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The gladiators take on each other in a game where there are no 2nd chances. Schedule | Teams | Interviews | Photos | Quiz

india Updated: Jun 09, 2006 22:49 IST

Okay, so here we go again. Exactly 1461 days after Oliver Kahn's World Cup ended in an anti-climax and Ronaldo's redemption was complete, it is time for another edition to cast its spell on the planet.

It took 847 matches involving 194 nations - India included - before 31 teams earned their right for a place in the sun, Germany having got there by promising to play good hosts.

Close to 2500 goals were scored and over 7000 players gave everything they got, but only one-tenth of them will be able to tell their grandchildren that they were on the biggest assignments of their lives here.

Even such overwhelming statistics can't begin to tell the story of a football World Cup. Wars have been triggered by it and this is the only time men get morning sickness.

Eleven per cent will name their children after footballers and that's in England only! The number keeps growing and everywhere.

Caught in the World Cup fever, a former India captain named his son after an all-time great midfielder. Someone else with considerable presence in Kolkata's literary and political circles christened his after a Brazilian legend, which will there at the football's 18th quadrennial festival.

From Friday when Germany start against Costa Rica - FIFA has reverted to history and given the hosts this privilege after 36 years - and for the next one month, we'll see gladiators lining up chests out, boots on taking in the adrenaline surge a national anthem induces and trying to channel that into a performance that would leave even them surprised.

Theo Walcott, who at 17 years and 85 days is the youngest player here, will dream of doing a Pele and Tunisia goalie Ali Boumnijel, who is over 40, will want to emulate the Dino Zoff of 1982.

Cafu will want to be the only captain to lift the golden statuette twice and won't Ronaldo give anything to break Gerd Mueller's record of 14 goals in the finals, set here 32 years ago. Miroslav Klose will be hoping for a 'happy birthday' goal on Friday and Michael Ballack a quick return from a calf muscle injury.

Those lucky to be rooting for the elite 32 will connect with their warriors in joy and sorrow. Those forced into being neutrals will wish that their teams were there.

A 46-minute opening ceremony - with the sun not going down before 9 pm, rehearsals were on in full swing late on Wednesday evening - is perhaps the most significant change this time (Germans will also point out grass being imported from Holland, but never mind).

A subtler but no less significant development is Chris Birchall being the first white player from Trinidad and Tobago and Juergen Klinsmann keeping the faith in Gerald Asamoah and including David Ondonkor for midfield creativity after Sebastian Deisler pulled out.

With football desperately trying to combat racism, such selections underscore the point of a new world order. Unwittingly, but appropriately in the land of the Holocaust.

Argentina didn't do their preparations any good with a friendly loss recently but convinced that youth is right Jose Peckerman has given his boys a chance to be men. Before July, Lionel Messi could be El Pulga (the flea) his opponents can't kill. He has guile on and off the ball. Ask Chelsea.

The metatarsal is healing so maybe, Wayne Rooney could give Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski competition for being the tournament's young star.

Barring Group C, summed up by Belgrade's Blic with a headline saying 'Heidi Klum, you sent us to hell', and Italy, most of the top guns have an easy first round. The Bild reacted after the December draw by saying 'Klinsi, you lucky devil'.

Klinsmann has already predicted a July 10 headline - 'You did it'. Even a potential second-round tie against England or a quarter-final possibility against Argentina hasn't dented Klinsmann's belief.

Italy find themselves in the unusual situation of being a seeded team and yet behind two countries (the USA and Czech Republic) in the latest FIFA rankings. Italy's football - Sepp Blatter said on Tuesday that it is more than religion there - is under scrutiny and looking to Marcelo Lippi's 'trident' of attacking players for some feel-good.

Like Mario Zagallo, Spain need to be convinced that 13 is a good number. Ditto Mexico, for whom Jared Borgetti emerged highest scorer of the qualifiers with 14 goals, even though they have been this far once less and the mercurial Dutch.

In the way, governments change in Kerala, the World Cup has been oscillating between South America and Europe since 1958.

On Brazil's attacking rectangle of Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho and Kaka rests the responsibility of steamrollering such apprehensions. So what if they haven't won in Europe since Pele came as a kid.

So what if they failed whenever they came as favourites; there's always a first time.

Cote d' Ivore, Ukraine, Angola and Ghana too will be hoping for some beginner's luck. For the Africans, the World Cup is a balm against bad times, a unifying factor for countries torn by civil and military strife.

Iran may have five players in the Bundesliga but climactic conditions - it's been 8 degrees centigrade in the morning here since Tuesday - could scup per them and the rest of Asia.

But then, football's about surprises and who knows, maybe Australia will keep Asia's flag flying.

Some 200km from the foothills of the Alps and in the city of the Alte Pinakothek museum, a 417year-old beer hall and the Dachau concentration camp, the trek to Berlin will begin. The red carpet was rolled out for the FIFA Congress here on Wednesday.

Time now for the green one to take over.

First Published: Jun 09, 2006 00:00 IST