After years of anticipation, the focus of the football world will fall squarely on Brazil on Thursday evening, as they get the 2014 World Cup underway against Croatia.
Controversy and confusion have reigned ahead of the tournament to be staged in Brazil, but once the competition is underway in earnest, the feast of football will surely take centre stage as supporters from across the globe get set to indulge in 32 days of top-quality action.
Who do you think will win the World Cup 2014 opener?
And what an opening fixture we have in store. Brazil are the favourites to win what would be their sixth title, but with that tag comes an enormous amount of pressure from a fanatical nation of footballing supporters.
The Selecao know that if they can start well in this opening tie, the momentum accrued both on the pitch and from the stands could potentially carry them to World Cup glory. But a stuttering opening to the competition would set a worrying precedent for the rest of the tournament.
Can Brazil handle the expectation? Or will a carefree Croatia revel in the curtain-raiser? Either way, this one is simply unmissable; here’s all the information you need on where to catch the opening game of the 2014 World Cup, and a brief look at the potential implications of this clash for both sides.
Date: Jun. 12 2014
Time: 9 p.m. (BST), 4 p.m. (ET)
Live Stream: ITV Player (UK), WatchESPN (U.S.)
TV Info: Live on ITV (UK), Live on ESPN (U.S.)
For the host nation, the significance of being quick out of the blocks cannot be overstated. The amount of pressure heaped onto Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team ahead of the showpiece is enormous, and you suspect anything but a win here could provoke an indifferent reaction from a nation that has been rife with anticipation in the weeks leading up to the World Cup.
But a strong showing in front of their fervent supporters would help fester some impetus that’ll be difficult to halt, especially if players like Neymar, Hulk and Oscar can find their form in this tournament opener.
There’s little mystery surrounding Scolari’s team selection; he'll name a tried and tested XI that are very well organised and extremely familiar with their teammates. They have pace, power and a superb blend of experienced and youthful figures, giving the team a formidable aura.
But Croatia have some fine players within their ranks, and the midfield axis of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic have enough quality to boss a Brazilian midfield that is more tenacious than technical. Recycling possession through the mercurial midfield duo will be vital to the hopes of Nico Kovac’s team, and if they can starve Brazil of the ball early on, the atmosphere could quickly turn hostile.
Expect Brazil to create a host of chances when they get possession, though. Croatia lack an orthodox holding midfield player and as such, the likes of Oscar and Neymar should be able to find lots of space between the lines. When those types of players can turn and drive at a ponderous Croatian back four, it’s very difficult to see the Selecao not getting on the scoresheet.
At the back, Brazil look in fine form too. They have two wonderfully energetic full-backs in Dani Alves and Marcelo, whilst the skipper Thiago Silva is one of the best central defenders on the planet.
In another boost to Scolari's team, the back four will go up against a Croatian front line that is without Mario Mandzukic; the Bayern Munich forward misses the first game due to a red card he picked up against Iceland in Croatia's playoff win last year. His predatory instincts and unshakeable work rate will be sorely missed by the Croatian team.
But it seems as though Kovac's men may have been looking to compensate for Mandzukic's industry by preserving energy in their warm-up games, as noted here by Croatian football expert Aleksandar Holiga:
Croatia not pressing very high tonight, saving their strength. That could change for Brazil.— Aleksandar Holiga (@AlexHoliga) June 6, 2014
Anything less than a win for Brazil here could have disastrous consequences. The hyperbole in the host nation has reached stratospherically high levels and, while that can be of major benefit when the team is playing well, the crowd have been known to turn on the players should things not go quite according to plan, just as they did in Brazil’s recent 1-0 win over Serbia.
The fans were actually calling for former forward Luis Fabiano in that game before Fred struck the only goal, as noted here by the Washington Post's Dom Phillips:
Brazil 1-0 Serbia 1-0. Fans boo before goal and call for Luís Fabiano but Fred silences them with goal, says G1. http://t.co/apW2EFcNJJ— Dom Phillips (@domphillips) June 6, 2014
Croatia can head to Sao Paulo, play without pressure and maybe fancy their chances of nicking something in this opener. If they do lose—admittedly, as expected—they can welcome back Mandzukic for their next two games against Mexico and Cameroon, well aware they still have an excellent chance of making it to the last 16.
By contrast, the most fervent footballing nation on the planet will be expecting a spectacular show to get their tournament underway. But opening games like this are never easy. Nonetheless, the Selecao should have enough to get the better of this Croatia side, but expect a much more difficult contest than many are anticipating.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Croatia