The 2014 World Cup is finally here, and after a gruelling four-year wait, sports fans will get to see the world's top stars in action on the biggest stage.
Brazil and Croatia will take to the pitch following the opening ceremony, and the hosts are keen to impress a vocal home crowd desperate for World Cup glory.
Their opponents put together excellent showings against the eventual finalists of Euro 2012—Spain and Italy—in the group stages of that tournament, and they have the quality to make life miserable for any opponent, so fans can expect the 2014 World Cup to start off with a bang.
Date: Thursday, June 12
Time: 9 p.m. BST/3 p.m. ET
Venue: Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo
Enormous Pressure on the Hosts
No team will be more anxious to start their tournament with a strong performance than hosts Brazil. Luiz Felipe Scolari's squad haven't been tested in an official match since last year's Confederations Cup, and for all of their brilliance in preparation of this tournament, questions remain.
The last time the Brazilians hosted the tournament was in 1950, losing the final to Uruguay 2-1. That loss is still one of the darkest pages in Brazilian football's history books, and it's one fans are looking to finally overcome in 2014.
The pressure the hosts are facing is enormous, both on and off the pitch. Brazil as a nation are plagued by social unrest, and Grantland's Brian Phillips wrote a truly great piece on the link between football and the issues the country faces. In that piece, he explained what some people fear could happen if Brazil lose early:
"The 2014 World Cup team and the street protests are two electrons orbiting within the same unstable atom. Politicians are afraid that if Brazil loses early in the tournament, the protests will spill out of control. I mean, think about that."
Via Selecao Brasileira, the players know it too. Striker Fred told the media the team simply can't afford to fail:
Fred: "99% of the players know from experience how people in this country suffer unless they are among the minority who have money."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Fred: "We in Brazil know we have the conditions and an obligation to win this cup in Brazil, simply because this country breathes football."— Seleção Brasileira (@BrazilStats) June 9, 2014
Built around one of world's best defensive duos in Thiago Silva and David Luiz, Brazil are far from the one-man show casual fans believe them to be. Yes, Neymar is a mercurial talent capable of deciding a match on his own, but the Brazilians have plenty more weapons to work with.
Forwards Hulk and Fred don't look (or play) like traditional wingers, but they understand Scolari's system based on constant movement better than anyone. The group of midfielders is balanced and not afraid to use brute force when needed, something the team has lacked in previous tournaments.
The challenge of the Croatians shouldn't be taken lightly, however. In Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, the Europeans have three world-class players on their own. Unfortunately, Mandzukic is suspended for this encounter.
Their support isn't bad either. Ivan Perisic and Mateo Kovacic are strong, versatile midfielders, and Darijo Srna leads an underrated defensive unit boasting the likes of Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka.
Croatia went toe-to-toe with tournament dark horses Belgium for much of the qualifying campaign and nearly defeated the Red Devils in Brussels, but an upset loss at the hands of Scotland derailed their campaign.
The team plays best when they can hold on to the ball for large spells of the match and Modric has space to distribute the ball. But as we saw during Euro 2012, the counter-attack is a weapon they can use with deadly precision.
Against Spain and Italy, teams with more individual quality, the Croatians elevated their game to new heights, and they came within minutes of eliminating the eventual champions in the final group-stage match.
The Brazilians have the talent and momentum to dispatch of the Croatians, but the enormous pressure the team faces means it won't be easy. A strong start to the match will go a long way in giving the hosts the confidence they need to overcome a strong Croatian side, and it can only help convince the crowds the team is the real deal.
Prediction: Brazil 2-1 Croatia