SAO PAULO – Brazilian soccer superstars Willian and Oscar are close friends and teammates for both their club team, Chelsea, and their country. They also happen to be the center of the biggest debate in the host nation leading up to Thursday's World Cup kickoff.
Willian, 25, and Oscar, 22, are two of Brazil's most popular players among fans of all ages, but the two pals are battling it out for the same starting midfield role against Croatia in the tournament opener, and the issue has greatly divided opinion here.
Willian's spirit and flair on the field and his cheeky personality off it make him a firm favorite among the supporters and his impressive performances in a series of substitute appearances in pre-World Cup friendlies have led many to call for him to replace the incumbent, but recently inconsistent, Oscar.
Oscar's remarkable dribbling and passing ability had seen him entrenched in the squad and, for those who like this kind of thing, he also has enough crossover appeal to have been signed to front a Calvin Klein underwear campaign.
Brazil's head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari loves nothing more than to play cat and mouse with the Brazilian media and public, so while it is assumed that Oscar is the favorite to start against Croatia at Arena Corinthians, only one man knows for sure.
This country's soccer obsession runs deep enough that tactical systems, midfield formations and the various attributes of different players form typical coffee shop conversation, and it seems everyone you meet here has a personal preference.
"The contest with Willian is among you, the press," Oscar told reporters this week. "You are talking about it, but there is nothing to do. We are friends."
Whichever one of Oscar or Willian is chosen to start by Scolari, it seems certain that the other will have a vital role to play coming off the substitutes' bench as an impact player.
Brazil is an overwhelming favorite going into its opening match. Croatia finished second in its European qualifying group, a mile behind Belgium, and reached the tournament thanks to a lucky draw in the playoffs and a subsequent victory over Iceland.
The technical mastery of Brazil should be way too much here, although even if it loses its first game, Croatia would still fancy its chances of clinching second place in the group ahead of Mexico and Cameroon.
The matchup in Sao Paulo follows the opening ceremony and is the only game on the first day of the tournament. Things really hit full flow after that, with at least three matches every subsequent day up to and including June 26.
All eyes will be on Brazil to see how Scolari's squad handles the vast pressure and expectation, although Luiz, freshly anointed as the most expensive defender in soccer history after agreeing to join Paris St. Germain from Chelsea for around $60 million, is not fazed.
"That is our life," he told the Associated Press. "It is a big pressure but makes us alive, and you want that. You want to win."
The hosts are the clear favorites to do so, not just on Thursday but to go all the way and lift the trophy. Being spoiled for choice with an over-abundance of outstanding players, like Oscar and Willian, certainly helps.
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- Luiz Felipe Scolari
- World Cup 2014