debates about offside, diving and fouls during the 2014 World Cup, but thankfully arguments about whether or not the ball crossed the line have been consigned to the past.