While purists may claim that the quality of football is greater in the European Champions League - and they are right - the Fifa World Cup remains the ultimate competition for fans and players alike. These tournaments, however, do not always deliver; not in the aesthetic sense at least. One can argue that the best World Cup in the last 30 year was in Mexico in 1986, when Diego Maradona, of that magical left foot and divine hand, inspired Argentina to its second triumph.
The subsequent competitions brought its share of viewership and fan euphoria, without necessarily inspiring. The finals especially have left a lot to be desired - one marred by inept refereeing, one where the favourites failed to turn up after their star player suffered fits the night before the big game, two decided by penalty shootouts, and another where a legend's final act on the field was to plant his head on an opponent's chest.
Still, nitty gritty aside, the competition's charm has not abated. One can in fact argue that the media's superior reach has given it greater attention. So, what do we expect of the 20th Fifa World Cup. Every World Cup has its star protagonists, and this time around, much like in South Africa four years ago, the mantle fell on Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi. They were the best players in the world by some distance. Still, not since Romario and Baggio took their sides to the final in 1994, and to a lesser degree the Brazilian Ronaldo and Zidane four years later, have the stars lived up to the hype. Ronaldo's Portugal have crashed out. Can Messi do it? Messi still has a chance, because he plays for a better team; Ronaldo's support cast is less stellar and World Cups are won by teams, not individuals.
The favourites? Conditions will play a part. European teams that are normally shoe-ins to make deep runs into a tourney of this nature could find it hard to adapt in Brazil's sweltering heat. Expect Uruguay and Colombia then to punch above their weight. Argentina will be playing in familiar conditions and probably possess the best attacking options with Messi, Aguero and di Maria in the ranks, but they have a vulnerable backline and a keeper who cannot break into Monaco's first eleven. Germany come with most of the squad that thrilled in South Africa but are no longer a surprise and their defence is suspect against pace; also, talismanic Schweinsteiger is not in the best of health. Defending champions Spain have won the last three major tournaments in which they have taken part. But they too have crashed out.
So that leaves the hosts, Brazil, as the favourites to win the thing for the sixth time. In the Confederations Cup in 2013, their collective looked better than the sum of their good, if not brilliant, parts. More importantly, unlike other pretenders, there are no glaring weaknesses. The central defence has the world's best in captain Thiago Silva who is partnered by the surprisingly-reliable-in-national-colours David Luiz. In front of them is Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo. The fullbacks, Dani Alves and Marcelo, continue the wonderful tradition of Cafu and Roberto Carlos. The question mark was keeper Julio Cesar, once among the world's best but whose recent playing time was in the average Major League Soccer in the US. The frontline is headed by Neymar, a rare talent but one who's still evolving. He is supported by Oscar, Hulk and Fred, with Chelsea's Willian likely to get a look in. This team is far from the gold standard of 1970 or the class of 12 years later that won hearts and inspired sports columns but won nothing. There's no Pele, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. But the Selecao could win this on the back of fervent home support and opponents who will give them weaknesses to exploit.
(The writer is an editor with a publishing house)
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