Zinedine Zidane’s face stares out from a giant French tricolour in front of a tea stall in Kerala’s Wayanad district. Argentine and Brazilian flags compete for space atop telephone poles, and wall space traditionally reserved for political slogans has been given over to murals of Latin America’s football heroes. For a month, most parts of Goa will go back to being little Portugal (or Brazil), and in West Bengal, Sony expects to sell 30,000 Bravia LCD television sets.

Bhaichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri and the national side may be a world away from the month-long carnival that began in South Africa yesterday, but for millions, life over the next 30 days will be centred around the Jabulani (Bantu for “to celebrate"), a ball whose latex bladder was manufactured in India.

The new powerhouse: European champions Spain are the favourites at the World Cup for the first time, with the best combination of attacking players on paper. Paul White / AP

Cricket may be the national sport, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that more people will watch the World Cup in India than they will in England, or the other European countries that have qualified for the event. Starved of top-level football, Indian fans live vicariously, through Brazilian samba beats and Argentine tango. For some, especially children in the metros with their Lampard, Rooney and Gerrard replica shirts, the pulse rate will quicken most when England plays.

Despite recent improvement under the stewardship of Bob Houghton, the British coach who once took unfashionable Malmö FF of Sweden to the European Cup final, it could be a generation or more before India can even dream of gracing the biggest sporting stage of all. From being a big player on the continental stage in the 1950s and 1960s, India’s decline since then has been like the financial meltdown of 2008. As Japan, South Korea and the West Asian states moved ahead, Indian football stood still and watched, and then took a few steps backwards.

How inept officialdom has ruined the game is a story for another day. Suffice to say that the excuses trotted out about physique, diet and genetics are not even worth the paper they’re printed on. If you want any proof as to their fallacy, just look to the North Korean side that will make a reappearance 44 years after they caused such a stir against Italy and Portugal in 1966. Despite living in Alice-in-Blunderland conditions in a totalitarian state that’s never far from famine, the small group chosen was more than a match for Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of Asia’s traditional powers.

Flaring passions: (from top left) The England team sits on the bench during a friendly match against South African premier league side Platinum Stars. Darren Staples / Reuters; Brazil’s football team. Antonio Scorza; and a fan sports a wig with the colours of the Argentine flag in Pretoria. Ricardo Mazalan / AP

Though it can boast of the “People’s Rooney" in Jong Tae-se, North Korea is unlikely to be anything more than also-rans in South Africa. Their predecessors, on whom the wonderful The Game of their Lives was based, shook the world largely because they were complete unknowns. In the era of YouTube and freeze-frame video analysis, the Japan-born Jong and his compatriots will come up against opponents who are all too aware of their bustling and energetic play.

If North Korea and the rest of the Asian contingent fall short as expected, who will be celebrating on the night of 11 July? History tells us that a European side has never won the trophy outside of the home continent, but South Africa will throw up playing conditions much to their liking. Traditionally, the World Cup has always been a summer event. This time, it’s bang in the middle of the South African winter. In Cape Town and at altitude in Johannesburg, there’ll be more than a bit of nip in the air—ideal conditions for football compared with an afternoon kick-off in enervating heat.

Brazil may have been at the receiving end of a Zidane master class in Germany four years ago, but the only nation to play at every World Cup since 1930 once again start favourites despite the switch to a more pragmatic style under Dunga, the coach who was captain when they ended a generation of pain in 1994. Ageing stars such as Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have been left at home, as has AC Milan’s brilliant young Alexandre Pato. Robinho, who escaped the Eastlands revolution to go back to Santos a few months ago, and Sevilla’s Luis Fabiano will be expected to score the goals, though much will depend on Kaká rediscovering his best form in an advanced midfield role. Maicon, the Internazionale fullback who scored the goal of the season against Juventus, and Barcelona’s Dani Alves offer potent attacking options from the back, but the midfield looks pedestrian, especially in comparison with the magical quartets of 1970 and 1982.

Argentina, their great rivals, had a horrendous qualifying campaign, scraping through only with a last-ditch win in Montevideo. Diego Maradona was a controversial appointment as coach, and he blundered through without ever seeming to know what his best XI was. The squad selection generated more debate, with Inter’s Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso both left out. There’s also no Juan Román Riquelme, after irreconcilable differences between playmaker and coach.

Maradona has also gambled by picking two over-35s, Juan Veron (La Brujita or the Little Witch) and Martin Palermo, who once missed three penalty kicks in a Copa America game. Despite the imposing presence of Walter Samuel at the heart of the defence, there are plenty of concerns over a backline that Brazil and even Bolivia (6-1 winners in La Paz) carved up in qualifying.

Those worries are offset to a large extent by the plethora of attacking riches. Diego Milito, whose goals won Inter the Champions League last month, should start alongside Lionel Messi, though Maradona also has Sergio Aguero (Maradona’s son-in-law), Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain to call on. Javier Mascherano, Liverpool’s bull terrier-like midfielder, will sweep up in front of the back four, while Angel Di Maria, who will command a transfer fee of more than $40 million (around Rs188 crore) if he has a good World Cup, should provide genuine menace down the left flank.

The key to emulating the heroes of 1978 and 1986, though, is Messi, unquestionably the best player of his generation. At Barcelona, he has the luxury of playing in a side that has been built to accommodate his rare talent. In the light blue and white of the national side, he hasn’t been indulged in the same way. Maradona may not have a Xavi or Iniesta to pull strings for him in the midfield, but his best chance of glory still lies with the Rosario boy who moved to Barcelona at 13 because they offered to pay for the growth-hormone treatments he needed.

Xavi will spend the month in Spain’s colours, as the heartbeat of one of the best all-round sides that Europe has ever seen. Spain were imperious en route to victory at Euro 2008 and they appear to have even more options two years on. The forward line of David Villa and Fernando Torres, if fully fit, is drool-worthy, unless you’re a hapless defender entrusted with marking them. Vicente del Bosque’s side has so many midfield options that Arsenal’s Cesc Fàbregas isn’t even guaranteed a starting berth, while three of the world’s best goalkeepers are in the squad. A defence led by Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos will be tough and uncompromising.

The challenge for Spain now is to cope with the pressure of expectation. On paper, there’s no better squad in the competition. But their World Cup scars are many. Four years ago, they romped through their opening-round group before coming unstuck against Zidane and France, who found a special gear that few thought they still possessed.

“Everyone is talking about us," said Torres recently. “Whenever coaches or players are asked for their favourites, they mention Spain. We’ve earned that. In the past we talked about being favourites when maybe we weren’t—this time we really are."

The other European teams from whom much is expected are England and the Netherlands. For England’s so-called golden generation, South Africa means last orders. Since their victory in 1966, the furthest England have gone was the semi-final in 1990. In recent times, despite the Premier League becoming a global behemoth, the team has always lacked the spark of champions. In Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard, they have three genuinely world-class talents, but the absence of a quick-thinking playmaker should mean they fall short yet again.

The Netherlands too have an embarrassment of riches in attack, even with Arjen Robben’s fitness a worry, but the better sides in the competition will look at their back four and lick their lips. The same can be said of France and Italy, neither of whom have shown intimidating form in the build-up to South Africa. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will be dangerous floaters, as will the always talented Danes, but it’s easy to see why the Spanish armada will fly the flag for the Old World.

Of the less fancied sides, the US will be the most dangerous. Conquerors of Spain at last year’s Confederations Cup, they are powerful, direct and determined. The African challenge has been hit by Didier Drogba’s injury woe, and neither Ivory Coast nor Ghana look as formidable as they did before the 2006 tournament.

Cameroon, typically robust and with Samuel Eto’o one of the world’s finest finishers, offer Africa’s best chance, but it’s a matter of regret that the continent’s first World Cup is being played in the absence of its best side. Egypt have dominated the Cup of Nations in recent times and been by far the most cohesive and accomplished team, but a shock loss to mediocre Algeria sealed their fate.

Nearly a million tickets remain unsold in a country that features the prosperity of uptown Johannesburg and waterfront Cape Town alongside the grim realities of township life. The bulk of the profits will go back to Fifa’s already overflowing coffers, but for one month, as the vuvezelas crescendo and the likes of Messi and Kaká further disorient opponents, this most complex of rainbow nations will be at the centre of the sporting universe. Through victory and defeat, jubilation and despair, the eight-panelled ball will hold millions in its thrall.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor, Wisden International.

Write to lounge@ livemint.com