All eyes will be on Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. Not only will the host nation's football squad be under pressure to win a sixth World Cup, but the country's infrastructure will also face scrutiny as well.
There have been consistent criticisms of Brazil's ability to showcase international football's premier competition. The country's stadia have received the brunt of it.
Brazil's biggest sporting icon, Pele, is the latest to lend his voice to that argument. He chided his country for failing to even finish several stadiums, during an interview with German publication Sport Bild, cited by ESPNFC Germany correspondent Stephan Uersfeld:
It's a pity that we still have a stadium that's not yet finished. The first match is going to be in the Corinthians stadium in Sao Paulo, which is called Itaquerao, but there's a problem because it's not finished yet. That's what I say is regrettable. That's a problem.
Uersfeld points out that currently three stadiums are still unfinished, despite the tournament beginning on June 12. Those stadiums are the Itaquerao, referenced by Pele, as well as the Cuiaba's Arena Pantanal and Curitiba's Arena da Baixada.
The one ray of light for stadium aficionados, not to mention fans wanting to see a game safely, remains the legendary Maracana stadium. Built for the 1950 World Cup final, the Maracana was home to a grim moment in Brazil's football history, when they were beaten 2-1 by South American rival Uruguay.
The Maracana will host the final of this year's tournament. The 71,159-seater stadium will also be the venue for a quartet of group matches, one last-16 tie and a quarter-final, according to StadiumGuide.com.
Staying focused on the final, let's look at the two squads most fancied to contest the big prize in the Maracana.
|Estadio Mineirao||Belo Horizonte|
|Arena da Baixada||Curitiba|
|Estadio das Dunas||Natal|
|Estadio Beira-Rio||Porto Alegre|
|Estadio do Maracana||Rio De Janeiro|
|Arena Fonte Nova||Salvador|
|Arena de Sao Paulo||Sao Paulo|
Stadium and location info courtesy of FIFA.com
Not at all surprisingly, the host nation features as the standout favorite. Oddschecker.com lists Brazil as primed to capture the trophy for a sixth time. Given the nation's excellent pedigree in the competition, along with the home advantage, that makes sense.
However, a closer look at the squad, per Sky Sports, shows reasons to guard against being too optimistic about Brazil's chances. For one thing, the defence features David Luiz, who has seemingly mistaken rash and reckless for attributes a centre-back must endorse rather than avoid.
Of course, most would argue Brazil have rarely ever needed a stingy defence to win a World Cup. While that has been true in previous years, the attacking talent of the 2014 version just doesn't compare.
They are joined by defensive-minded midfielders such as Fernandinho and Luiz Gustavo. Perhaps playmakers Hernanes and Oscar can conjure some magic.
Watching to see if this Brazil team can possibly match the hype and meet the expectations set by its illustrious predecessors might be more interesting than the players on display.
Oddschecker figures put Brazil's South American rival Argentina second-favorite. Oddly enough, this is the more exciting of the two squads.
Thrills are surely guaranteed by the presence of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi in attack. Watching that attacking trio receive supply from devilishly gifted Angel di Maria will be one of the joys of the tournament.
Writing for The Independent, journalist Glenn Moore suggests that a Messi-oriented Argentina, buoyed by being on South American soil, will have too much in attack for the opposition:
Won the last two World Cups in South and Central America and are strong candidates to make it a treble across the River Uruguay after tango-ing through qualifying. Alex Sabella, once of Sheffield United and Leeds, has built the side around Lionel Messi and was rewarded when he finally produced his Barcelona form for the Albiceleste.
If Sabella's team plays to its talent level, it could be impossible to stop. That would likely bring the best out of Brazil, who would be loath to witness lifting the World Cup at the Maracana.
BBC Sport South American football writer Tim Vickery predicts a Brazil-Argentina final. He cites Argentina's seemingly comfortable route to progress:
Predictions, of course, make fools of us all. But if Brazil are candidates for a place in the final, there is much to be said in Argentina's favour as well - in addition to their own virtues, coach Alejandro Sabella's team have also been received the benefit of the luck of the draw.
This is not merely - or even mostly - because Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria are not the most daunting of opponents. More important is the location of Argentina's matches.
Whether they finish first or second in their group, the same observation applies; Argentina will play the entire tournament without going any higher up the country than Brasilia.
This means that all of their matches will be relatively near their own country. More significantly, though, Argentina will never have to play in the heat of the North and North East which is not only uncomfortable, it also has a draining effect on performance.
That would surely be a fitting tie to cap a tournament so synonymous with the best of South American football.
Surprise squad to watch: Croatia
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat. After all, Croatia have surprised before. The nation made it to the semi-final in France 1998, behind the brilliance of sly poacher Davor Suker.
The 2014 vintage has the right players to spark a similar run. Creativity is not in short supply in a midfield boasting Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic.
With bullish target man Mario Mandzukic leading the forward line, Niko Kovac's squad will be a dangerous opponent. Drawn in Group A with the hosts, Croatia can take advantage of Mexico and Cameroon, before causing some real heartache in the knockout rounds.