The waiting is almost over. The World Cup -- the biggest sporting event on the planet -- is nearly here. Let the games begin!
And speaking of games, if you're playing the ESPN FC Match Predictor game, you'll have a vested interest in each and every fixture throughout the tournament.
To get started, let's take a look at the major categories:
Who will win the World Cup? We begin with the most important question of all. There are only a handful of teams that can pull this off, realistically. You'll want to go with one of the favorites here.
Brazil have the best odds, currently at 4-1 according to bet365, and that's who I'm going with. They've been in outstanding form since Tite took over as manager (see below), and Neymar was healthy enough to score a golazo in the friendly victory over Croatia this past Sunday.
Germany (9-2), Spain (6-1), France (13-2) and Argentina (9-1) have the next best odds after Brazil. The Germans won the World Cup four years ago, including a 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the semifinals. They've reached at least the semis in all five major tournaments under current manager Joachim Low. They'd be my second choice, although the last team to win back-to-back World Cups was Brazil way back in 1958 and 1962.
Who will win the Golden Boot? This is a tougher question, for sure. The Match Predictor gives you 16 different player options -- and if you don't like any of them, you can choose the 17th option, which is "Any other." But the leading goal-scorer at this World Cup will very likely be one of those 16 named.
You'll want to pick a player whose team you expect to advance far in the tournament. That's why I'm going with Neymar. He's a somewhat risky selection, given that his substitute appearance against Croatia was his first game action since late February due to a foot injury. But Neymar's record for Brazil (54 goals in 84 games) is outstanding.
Teammate Gabriel Jesus -- who appears likely to start at center forward -- has scored nine goals in 16 international appearances and is also tempting. But he's only 21 years old, and could split time with Roberto Firmino.
Germany and Spain, the second and third favorites in the tournament, don't feature an elite goal-scoring forward at the international level. The Germans are taking only two forwards to Russia, Timo Werner and Mario Gomez. Spain manager Julen Lopetegui is bringing three -- Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo -- who have only 13 international goals between them.
If I was going to pick someone other than Neymar, I'd probably go with another obvious candidate: Lionel Messi. There are a lot of Argentina doubters heading into this World Cup, but that's largely because of their defensive frailties. I think they could still go far, and I expect Messi to be prolific for as long as they remain in the tournament. He's coming off another excellent season at Barcelona (see below), and his international record ain't shabby, either (64 goals in 124 games). He also scored a hat trick, admittedly against a weak Haiti side, in a recent friendly.
Who will win Group A? Uruguay: Their talent is far superior in a relatively weak group that also includes Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Up front they have Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who scored 25 and 28 league goals for Barcelona and Paris-St. Germain this season, respectively. They also have scored 50 and 42 international goals -- very impressive. And Uruguay finished second in South American qualification, behind only Brazil.
Who will win Group B? Spain: This is a tougher group, also including Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal side, which won the European championship two years ago, plus Morocco and Iran. But Spain is the strongest team overall, with a starting lineup that should be littered with stars from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, plus two Premier Leaguers coming off excellent seasons: Manchester City midfielder David Silva and Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea.
Who will win Group C? France: It's hard to see them not topping a group that also includes Denmark, Peru and Australia. Their roster is full of players at top clubs around Europe -- including Antoine Griezmann, who scored 19 league goals for Atletico Madrid this season and may be on his way to Barcelona. France made it all the way to the final of Euro 2016, albeit as the host nation, before losing to Portugal.
Who will win Group D? Argentina: Messi & Co. should be able to finish ahead of Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland. They have the world's best player, and Messi is in great form. He led La Liga with 34 goals this season -- eight more than Ronaldo in second place. And he should be a little fresher than usual at the end of the season, given that Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals and locked up the league title rather early.
Who will win Group E? Brazil: Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica should be no match for the Selecao. In 20 matches since Tite took over in 2016, Brazil have 16 wins and three draws, with their only defeat coming at the hands of Argentina -- and they've outscored their opponents 44-5 during that stretch. Even with Neymar not yet 100 percent fit, a failure to win this group would be shocking.
Who will win Group F? Germany: When a player like Leroy Sane -- who had 10 goals and 15 assists for the Premier League champions this season -- can't even get into the 23-man squad, you know your team is loaded. The Germans won all 10 of their World Cup qualifiers, outscoring their opponents 43-4 in the process. And goalkeeper and captain Manuel Neuer returned from injury in a recent friendly against Austria. Not good news for Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
Who will win Group G? Belgium: England is in this group (along with Tunisia and Panama), but Belgium features a bunch of Premier League stars, including Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku -- who may have underwhelmed at Manchester United this season, but has 30 goals in 64 international appearances. Belgium are also ranked third in the world, behind only Germany and Brazil, and should finish up top -- although England beating them wouldn't be a huge surprise.
Who will win Group H? Colombia: This is probably the toughest group to predict, top to bottom. Poland have Robert Lewandowski, who scored 29 goals for Bayern Munich this season ... 14 more than any other player in the Bundesliga. Senegal have Sadio Mane, who played a starring role in Liverpool's run to the Champions League final. But Colombia arguably have the strongest roster overall, headlined by James Rodriguez, who won the Golden Boot four years ago, scoring six goals in five matches. (Japan, the fourth team here, should finish at the bottom.)
Game-by-game strategy: The Match Predictor also asks you to predict the match result and score for each game, along with a couple of "prop bet" style questions.
The prop bets are far too numerous and wide-ranging to handle in this column. But I will offer a couple tips in terms of predicting match results and scores -- starting with, don't forget about draws!
Your natural tendency may be to pick a winner for each game, but there will be plenty of draws along the way. During the group stage four years ago, there were nine draws in 48 games, or one in every 5.3 games. And five of those nine were scoreless draws, by the way.
Another tip? In general, games won't have a lot of goals. Sure, there will be some lopsided-looking matchups, and final scores. But in the group stage in 2014, there were 136 goals scored in 48 games -- an average of 2.83 goals per game. And only twice did a team score more than four goals in a game.
The cream inevitably rises to the top in a World Cup, and the favorites should dominate the proceedings. But you'll want to pick a few upsets along the way, too, because there will undoubtedly be some -- and nailing a couple of them could put you over the top in the end.
In this year's group stage, I think France and Argentina are the top teams most ripe for an upset. France have a lot of stars, but many of them are very young. And they didn't steamroll through qualification like some of the other European superpowers. They only won seven of their 10 games, drawing against Belarus and Luxembourg and losing to Sweden.
I think France could also lose a game in this group, most likely to Denmark. The Danes are ranked 12th in the world, and have a star player themselves in Christian Eriksen, who had 10 league goals and 10 assists for Tottenham Hotspur this season. Eriksen also scored 11 goals in 12 games in World Cup qualification, including their two-legged playoff against the Republic of Ireland.
Argentina actually struggled to qualify for this World Cup, finishing third in South America with 28 points -- only two points ahead of Chile, who missed out entirely in sixth place. Yes, Messi missed eight of their 18 qualifying matches due to injuries and suspension, but they still should have done better, given all the talent at their disposal.
La Albiceleste were hammered by Spain, 6-1, in March. They also lost to Nigeria, 4-2, in a friendly last November -- a team that happens to be in their group in Russia. But I think Croatia is the team most likely to upset Argentina here: ranked 18th in the world, featuring star midfielders Luka Modric from Real Madrid and Ivan Rakitic from Barcelona, and some capable goal-scorers up front including Mario Mandzukic of Juventus.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Just make sure you lock in your tournament winner, Golden Boot winner and group winners by Thursday, June 14, at 11 a.m. ET, when Russia vs. Saudi Arabia will get the ball rolling. Enjoy the tournament, everyone!