5 things to watch for Saturday at the World Cup

(Photo: MGN Online)

(Photo: MGN Online)

It’s the weekend. It’s the World Cup. It’s Brazil.

That makes three good, maybe even great, reasons to party.

And rest assured, there will be plenty of revelry Saturday in the land of samba. There always is, on any day. But that does not mean that harsh realities won’t intervene — perhaps related to protests, stadium problems or other issues that dogged the World Cup in the weeks leading up to football’s biggest tournament.

Here’s a look at five things to look out for Saturday, both on and off the field.

Two European football stalwarts face off

After one game Thursday and three on Friday, Saturday will be the first day with four World Cup.

While all offer intrigue in their own way, from a sports perspective, one stands out: England and Italy.

One of them, England, claims to have invented the sport though it can only claim one World Cup title, from 1966. Italy, on the other hand, won the most recent of its four championships in 2006.

History aside, there’s no clear favorite in Saturday’s contest.

Italy and England are about as evenly matched as they come, heading into the tournament ninth and tenth respectively in the FIFA world rankings.

Spotlight on stadium construction

But the story for the England-Italy tilt isn’t just that they’re playing, but where they are playing: in Manaus.

That’s probably not the first place you think of, when you think of Brazil. The capital of the Amazonas state, it is more than 1,700 miles from Rio de Janeiro.

And critics have latched on to construction of a stadium in this relatively remote locale not just for its cost, but they also question its usefulness and point out potential danger. To the latter point, a man identified as Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira fell 35 meters to his death while working to build the stadium.

His was the fifth death, nationwide, involved in the construction of World Cup venues.

There are also concerns that playing games in the thick of the tropics might put players’ health at risk, once the games begin.

The forecast Saturday in Manaus calls for high temperatures in high 80s. But — even if it is in the rain forest — there’s not expected to be rain to cool things down.

Where not to find lush grass? The Amazon

Still, the game will go on Saturday at the Arena da Amazonia — that being the official name for the Manaus stadium.

Does that mean the stadium is ready for the spotlight? Not necessarily.

The British newspaper, the Guardian, reports that power cables hang from walls in locker rooms and that workers very recently put on a final coat of asphalt.

But the main focus, and concern, is about where all the action will take place on the field.

Pictures posted online showed a spotty patchwork of grass, looking dry and bare in spots despite it being set in one of the lushest regions in the world.

Numerous reports — and more photos — indicate the grounds crew have been spraying the field green, to make the pitch look better.

White spray and goal-line technology

The funny thing is that having people spray the grass in the middle of a World Cup arena was supposed to be one of the biggest and best changes tied to the 2014 tournament.

Watch Saturday to see yourself: Referees now carry around a white spray they can use to mark, say, a line 10 yards from a free kick spot. It stays visible long enough to prevent players from creeping up, then vanishes soon after that.

That’s not the only notable development in this year’s World Cup.

Those who watched Friday’s Chile-Australia contest saw the debut of a new system designed to track whether a ball crosses the goal line or not.

The system of cameras and sensors can follow the ball at a rate of up to 500 images per second and instantly alert a referee when it crosses the line.

Every team has a story

Saturday’s three other games, and six other teams besides England and Italy, have plenty of their own story lines as well.

For Greece, led by 34-year-old club journeyman Theofanis Gekas, it’s about whether it can surge, as it did in winning the prestigious 2004 Euro tournament?

For Colombia, will goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon get on the field in his fifth World Cup to become the oldest player in tournament history? (He turns 43 later this month.)

For Japan, can it represent Asia well — as one of the continent’s most well-respected teams — by overcoming Cote d’Ivoire, or the Ivory Coast, in a nighttime contest in Recife?

For Ivory Coast, can the 6-foot-3 Yaya Toure — who scored 20 goals in Manchester City’s championship Premier League season — make an argument that he’s one of the world’s best attacking midfielders?

For Costa Rica, which cruised through qualifying — including handing the United States its biggest drubbing — surprise the skeptics and make its way through a packed Group D?

And can Uruguay successfully kick off its quest to go two-for-two in World Cups in Brazil, having defeated the South American superpower the last time the tourney was held here, in 1950?

Stay tuned.