Kick-off

All eyes will be on Ronaldinho. He carries not merely the responsibility of being a Brazilian footballer but also the planet's poet laureate of football. The stage is ready, and we await a performance from a player whose beauty is singular proof of football's PRE-EMINENCE as a sport, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

It is finally summer and four years since a bustling Brazilian named Ronaldo found redemption. It has been an exquisitely painful wait, but June has come and a Cup of deliverance is at hand. For days, weeks, months, the world has been twittering anxiously, the English buried deep in Gray's Anatomy studying metatarsals, Kolkata panwallahs ready to debate the merits of 4-3-3, and everyone offering an opinion on Ronaldinho's dribble and dentistry.

For the next 30 days or so, across the planet, people will be born, die, marry, cheat, charm. They will, a lot of them, also watch football. A cumulative audience of 28.8 billion viewers watched the 25 match days of the 2002 Cup. This year it will be higher. It will include some Bangladeshi prisoners who have apparently been promised TV time, and half of the Czech Republic which, a dubious poll insisted, is about to take sick leave all at once. This figures, football is contagious.

The World Cup pushes at the margins of madness, in the obsessiveness it incites (42,000 fans watch a German practice!), in the faith it demands (little Luxembourg has played 92 qualifying matches, lost 88, but still believes its time will come), in the extremes of elation and despair it provokes.

Edmilson, the Brazilian, hurts his knee in practice and abruptly four years of waiting and dreaming is gone, and he leaves weeping with a forlorn promise: "One day I'll return and win lots of titles with the Selecao (or The Selection as Brazil's team is handsomely known)." Fans meanwhile are forced to produce a dexterity that would send Ronaldinho dizzy, at once juggling time zones, wife, VCR timer, job, children, goal averages. For June, this will be the planet of the sleep deprived.

Constantly impossible choices must be made, for not every match can be watched. Angola must be seen, if nothing else because its nickname (Pahlancas Negras or Black Antelopes) is enchanting, Argentina always stirs the senses and bruises ankles, Spain is so mournfully full of unfulfilled promise, South Korea so impassively driven. This is not a mere cup, it is a footballing catwalk.

Coaches will revise tactics, chew fingernails and exhale smoke from many orifices, especially ears. They will appeal to favourite saints for the absence of injury, wonder if the only way to stop Ronaldo, Ronaldinho & Robinho is to hire a hit man, and will know that the late Tele Santana's poetic defiance of "I would rather win playing well than lose playing badly" will not impress fans. Each coach will arrive with a separate sized dream: for Togo's Otto Pfister winning a single match will signal a triumph, for Brazil 's Carlos Alberto Parreira not winning it all will be interpreted as disgrace.

Most everyone comes to the cup in good humour, and in South Korea and Japan they admirably stayed that way, a cup for once not stained by violence. Germany will pray it was not an aberration. For all our pride in football, its simplicity, its purity, its unchanging rules (cricket meddles and muddles on), its universality, it is also among world sports unique in its thuggery, revolting in its racism.

Still, most passions at the World Cup are colourful, and breathtaking, and moving, and even amusing. When Spain was controversially ousted by South Korea at the last Cup, its indignant papers blared headlines that read "The Crime of the Century" and "The Biggest Scandal in History". Football and its followers have never been accused of understatement.

Many insist football has a powerful effect, as if "sporting experience" is somehow inadequate, that a Cup is not merely a distraction and celebration, but must carry some larger message and heftier purpose. Yes, the Cup helps gather people across the globe in some spiritual union, it is like cricket is for India, a connection, a common language. No fences can keep out a ball. But is it more than that?

Officials, reading from worn texts, will blithely go on about world peace, as if football must do what politicians have failed to. But if sports' role must not be overestimated, neither must it be undervalued. In the Ivory Coast, where religious and ethnic divisions exist, the team has become a unifying symbol, and even if differences are only temporarily mown down, football has played a small part.

Football appeals to all, and at various levels, a game elemental yet complicated, seducing both novice and expert: a finely struck free kick will be nothing more than an exhibition of grand skill for some, propel others to write newspaper articles on the physics of ball flight, move a third party to insist the architecture of the wall was faulty, and have a fourth explain how the new boot design helps spin the ball better.

The game has a quality of music to it (attacks gradually, elegantly, building up to a crescendo) and Pavarotti, who has sung in football's praise so often, might agree. Attention at this Cup, of course, will be reserved for three footballing tenors, all arriving for a final encore: Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Ronaldo.

Henry has a winners' medal from 1998, yet remains the odd man out; few men think as intelligently or quickly on their feet, but Henry, unlike his peers, has never translated club excellence into World Cup highlights. This may be a last opportunity to correct his CV.

The old is familiar and reassuring, but it is the young and new that have a freshness most appealing. If his thigh has completely healed, don't dare take your eyes off Lionel Messi, an Argentine artist already and only 18. Michael Essien, 23, from Ghana, has promise but must now fulfil it, and Robin van Persie, 22, may be the best Dutch treat since his coach Marco van Basten.

Yet, for all our lounge-room expertise and expectation, the thrill lies in the surprise, in a bulging-eyed Toto Schillachi arriving from nowhere in 1990, returning there, but for a month charming the world.

Pressure will nestle in every player's joint, but it will wrap around Michael Ballack like suffocating cling film. He is captain of the host team, he is nicknamed "Little Kaiser", he will know that the last time Germany held the Cup (1974), the man he is nicknamed after, won it. Fortunately he will be fleeing Germany for Chelsea soon after for a mere 130,000 pounds a week.

To Ballack will turn German eyes, to Ronaldinho a world's. He carries not merely the responsibility of being a Brazilian footballer (which entails, he explained recently to a newspaper, that "We must win, we must win in style") but also the planet's poet laureate of football. The stage is ready, and we await a performance from a player whose beauty is singular proof of football's pre-eminence as a sport.

When this Cup commenced, some years ago, Asia brought 37 teams, Africa 50, North/Central America and the Caribbean 34, South America 10, Oceania 12, Europe 51, and 847 matches were played, and 2464 goals scored, before the participants were whittled down to 32.

We waited through that, we watched as teams chopped and coaches changed; we've regurgitated old matches, argued Pele against Maradona, and wondered when Africa will reach a final. We know more about metatarsals than we need to, heard goalkeepers warn us about slippery balls, been told midfielders run 14 kilometres a match, and finally we say, enough, enough, stop the talking.

Let's play.