The most-watched sporting event on the planet is already followed on TV, Websites, radio and broadband internet by billions of soccer fans around the globe anxious to catch every header, shot and goalmouth drama as the month long battle for soccer's ultimate prize unfolds. And the most interesting question today is “Who will win the World Cup?”
It's a fact that when the the competition is held in Europe a European team usually always wins and when it's staged in the Americas , either Brazil or Argentina triumphs.
The 2006 edition is in Europe - but five times World Champions Brazil are out-and-out favorites to retain their title and it will take an exceptional team to wrench it from their firm grasp.
Can Brazil be Beaten?
Most observers think not.
But while there is no question mark hanging over Brazil 's attack there is a niggling doubt about the effectiveness of their defense.
Group F opponents Croatia, Japan and Australia are all capable of testing Brazil in the opening round, and how easily - or not - their defense copes with the likes of Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka will offer up a clue as to how well they will fare against bigger guns in the later stages of the competition.
Italy - who the Brazilians could meet in the second round - France and Spain (possible quarter final opponents) and England (potential semi-final clash) are all teams that could cause Brazil
The Main Contenders
Host nation Germany (host nations historically do well), Argentina , Italy , Holland and France will all avoid Brazil until the final - providing they win their groups.
Germany will progress - at least at first - by virtue of home advantage, and a relatively easy draw in Group A, but early evidence shows they rely too much on Michael Ballack, their midfield general and captain.
Close down Ballack and Germany are half-way to defeat.
Italy could prosper under the guidance of coach Marcello Lippi while Holland have the talent to go all the way - unless the 'Dutch disease,' - otherwise known as dressing room squabbles - interrupts team harmony.
France, underestimated throughout this World Cup campaign, is my long-shot pick to succeed.
Winners in 1998, humliated in the first round of World Cup 2002, France have a lot to prove.
And they do have an extremely talented squad.
Who can doubt the goal-scoring ability of Thierry Henry?
Who can rival Claude Makelele's imperial presence in central midfield and who can deny that even an ageing Zinedine Zidane, is not a match winner?
If France has a weakness, it's their coach.
Feeding his own ego often seems more important to Raymond Domenech than his team's performance.
But France has reached the final stage without losing a qualifying game and conceded only two goals in the process.
Don't be surprised if les bleus make the final.
With or without Wayne Rooney, England are in with a shout.
Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen are all world class players.
Gerrard and Beckham look to be in superlative form and the team is, at long last, functioning as a unit.
Underestimating opponents, lack of concentration or injuries to key players are the main obstacles in England 's path to at least the semi-finals where - should they meet Brazil and win - you can then bet on them lifting the trophy and the World Cup being paraded through the streets of London .
The Surprise Team of the Tournament
There is always one team that surprises the world - and in 2006 that team could be Portugal .
Coached by Brazilian Luis Felippe Scolari and with Deco, Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks, Portugal could certainly cause some upsets.
The Dark Horses
TheIvory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire) and Tunisia are the teams from the African Continent capable of progressing, while the Czech Republic and the USA have to get past each other, Italy and Ghana in Group E, before they can hope to make heads turn.
Australia, coached by the experienced and successful Guss Hiddink, might enjoy a good run as could Japan - but in Japan's case the emphasis will be on running rather than succeeding.
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