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Joga bonito?

Spend a bit of time in Brazil ahead of the World Cup and you'll see a familiar theme:

Brazil's dreams once again centre on Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium Photograph: Getty
Brazil's dreams once again centre on Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium Photograph: Getty

homecoming. Football's coming home … now where did we see that before? You feel you are entitled to claim the game as your birthright when you are either the (co)inventors or its finest exponents over the past hundred years. And Brazil certainly believes it has that right.

Which isn't to minimise the anger of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest against the tournament or at least its excesses: corruption, overspending, megalomania. And, yes, believe it or not, in a country with a population of 200 million there are some who don't know Neymar from Niemeyer (Oscar, the architect). But even they would concede football matters in Brazil in ways it doesn't elsewhere. Otherwise, Nelson Rodrigues, their greatest playwright, would not have called it "our Hiroshima" when they failed to lift the trophy for the first time in 1950 after losing to Uruguay in the Maracana.

This time they are favourites because they're at home and because they're Brazil. If you want to point out flaws, it's easy to do so once you get past Dani Alves, Thiago Silva and Neymar (though even he didn't exactly have a rip-roaring debut campaign at Barcelona). Their centre-forward, Fred, missed seven months last season (and he's not exactly Romario either, though he's prolific in this system).

His back-up, Jo, the former Manchester City and Everton striker, has scored six goals in the last 18 months. Oscar arrives with gaggle of physical knocks after an exhausting two years for Chelsea and Brazil. David Luiz just about has more starts at centre-back for his country than he did with the Stamford Bridge side after Jose Mourinho's decision to use him in midfield. Luis Gustavo is fine as a worker bee, but also a guy who was surplus to requirements at Bayern.

The draw was kind to Brazil (Croatia, underachieving Mexico and Cameroon), but things get serious very quickly in the round of 16, when they'll face the runner-up from Group B: Spain, Chile, Holland or (admittedly unlikely) Australia. All but the latter harbour legitimate ambitions to go far; all three could trip them up in 90 minutes.

Group B is probably the toughest in terms of potential winners, but Group D isn't far behind: Uruguay, England and Italy, with Costa Rica - on paper - as the potential arbiter. Going by Fifa rankings, imperfect as they are, the juggernaut section is Group D with Germany (2nd), Portugal (4th), USA (13th) and Ghana (37th), all lumped together.

There are also storylines galore, beginning with the Germans facing both Cristiano Ronaldo (whose Real Madrid side stomped all over Bundesliga representatives last year) and their old boss Jurgen Klinsmann, as well as the Ghanaians, who stretched them in the final group game in South Africa four years ago.

Still, the Germans look in decent shape as do Argentina and Belgium, the hipsters' choice. The football hasn't begun and so the scene is dominated by two tales, neither of which will likely go away. The first is Fifa and its politicking, leaks and allegations of corruption. On Tuesday, Sepp Blatter is likely to announce that, at 78, he's going to stand for another term as president, despite having been in the job since 1998. Michel Platini, his Uefa counterpart, is likely to lead some sort of protest, most likely simply involving the European delegates sitting on their hands rather than giving Blatter a standing ovation. Yes, really, but that's football politics.

Meanwhile, both parties - and the Qataris, nervous over the 2022 World Cup - have been busy with leaks and background briefings, each trying to smear the other with most of it played out in the British press. The outcome? My guess is this: another term for Blatter, Platini licking his wounds and Qatar losing 2022. The other story - and it may well be something that ought to prompt a rethink at some point - is the number of injuries and pre-World Cup defections. Germany have lost Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan. Colombia will be without Radamel Falcao, France without Franck Ribery and Holland without Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart. Italy lost Giuseppe Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo, England Theo Walcott, Belgium Christian Benteke. Spain - though they can handle it more than most - are without Victor Valdes and Thiago Alcantara.

Throw in Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo battling niggles of various kinds and, while you don't want to be alarmist, it might be worth asking a few questions. Such as whether we're simply playing too much football and pushing some of these guys too hard.

Many of the above suffered trauma injuries. But many did not and you wonder if weekly wear and tear coupled with not enough recovery time is robbing us of some of the game's biggest stars on the biggest stage. It's a debate worth having, but don't hold your breath: this is a business, these are the star entertainers, the show must go on. If they can put boots on and walk on to the pitch, they can play.

Back to the competition and back to Brazil. And to Neymar because he's their alpha and omega right now. Spend some time there and you realise how he pervades everything. He dominates every ad break, his grinning face is only slightly less ubiquitous than the Dear Leader's is in Pyongyang. This 22-year-old with an enormous fee and the weight of a nation on his shoulders proved immune to pressure at the Confederations Cup. It's clearly not the same thing, but he still played, and excelled, against Spain, Uruguay, Italy and Mexico.

He's too modest to say it but, given the state of most of this Brazil team, he's the X factor who will have to carry them and exorcise the ghosts of 1950. If he comes up short, we'll see history one way or another. Argentina triumphing on enemy soil. Or Spain making four major trophies in a row. Or Joachim Low's Germany finally hitting the mark. Or something else entirely. Whatever it is, we'll witness it. And it will remain with us. Just as World Cups always do.

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