Brazil's Neymar runs with the ball, as Serbia's Branislav Ivanovic challenges him during a friendly soccer match at the Morumbi stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Friday, June 6, 2014.
Rejoice, sports fans, it's finally here! After months of excitement, anticipation and controversy of different stripes, the 2014 World Cup kicks off Thursday.
Brazil, the host country of this year's Cup, gets things started with a Group A match against Croatia at 4 p.m. ET in the day's only action. The coming weeks will bring 62 more matches, then the World Cup final on July 13 at Rio de Janeiro's legendary Maracanã stadium. (The USA's first game, for those wondering, is June 16 against Ghana.)
Here's what you need to know to get up to speed for the first day of the 2014 World Cup.
Brazil vs. Croatia: What's the deal?
The World Cup's group stage runs through June 26. Every day until then (here's a full schedule) will feature either three or four matches, but this first afternoon is a showcase for Brazil to open things up on its home turf in the day's only game.
Brazil is the favorite to win this year's tournamentBrazil is the favorite to win this year's tournament, which would be a record sixth title for the Seleção (Brazil's national team). Led by defender Thiago Silva and striker Neymar, the Brazilian squad is a powerful one. But Croatia is no slouch; midfielder Luka Modrić, for example, plays club ball for Real Madrid, and is as good at his position as anyone in the world.
Hosting the World Cup will offer Brazil an epic home-crowd advantage — but there's a flip side, as the squad is also under tremendous pressure to perform well (i.e. win). Protests and controversy over the massive costs of staging the World Cup in the face of widespread economic inequality only raise the stakes that much higher.
Starting the tournament off with a win — and just as importantly, a world-class display — is just what the Brazilian team and its fans need. A loss wouldn't be disastrous, strictly speaking, given Brazil's weak group. But it would be something of a disaster in the court of public opinion. Brazil beat Serbia 1-0 in its final pre-Cup tuneup on Friday, after dispatching Panama 4-0 on June 3. The Panama match produced some particularly lovely highlights.
5 reads to get up to speed
We've been covering the World Cup in depth for months. Read up on these five posts from the past few weeks, and you'll be able to talk soccer with anyone at the local sports bar.