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At fever pitch worldwide

For the host country, fans and players, the tournament is worth every effort

THE day that most employers were dreading is finally here. With the first of 64 World Cup matches kicking off tonight, offices across the island will, for the next 32 days, probably see scores of bleary-eyed workers trooping in each morning after pulling an all-nighter to watch their favourite teams in action.

Productivity will, in all likelihood, take a dip over the coming days until the tournament wraps up on the morning of July 14.

A recent survey by global recruitment agency eFinancialCareers found that nearly 40 per cent of football fans plan to stay up for the matches - which kick off at midnight, 3am and 6am here on most days - and then head to work that same morning.

This was based on a poll of about 140 finance professionals who visited the agency's Singapore website. A third of them said that they would either call in sick or take leave if they had to.

The World Cup is, after all, not just any other sporting tournament. It takes place only once every four years, and it's safe to say that the excitement levels for this edition - held in Brazil, football's spiritual home, for the first time since 1950 - have reached fever pitch.

But the build-up to the big day has been marred by subway strikes, construction delays and protests by groups of Brazilians blaming their government for corruption and far exceeding the original budget for the event.

President Dilma Rousseff rejected criticism of the inflated World Cup expenditure, insisting that preparations for the tournament would improve the country's infrastructure and give a much-needed boost to the economy over the long run.

"The result and final celebration are worth the effort," she said in a televised address to the nation yesterday. "Brazil overcame the main obstacles and is prepared for the Cup, on and off the field."

There are, however, concerns that the opening game between the hosts and Croatia tonight (Friday 4am, Singapore time) may not proceed smoothly, given that this will be the first time the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paolo will have a full house of 61,600 spectators.

Work on the stadium was still taking place earlier this week, with construction workers seen putting the finishing touches on electrical wiring and carpeting.

Organisers have promised that the stadium - also the site of a glittery opening ceremony that will be watched by a global television audience of over a billion people - will be ready on time, along with several other arenas that are desperately racing against the clock to be completed.

One can only hope that, at the end of the day, it will be the sport of football that takes centrestage at this year's World Cup.

Brazil, for all its problems off the pitch of late, faces immense pressure to win the tournament on its home turf.

Defeat, or even a draw, in tonight's match against Croatia would be unthinkable for the host nation, the odds-on favourites to win the famous golden trophy for a record sixth time.

Many of the other 31 countries won't go down without a fight. Defending champion Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands are naturally fancied to do well, while dark horses such as the likes of Mexico, Uruguay, Belgium and Portugal could spring a surprise or two along the way.

Asia's hopes, meanwhile, rest on the quartet of Iran, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

The South Koreans - semi-finalists back in 2002 - are in an unpredictable group with Belgium, Russia and Algeria, and will struggle to make it to the Round of 16.

The Samurai Blue, as Japan are known, will be confident of making the knock-out stage after being grouped with Greece, Ivory Coast and Colombia.

Iran, a team that hasn't played much of late, will probably be one of the first to fly home after the group stage. Australia, too, should depart Brazil early, given that they are the weakest team in the so-called Group of Death along with Spain, the Netherlands and Chile.

After 820 qualifying matches spread out over two years involving 207 countries, the stage is set for one of the final 32 to reap the efforts of that hard work and go on to be crowned the best footballing nation in the world.