The Football World Cup is, no doubt, a big business with a dark underbelly. But it's also a theatre where grace, skill, power, human genius and limitations play themselves out. With no clear favourites this time around, expect the very best that modern sport has to offer. Expect to be swept off your feet…

Football is our most transparent and universal team sport. With 202 nations entering the competition and 32 qualifying for the finals, its World Cup has more genuine claim to that title than any other. It showcases the greatest talents, the most demanding competition and the most desirable prize. The cricket administrators might learn something from football's determination to keep its top echelon competition a rare quadrennial event and to ensure that nothing is allowed to compete with it.

One of the World Cup's great attractions is that the nations meet, as they so rarely do, on a level playing field. And while the stakes are high, they are in a serious sense trivial. It's not a competition for economic supremacy; it's not a war or a substitute for war. It's something benign and human, right down to the inordinate importance we attach to it.

But that precious level playing field — that arena in which only talent and commitment counts — is encased within a global playing field that is anything but level. That reality is highlighted by the venue, South Africa, one of the world's most glaringly unequal societies. Here first and third world conditions exist side by side. An average African man earns about R2,400 ($320) per month, while an average white man earns R19,000 ($2,600). White South Africans enjoy, on average, 23 more years of life than their black compatriots. Though whites make up only 12 per cent of the population, they hold 74 per cent of top private sector management posts. Not surprisingly, it's in the host country that feelings about the World Cup are most mixed.

Outside South Africa the focus has been on whether the country would prove ready, competent or safe enough to host the Cup. Behind that lay the widespread pessimistic view about African capacities. But the stadiums are built, the facilities have been deemed first class and at the moment there's no serious safety concern. The real question was never about South Africa's ability to host the Cup, but about the Cup's impact on South Africa.

South Africans were told that the tournament would boost jobs, infrastructure and the development of the country as a whole. But that has not happened. When the country was embroiled last summer in a series of (sometimes violent) protests by poor communities demanding basic service-delivery, a common complaint was that public funds were being diverted to build new football facilities and upgrade airports. 70,000 construction workers on the new stadiums went on strike against what they described as “famine-level” wages ($100 per month).

The new stadium in Cape Town will host eight games, including a semi-final. It's a glamorous project, connected to the waterfront by a new avenue and surrounded by a 60-hectare urban park. When it was originally proposed, it was considered the most expensive and least socio-economically desirable of the various options. But FIFA president Sepp Blatter and then South African president Thabo Mbeki pushed for the project, which ended up costing $600 million — three times the original estimate. To build the stadium, 20,000 poor residents were evicted. Many were transferred miles away to Blikkiesdorp, a desperately overcrowded “temporary” camp where families of six or seven are crammed into living spaces of three by six metres, sanitation is largely absent and tuberculosis and HIV rife.

One of the duties of the host country is to act as police on behalf of the rights holders. Accordingly, local hawkers and informal traders have been expelled from FIFA-imposed “exclusion zones” around stadiums. Companies trying to manufacture local soccer-related merchandise have been taken to court. FIFA went so far as to take action against a local firm for an advert featuring balls, vuvuzelas(long thin horns blown at football matches) and the national flag — which combination, FIFA claimed, constituted an infringement of its trademark.

Meanwhile, the beer sold at the stadiums is imported as are the buses servicing them — both of which could have been sourced locally. The African branding often seems primarily for show. Adidas is manufacturing the official “Jabulani” footballs (Zulu for “bringing joy to everyone”) in Asia. And while the local clothing industry has been leeching jobs, World Cup tee shirts and mascots are being stitched in sweat shops in China. A Shanghai firm contracted to produce 2.3 million of the dread-locked leopard “Zakumi” mascots was suspended by FIFA following media reports about unsanitary conditions and teenagers working 13 hour shifts.

None of this bitter experience has impaired the popular love of football in South Africa and the competition itself is keenly awaited. But what is likely to be South Africa's early exit from the tournament will prompt further questions about how it was possible to spend so much on stadiums and so little on player development. In the end, the South African government will have spent as much as $5 billion on the World Cup — yet the bulk of the revenues raised by it will end up elsewhere.

In Britain, recession hit industries are praying for England to go as far as possible in the tournament. Supermarkets are offering World Cup discount cards and football-themed pizzas and snacks. The Mars bar will be wrapped in a St. George's flag. Bookmakers, pubs and brewers will benefit from World Cup related UK sales of $1.5 billion plus. The marketing director of Carlsburg, the official England beer, described it as “like having two Christmases a year.” In tandem with the advertisers, the media will obsess with the minutiae of the England campaign — which is already an unavoidable topic of conversation. Non-England supporters like myself may be forced to take refuge in Scotland, where Anyone But England tee shirts are selling briskly.

Lot at stake

The global foot and sportswear industry is banking on the Cup to lift it from the doldrums. Adidas is outfitting 12 teams and Puma seven. But while sales of World Cup related merchandise, notably replica shirts, were already enjoying double digit growth in March, sales of footwear and general apparel remained stagnant. Maureen Hinton, a retail analyst at Verdict Research, noted that in the end “the World Cup shifts demand from one area to another” rather than increasing it.

But this World Cup does reflect a changing balance in the global economy. While the top tier of FIFA global sponsors is comprised of the familiar electrical goods, cola, airline and credit card brands, the second tier of World Cup sponsors (involving $100 million plus contracts) has now been joined by the Brazilian based food giant Seara, the Chinese-based energy company Yingli and the India-based IT outfit Satyam.

The sponsorship reflects India's status as one of the World Cup's biggest and most rapidly growing markets — though when it comes to football, India is a nation of spectators. It's the country with by far the greatest disparity between numbers of footballers (small) and numbers of football fans (legion). Way back in October 2007, in the preliminary to the qualifying stage, India was knocked out at the first hurdle by Lebanon (6-3 on aggregate). Its FIFA ranking stands at 132 out of 220. Nonetheless, this month will see World Cup fever in India reach unprecedented levels.

The absence of India as a competitor does have one great advantage. Indian spectators can enjoy the pleasures of neutrality. They are spared the anxieties and agonies of supporting their “own” national team.

It's not that we neutrals are aloof and non-partisan. Far from it. We tend to pick a selection of favourites, based on any number of criteria, ranging from the whimsical and arbitrary to the philosophical and political. (How many Arsenal players do they have? Have I been there on holiday? Do I like their style of play?) You could go through the whole Cup simply backing the underdog in every match and thoroughly enjoy the experience. Though more often than not your favoured team would lose, on the occasions when they win, there'd be that extra satisfaction. That little private fillip you get when something happens in sport that seems to defy prevailing assumptions.

Free of loyalties

We neutrals shift our loyalties from match to match or even from half to half. Any match that promises dramatic football is an occasion for us, and no match is of less interest just because “our” team isn't playing. We're more open to untainted delight in the highest skills, the most creative play, and especially to those moments which lie at the heart of the promise of the World Cup: when the fortunes of the game, the inspiration of the players, make a mockery of the predictable.

For certain, we'll have a team in the final that we'll want to back — but we won't be crushed with disappointment if “our” team fails. We neutrals are always winners, as long as the football is exciting. Though we can't share the (rare) ecstasies of supporters with single loyalties, I think we're better off without much that goes with it.

While the World Cup is a big business with a dark side, it's also a drama of beauty, grace, power and balance, of individual and collective skills, of the sheer thrill of unpredictability. Of human genius and human limitations. We look to the World Cup to see the immensely difficult performed with ease. To see the miraculous. It doesn't always happen. The last World Cup was not a memorable one. But this time around, with major uncertainties haunting all the favourites, no one knows, and that's the fascination of it.