The World Cup: A time to savour

The World Cup which kicks off in Munich today has the tantalising potential to be one of the very best
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Already there is one mesmerising certainty in the countdown to tonight's launching of the 18th World Cup. It is that never before has the world been drawn so compulsively to a single event, and nowhere more so than here at the heart of the affair.

You could see that in the square of the ancient university quarter of Heidelberg when a professor of philosophy walked his dog in the morning sunlight. The dog was wearing the red, black and yellow colours of the Fatherland.

You could see it in the stadium of the Offenbach Kickers, where a crowd of 25,000 locals watched a training session of Ronaldinho and his Brazilian team-mates with almost breathless fascination.

Suddenly, it was as though a surge of electricity had come to the mountain of statistics building over the years and the months and the last few days... Neil Armstrong's moonwalk, the election of a Pope, the marriage of a king or the inauguration of a president would indeed all be pushed into the margins of human excitement and interest when the hosts Germany kick off against Costa Rica in Munich at 6pm local time.

It may not be the curtain-raiser of cognoscenti dreams but here already there is a a drumbeat of expectation that will carry the age of television's greatest audience to the final in Berlin in a month's time. More than a billion souls, or one fifth of all humanity, will be crowded into shacks in the favelas of Rio and São Paulo, in bars and homes from Seattle to Sydney's King's Cross, asking the question which Muhammad Ali once claimed can be more compelling than even the pursuit of the most beautiful woman.

"Whose gonna win? That's what everyone wants answered - and until it is, not a whole lost else matters," claimed the great boxer. Ali was talking about one of his own fights but never has his declaration attached itself more adhesively to a single sports event than here in the hours before the great primal roar that will echo around the universe tonight.

The stunning reality is that in a world that otherwise might have been preoccupied by dramatic news from the Middle East and stock market worries, a game that itself is bedevilled by all kinds of problems, including racism and corruption and rampant cheating, has never before been able to offer itself as such a beacon of hope and light.

As African nations like Ghana and Ivory Coast and Togo reach out for symbols of progress in their fight against poverty and disease, an old and often troubled nation like Germany looks for something akin to rebirth. Chancellor Angela Merkel met the national team this week with the upbeat message that the World Cup presented a "wonderful opportunity" to show the world that they represented a warm and joyful country, bursting with new ideas. Germany's favourite football son, and head of the organising committee, Franz Beckenbauer extends the point, declaring: "This goes beyond German hopes ... this is the chance for football to spread its wings and show that it can be an inspiration."

Certainly, the money and the organisation have been relentlessly supplied. Thirty-two years ago, when the Germans were last hosts, the equivalent of €120m (£85m) of public money was invested. This time the figure is €5bn (£3.55bn). In 1974, 1.7 million supporters watched 38 games live. In the next month more than three million will watch 64 games. The organising vice-president Wolfgang Niersbach says: "Compared with today, 1974 was the stone age."

The result is spectacular in a land which for a month will be striving with all Teutonic application to meet the challenge of being a shining football empire. Giant screens will be floated on the River Main at Frankfurt, where thousands will watch the action from both banks. In Berlin the classic stadium built by Hitler for the notorious Olympics of 1936 has been brilliantly adapted to modern needs, but not before recognition of the past. The history of the stadium will not be hidden as the Germans announce they are ready, perhaps finally, to move away from the worst darkness of their past.

Meanwhile, they will ferociously seek out hooligan elements - a fact confirmed by hawk-eyed squads of security police meeting every foreign flight. The potential of English, Dutch, Polish, and, not least, home-grown troublemakers to smear football's most extravagant show is one grave consideration - that, and any negative sense that the Germans need to win, to be number one, will interfere with that ambition to be the tournament's most generous and effective hosts.

Yet even though the Germans are downplaying their thirst to succeed on the field, and the continuing injury worries of captain Michael Ballack, who will be absent tonight, that have caused almost as much concern in their camp as those of Wayne Rooney have for England, it would be naïve to imagine that the nation will not rise up emotionally if, as expected, the much criticised former hero Jürgen Klinsmann leads his team, as expected, from the soft group they share with Poland, Ecuador and tonight's opponents, Costa Rica, to a possible second-round meeting with Sven Goran Eriksson's men.

Klinsmann, who lives in California, has been hammered as an eccentric, often absent landlord, but Germany were supposed to be a shambles four years ago under his former team-mate Rudi Völler, yet they still made it to the final against Brazil. Nothing, it is the insistent message of World Cup football, is so dangerous as a dismissal of the Germans.

Their success - which dwarfs that of England's one World Cup win in 1966, with three victories, a total of seven appearances in the final, and three European Championship triumphs - is deeply embedded in the nation's inevitably complex view of itself.

When Fritz Walter's team sensationally eclipsed the superb Hungarians in Berne in 1954, when Germany was still occupied by foreign armies, the sense of national renewal, in somewhere as absurd as a football pitch, was huge. It was seized upon by film director Rainer Werner Fassbender, Time magazine noted this week, in the climax to his classic portrayal of post-war life, The Marriage of Maria Braun. A radio commentator, rejoicing at the defeat of the legendary Ferenc Puskas, cried: "Deutschland ist wieder 'was'" - Germany is something again.

Now the Germans seek, however coyly, to remind the world that with Italy (three victories) and Argentina and Uruguay (two), they are the principal challengers to Brazil's extraordinary hold on football greatness.

It is, though, just one theme in a tournament which some believe might just rival some of the greatest in World Cup history. Though distinct improvements on the wretched Italia 1990, when attacking football was so stifled that the back-pass law had to be changed, and the only marginally better affair in America four years later, the tournaments of 1998 in France, and Japan and Korea, in 2002, had shortfalls in both intrigue and quality.

Here in the next few weeks Brazil and Argentina hold out the promise of quality, at least in attack, and Europe offers a welter of intrigue.

Can the Italians redeem the moral squalor highlighted by recent revelations of bribery and referee-tampering? Can the old legend and young coach Marco van Basten remind us of the intelligence and the swagger of former Dutch teams? Can Eriksson, with the help of a major performance from Steven Gerrard, rescue the years of waste and bitter personal criticism? Can the French remember, in the prime of Thiery Henry and the memory of Zinedine Zidane, that they were once true champions of style and not the played-out shells of World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004?

The conviction here - reinforced by the sight of them training with glorious application and invention on a sunny afternoon this week - is that the Brazilians are the truest of favourites, but then it is also a fact that they cannot be any more so than their predecessors of 1982, the wondrous convergence of such talent as Socrates, Zico and Roberto Falcao.

That Brazilian team lost the title of "Little Gods in yellow", and it was, intriguingly, to an Italian team that also carried into the World Cup the stigma of corruption from their fabled but morally flawed league. The great Milan had suffered relegation and Paolo Rossi, the man who delivered the sword to the Brazilians, had been banned in a match-fixing scandal.

But under the pipe-smoking Enzo Bearzot the team found the unsullied part of the Italian football soul. When they beat Germany in the final it was observed: "Bearzot has released the caged bird of Italian football." Can Marcello Lippi do the same, despite the weight of injuries which this week claimed the key defenders Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta, and the combative midfielder Gennaro Gattuso?

It was one of so many sub-plots on the day when Wayne Rooney flew back, on a prayer, to the stage that until 9 July has the whole world as its theatre.

Brazil-Italy is the pick here, with Brazil winning the final. It is simply impossible to look beyond the men who are already entrancing the German summer - not least with the uplifting belief that, whatever else happens, football will also be a winner.

Why I'm picking England to win it, by Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

I can hear readers snorting with derision as they read my prediction of England's progress through to the final and victory - but I make no apologies, I have just watched a newly fit Wayne Rooney train in the stadium at Bühlertal and he looks mean. I hope those words don't come back to haunt me.

Rooney does not make a team alone but this squad feel experienced, calm and so rich in talent. After four days in Germany you realise in what high esteem the England team are held by foreign press and coaches. All the key players, even Rooney, have big tournament experience.

What about Brazil? Brilliant, of course, but they also seem to have the propensity to fall apart. The German newspapers have carried pictures of Brazilian players out until the early hours in bars and nightclubs. While I have a certain admiration for a footballer confident enough to have a few nights out and still win a World Cup I can't imagine any of the current England players doing the same.

Brazil are not unbeatable, although they might put on a bit of a show in the early rounds. Later in the tournament the defending champions could be tripped up, and Emerson showed when Arsenal played Juventus that he is not the player he was before succumbing to injury four years ago.

The Netherlands in the final? If things go well they could have the easiest run through the first two rounds - Mexico and Portugal - and I like the way Marco van Basten has cast off the more difficult senior players such as Edgar Davids in favour of a younger squad.

Group E is a tough one to call, but I've backed Italy despite their poor displaysat Euro 2004. The Czech Republic are the most overpriced side in the competition but I think this could be one tournament too far for their side.

Ditto France. Raymond Domenech appears to have overseen the most chaotic build-up of any of the major nations. The injury to Djibril Cissé was horrendous and I am told the friendship of the top players - especially some of those who were around when they won in 1998 - is severely overstated. I just hope England don't let me down.