Baden-Baden: The ball is round. Rounder than ever, in fact, thanks to advances in thermal bonding and other aspects of ball technology. And this World Cup, they tell us, is bigger than ever, bigger than all of its 17 predecessors in every measurable dimension, from a mind-boggling projected worldwide television viewing figure of 27 billion to the total value, estimated this week at £293m, of the 23-man squad with which Brazil will attempt to defend its title.
The current edition of the World Cup is being held in a country that has been a part of the game almost since its beginnings. Germany missed the very first tournament, held in Uruguay in 1930, but it was present in Italy four years later and since then has missed only the 1950 edition in Brazil, thanks to the post-war ban imposed by FIFA.
It's record is second only to that of Brazil, which is why it would be unwise to write off the chances of Jürgen Klinsmann's team.
Brazil, the five-time champion, is the runaway favourite, at roughly half the odds of its nearest challengers, currently Argentina and England. Ronaldo, who scored six goals in 1998 and another six in 2002, needs only three more to overtake Gerd Müller, whose record of 14 goals has stood since the 1974 final.
The riches at Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira's disposal make it likely he will ditch the conservative approach that took his side to an undistinguished victory in 1994. Only over-confidence, surely, can hinder the free expression of the attacking gifts of the "magic quadrangle" of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka, with Robinho in reserve, although the distinguished full-backs, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, at 36 and 33, may now be vulnerable to the pace of younger opponents.
Of all its rivals Brazil will most fear Argentina, as long as Messi can return to the fitness and the form he enjoyed in Barcelona's colours earlier in the year, when he laid waste to La Liga and destroyed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. If Italy get its injured players back, if the gifted Francesco Totti can control his wayward temperament, if Luca Toni can continue the scoring streak that boosted Fiorentina into Serie A's elite this season, and if the coach Marcello Lippi can transform his squad's reaction to the domestic scandals of recent weeks into high-octane mental fuel, then the Azzurri could be a danger.
And Germany, of course always Germany, no matter how threadbare it may appear as the tournament starts.
Those looking for promising outsiders can probably take their pick from the Shevchenko-led Ukraine, still with the teachings of the late Valeri Lobanovsky in their DNA; the Ivory Coast, boasting the strength and speed of Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré; an Australia squad motivated by Guus Hiddink, who took South Korea to the semifinals last time; and Portugal, coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, whose tactical shrewdness guided Brazil to the trophy four years ago and who will be hoping to take Portugal one step beyond their appearance in the Euro 2004 final.
Elsewhere, Mexico and Spain will aim to erase the memory of countless past disappointments,
Croatia will try to regain the standard it set when finishing third in 1998, and Holland will want to prove that Marco van Basten has overcome the squad's fissiparous tendencies. Switzerland, the United States, and Serbia & Montenegro could produce surprises, while the Czech Republic and Sweden, both finalists in earlier eras, will be hoping to revive former glories.
All of which leaves, from among a vast and varied field, the descendants of the winners of 1966 as the team best placed to stand in the way of Brazil's sixth title. Flippantly, it might be said that all England's players need to do is live up to their reputations. But the mood among the senior members of the squad this week is one of confidence in their abilities tempered with a realism born of the experience of disappointment.
With Rooney back in the fold, if not yet back in action, and Sven-Goran Eriksson evidently willing to take the sort of calculated risks that he avoided four years ago, they might just have a chance. And if they cannot get closer this time, you have to think that they never will.
- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006