Kick off!

It is a bloated banquet, but no less appetising for that. Europe and South America should again contest the glittering prize but China and Slovenia can show this is also a world of dreams
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The Independent Online

It is like preparing for a giant rollercoaster ride. Buckle up, hang on, breathe in. All aboard for the 17th World Cup, the first to be jointly hosted, the first to be held in Asia, the first true dot.com World Cup and quite possibly the first to feature a match between two full teams of millionaires (including substitutes and coaches). Say France v Spain or Brazil v Italy.

Whether the 2002 tournament would fulfil the ideals for a world championship laid down by Jules Rimet and Henri Delaunay early in the last century is a matter for reflection. The infant of 1930 has grown into an attention-seeking monster, an indiscriminate devourer of money and time. Thirteen teams contested that first World Cup in Uruguay 72 years ago and a crowd of 300 watched Romania defeat Peru 3-1 in Montevideo. France started the ball rolling with a 4-1 victory over Mexico and eight of the teams who competed then will be part of the world game's plans for expansion in the lucrative markets of the Far East.

Argentina, France, Mexico, Brazil, Paraguay, Belgium, USA and Uruguay are the original survivors and it would be no surprise if one of those first two teams, who met in a group game then, return to contest the final in Yokohama on the last day of June. Despite the emergence of African nations, the burgeoning talent of Japan, who could surprise, Korea and the Middle East and the meshing of cultures, major tournaments have always been defined by the clash of Europe and South America.

This one should be no different. Though all the best Brazilians and Argentinians have followed the gold rush to Europe, promoting a fusion of styles, footballing heritage cannot be so casually dismissed. In South America, the balance of power has swung the way of Argentina, but a revitalised Ronaldo could yet herald a vintage World Cup for Brazil. England, Italy, Germany, Spain and France, the defending champions, will lead the European challenge in conditions of heat and humidity which will test body and mind. But all 32 teams and 736 players will start the tournament with hopes high.

The format is bloated, the tournament so diverse that there will actually be two World Cups and the venues, all 20 of them, spanking new and potentially obsolete by July, too disparate. History rather than common sense has dominated the organisation. But who could deny little Slovenia (pop:1.9m), the smallest nation in the tournament, the chance to repeat Croatia's heroics from 1998, or not relish a match of such enticing contrast as Brazil v The People's Republic of China (pop:1.3bn)? The pinnacle of competitive football has to be about development and dreams or it is nothing but a commercial bazaar.

Fifa, the world's governing body, will pray for a memorable month. They do not deserve one after the financial incompetence of the past decade and the internecine warfare of the past month. Players make tournaments, great players make great tournaments. Raul, Beckham, Owen, Zidane, Totti, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, our televisions devalue their mystique, but the World Cup will fully define their talent. With luck, some bright new names will emerge and referees will have the courage to let them all play. "To win," says Paulo Maldini of Italy, who will be playing in his fourth and last finals, "a team will have to be brave."

That might rule out Italy, but not England, who enter their first tournament under an overseas coach with a fearless young side. Conditions, though, will favour a Latin tempo. I take Argentina to win from Italy, Brazil and Spain.

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