For many soccer fans, Thursday is Christmas morning. The World Cup, after four long years, is finally back. Over the next month, the world’s 32 best soccer teams will compete in Brazil. Every single game available on ESPN or ABC.
At this point, you’ve probably read all the previews. You’ve also planned out which watch parties you’ll hit up in KC this weekend.
You’ve also (hopefully) had that moment of soccer nirvana when you realize that all that’s left is for the games to actually begin. Well, we’re here.
Over the next four days, there are 11 games in Brazil — all of them at American-friendly time slots.
Here are the five can’t miss World Cup games of the opening weekend. (The Americans don’t play until the 14th game of the World Cup, on Monday.)
1. Brazil vs. Croatia
Thursday, 3 p.m. at Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo (ESPN)
The hosts are under a lot of pressure this tournament not just to win the games, but to win the games with flair. The Samba Boys are up for a pretty sturdy challenge right out of the gate. While Croatia needed a playoff to reach the World Cup, they have a roster loaded with talent from Europe’s best clubs including Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich).
Player to Watch: Neymar. No one is under more pressure this month than the 22-year-old forward. He is the creative lightning rod for Brazil.
2. Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, 2 p.m. at Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador (ESPN)
A rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final kicks off action in Group B. Hopefully, this time around, two nations known for playing beautiful soccer will actually play just a little bit of beautiful soccer. Spain is trying to accomplish an unheard of feat by winning its fourth-straight international competition. The Dutch are just trying to forget a disappointing Euro 2012 where they finished last in their group without recording a victory.
Player to Watch: Diego Costa. Even with so much talent on both sides of the ball, it’s going to be hard to ignore Costa, who was born in Brazil put has lived and played professionally in Spain most of his career.
3. England vs. Italy
Saturday, 5 p.m. at Arena Amazonia, Manaus (ESPN)
Another rematch, this time of the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. Italy was triumphant in that match, winning (of course, it was against England) on penalty kicks. This time around, England have rebuilt the squad with a youthful of injection of speed and style via Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley. The Italians counter with the combustible Mario Balotelli as well as the peerless and ageless Andrea Pirlo.
Player to Watch: Balotelli. He’s a magnet for attention nearly every time he touches the field. Sometimes that’s not a good thing.
4. Argentina vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Sunday, 5 p.m. at Estadio do Maracana, Rio de Janeiro (ESPN)
The Argentines haven’t made the semifinals since 1990 but are among the favorites this year alongside Brazil. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria lead a squad deep with attacking talent and strong in defense. This is the first World Cup ever for Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia. They won’t be intimidated: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City) and Miralem Pjanic (Roma) are both world class players.
Player to Watch: Messi. The world’s best player has yet to fully assert himself on a World Cup.
5. Ivory Coast vs. Japan
Saturday, 8 p.m. at Arena Pernambuco, Recife (ESPN)
Two tournament dark horses fighting it out in the first weekend. Both are fast attacking teams with questions in defense. The Ivory Coast, with Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, will have the physical advantage. The Japanese will counter with the technical abilities of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Fascinating match up.
Player to Watch: Toure. Sooner or later in this tournament, he will grab the game by the scruff of the neck and carry Les Elephants to victory.