Beyond all the corporate flummery, this year's sporting centrepiece remains a beautifully pure football occasion.
If 2013 was a sporting year spent slopping around the house, lying on the couch, drinking soft drinks and trying to shake the sense of curdled euphoria after the Olympic binge of the previous 12 months, 2014 promises a return to grander things.
Already the year to come in sport is dominated by a single event. Oh yes, this is big. Think of something big. Bigger still. Bigger. Well, it's much bigger than that.
The heart of the sporting year is, of course, the World Cup in Brazil: football tournament, economic powerhouse and to date a kind of skyscraper-scale tuning fork transmitting the wider notes of sporting hysteria, social unrest, global brand Armageddon and – let's face it – pretty much everything else that's going on in the world right now.
All World Cups start long before they actually start – an induced labour of balls and draws and songs, countdowns and prequels. This one already feels as if it has been going on for the best part of a decade, a beautifully nuanced, horribly invasive footballing trauma lurking at the midpoint of the coming year. All things considered, it might be best to have a little sit-down and take a breath or two before we get going.
The World Cup will take place in 12 cities spread across Brazil's Atlantic coast, Amazonian interior, tropical north and Euro-flavoured south. After an unusually sharp-elbowed qualification, all the major nations are there for what already looks like a genuine widescreen epic.
Beyond the pitch this is a World Cup already beset by problems. The fault line at the heart of this vast entertainment product, with its four billion TV viewers, its eight-year construction frenzy, its Brics (the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping) economy coming-out shtick, is the irreconcilable disparity between the scrummage of corporate interests that follows the World Cup and the concerns of those – citizens, fans, baffled and powerless observers – who form its backdrop.
Brazil may be growing fast. It may have a coronational World Cup in the bag. But it isn't that happy about it. In June last year, tens of thousands of people took part in protests against public transport fares, corruption, inequality and, most strikingly, the World Cup itself. In a country where inflation is making the poor poorer, where there are chronic shortages of doctors and nurses and where infrastructure is laughably basic at times, the World Cup is burning through vast amounts of money, with all six new-build stadiums behind schedule and federal prosecutors seeking injunctions to block the use of more public funds to pay for the delays.
It wasn't meant to be like this. Brazil 2014 will be just the second South American World Cup in more than 50 years: the talk from Fifa was of an opening-out to the developing world, a kind of mushy, face-painted collectivism, but in reality this is among the most socially inequitable sporting mega-events staged during the current era of inequitable sporting mega-events, with just 400 000 of 3.3-million tickets available to ordinary Brazilians, most at prices well beyond the reach of the average salary. Welcome to the new world order.
Of course, this is simply the way in which the new breed of sporting mega-beano interacts with its captive audience. The World Cup provides Fifa with $9.1-billion in commercial revenue over its four-year cycle, from the bulging roster of "partners" – the usual alpha-male arm-wrestle of Adidas, Coke, Sony, Visa, McDonald's and the rest – to the ghastly prospect of the "official song", outsourced this time to Samsung. The company launched a social media campaign calling for songs to be submitted, with the winning entry recorded by, for reasons that remain unclear, Ricky Martin.
In Brazil there is a sense more than ever of the big-ticket event as a kind of Death Star hovering above its target nation, colonising its infrastructure, suspending its laws, co-opting its leaders.
This is where the dear old World Cup, now in its 20th incarnation, has decisively located itself: in among the overclass, albeit wearing at all times a public face of glazed and benevolent smiling-child populism. It is a ghastly confection, its tone set by the chronic insincerities of Fifa president Sepp Blatter, a strangely bulletproof figure who, tanned and perma-groomed, increasingly resembles the World Cup trophy itself, with its polished dome, its sheen and its impenetrable corporate lustre.
Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro 30 000 families are being forcibly relocated, a long-standing Brazilian municipal tradition, albeit never performed on such a scale and never so driven by vaulting land prices.
Little wonder global heavyweights are circling, most notably the woefully under-represented Coca-Cola, its shamefully small Brazilian market share kept at bay until now by local giant Guarana Antarctica.
Plus, of course, Adidas and Nike will continue to do battle, warring Sith Lords of their own relentlessly tedious global sporting two-hander.
Inanities abound. The official Brazuca match ball is currently retailing for about $160, but that's okay because it will be free to Brazilians, 95% of whom can't afford it, who were born on the day of its launch. Street vendors in the state of Bahia have been banned from selling acarajé, a favourite Brazilian snack, around the World Cup stadiums because of puritanically observed "product placement" principles.
So far, so clogged and confusing – but then the World Cup is perhaps too large and too politically alluring ever to be anything else these days. For all this, it is still worth remembering that it remains above all a beautifully pure sporting occasion beyond all the corporate flummery.
Its enduring power lies in its basic sporting innocence. It is extremely likely the winner will come from Brazil and Argentina, with Spain and Germany Europe's best and probably only hopes of winning a first World Cup in the Americas.
But beyond this, international football represents that rare thing: a form of elite sporting competition that cannot be bought, or bought off, or managed by money.
Colombia, Uruguay, Italy, Belgium and Chile all have a chance of reaching the late stages. Côte d'Ivoire have the players and, finally, the draw to do well, while the best player in the world this year plays for Portugal.
However you look at it, the World Cup of all World Cups is a beautifully alluring prospect, and an impossibly moreish sporting centrepiece to the year. – © Guardian News & Media