World Cup 2006: Germany – heaven on earth…

On Friday afternoon months of hype will finally come to an end: Michael Ballack will lead the host nation out into the magnificent Allianz Arena* in Munich to take on Costa Rica in the opening fixture of the 2006 World Cup.

Over the weeks that follow, thirty-two teams will play sixty-four matches in front of a global audience of billions: over eighty percent of the world’s population will have some form of contact with the tournament via the media; radio, TV, press and the web making it the biggest sporting event in history. A marketing man’s wet dream as well as heaven on earth for any football fan.

German football has not been in the greatest of health in recent times, but the arrival of the World Cup has breathed new life into the Bundesliga. Attendances are up, which many believe is attributable in part to the improved facilities and new stadia following a programme of redevelopment and investment for the tournament. The hosts, ranked a lowly nineteenth in the world, appear to have their weakest side for years with many of their countrymen believing that the much-criticised Klinsmann’s men will not even survive the group stages. Chelsea’s summer arrival Ballack is arguably the only world class player in the side, but as students of footballing cliché know you should never write off the Germans, especially in their own back yard. In players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lukas Podolski and the uncapped but highly rated and lightning quick David Odonkor, they have the seeds of another great side. A fourth World Cup win for the hosts?

Brazil beg to differ. The favourites have a pool of attacking talent unrivalled in the modern game: Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho and Adriano as well as Ronaldo, present for his fourth tournament with Gerd Muller’s all-time World Cup scoring record of fourteen goals in his sights. The ageing and occasionally less than impressive defence is rarely mentioned – hardly surprising given the front line – but it remains one of the few weak points for the chasing pack to exploit.

Many nations enter the tournament in expectation rather than hope: Argentina, Italy, Spain, Holland, France and of course England all have claims, with pluses and minuses against their names in equal measure. All will view failure to make the last eight (at the very least) as underachievement, whilst relatively unknown quantities like the U.S.A., Ivory Coast and Australia will be hoping to cause an upset at the expense of the old guard.

The list of individuals with the potential to light up the tournament is mouthwatering: the likes of Tevez, Robben, Ribery and Torres are all sure to see their stock rise immeasurably if they perform to their near-mercurial abilities over the coming month. There are also those who are making their final appearance on the world stage in Germany: Zidane looking for his second winners medal, Nedved and Del Piero both hoping to be in with a chance of picking up one before they hang up their boots.

And so to England. With the most talented squad for a generation, the suggestion from all corners of English football is that there must be no more excuses. In 2002 a team with a midfield comprising of Butt, Beckham, Scholes and Sinclair reached the last eight; this year a young but experienced squad is heavily tipped to fare better. The usually understated (and admittedly departing) Eriksson thinks so – his recent bold proclamation that England will win the World Cup was uncharacteristic to say the least. With Lampard still scoring despite not being at his imperious best and Gerrard, Joe Cole and Beckham in the form of their lives, the sense of expectation is greater than ever before. And we haven’t even mentioned Wayne Rooney or Peter Crouch’s dancing yet…

So a month of hopefully magnificent football is ahead of us. Will Beckham lift world football’s biggest prize forty years after Bobby Moore and the heroes of 1966? Will there be anything as brilliant as Brazil’s fourth goal against Italy in 1970? As emotional as Tardelli’s legendary celebration in 1982? As controversial as Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ in 1986? As utterly crap as Chris Waddle’s penalty in 1990?

With many of the Chelsea first team squad including record signing Andriy Shevchenko in action, we’ll do our best to cover everything Blues-related that happens in Germany this summer, but in the meantime over to you. Your all-time favourite World Cup moment? Who do you think will be on top of the world in Berlin come July 9? Who will the dark horses be and the big names that will fall short? Any tips for the Golden Boot or other players that might make an impact?

* It is worth remembering that the first goal scored in the new stadium was courtesy of one Owen Hargreaves – proof positive, if it were needed, that in football anything can and probably will happen.