By Coen Lammers *
Opinion - The greatest show on Earth is about to kick off in Russia on Friday morning (NZ time) and the entire world will be focused on the FIFA World Cup over the coming month.
The Olympic Games attract more participants and gridiron's Super Bowl may be the biggest annual sporting event, but nothing comes close to the four-yearly football fiesta as far as global interest, or should that be obsession.
Entire populations in all corners of the planet will stop what they are doing to gather in front of television sets. Even if their nation is not competing at the World Cup finals, or have any hope of ever getting there, fans on all six continents are desperate to see which football stars will write their names in World Cup history and which new football stars will be born.
Read more of our FIFA 2018 coverage:
With over three billion people watching, one moment of brilliance or brain explosion will forever be written into the collective global sporting memory.
Just ask All Whites defender Winston Reid who was playing in the obscurity of the Danish Superliga in 2010 when one flick of the head earned New Zealand its first World Cup draw against Slovakia and catapulted the fresh-faced 21-year-old into a distinguished and profitable career in the English Premier League.
Football may be a minor sport in New Zealand and one or two other places like the United States, but in every other country the round ball rules.
To give it some perspective, 207 countries took part in the qualifying process for the World Cup finals, which is 14 more countries than are members of the United Nations.
After 868 matches and 2454 goals, the final 32 will line up in Russia this week to have a crack at the World Cup trophy. Of those 32 teams, about a dozen may have hopes of making the finals or semi-finals, but the other 20 have to be taken seriously.
Unlike most other global championships where semi-finalists or even finalists are often pre-determined, in the FIFA World Cup any teams is capable to beating any other.
This is the reason why even the first stage, when the teams are divided in eight round-robin groups, can be so exciting and unpredictable.
Who had expected that tiny New Zealand would only be one kick away from the second round in 2010 until the very last minute, while ruling world champions Italy failed to even progress from the All Whites group.
Whether Iceland is playing Argentina, or Portugal is playing Morocco, you just cannot take your eyes away from the screen or expect any game to be a foregone conclusion.
Even qualifying for the finals is a Herculean task as the mighty Italy and Netherlands had to discover this year.
The tournament in Russia will be played in 12 stadiums across three time-zones from Kalingrad on the Baltic Sea to Ekaterinburg in the Urals.
President Vladimir Putin has pulled out all stops, by surprisingly securing the tournament against most predictions in 2009, and then building or revamping 12 breathtaking football temples. The stadium designs reflect the culture and the history of the host cities, like the space ship-like arena in Samara.
Witnessing the All Whites play in the Confederations Cup last year, it was clear how passionate and proud not only Putin but every Russian is about their country and desperate to show the world their best side.
The only party not playing ball in this Russian charm offensive is the Russian football team who are the lowest-ranked nation in the competition and have failed to impress.
Thankfully, the draw has handed them two of the less formidable teams in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Group A, alongside powerful Uruguay, so Russia can have realistic hopes to claim one of the top two spots and progress. After the first round, the final 16 progress into a knock-out system where anything can happen.
A successful campaign by the hosts on a wave of nationalist pride and enthusiasm would help to light up the tournament, but the men in red are unlikely to threaten the perennial favourites like Brazil, Germany, Spain and Portugal.
More about the teams to watch in the next edition.
* Coen Lammers will be covering the FIFA World Cup in Russia for RNZ, online and on air. Russia 2018 will be his fifth World Cup.