Through the din of vuvuzelas, the South Africa 2010’s goal scoring began with Siphiwe Tshabalala’s thunderous left footed strike and finished with Andreas Iniesta’s World Cup winner in extra time. If this is the last time you watched a ball kicked in anger, you’ve missed one of the most exciting and controversial periods in football history.

Four years is an eternity in world football. Entire philosophies have come and gone. Tiki-taka has been heralded as the future, risen into the ascendancy, won every major competition, and been declared dead in only four years. Hundreds of managers have been brought to clubs, exerted their influence, found success or failure, and then been fired or moved on forcing these teams to repeat the process again. In this time, players have found form and favor, suffered injury and faded into obscurity. Wonderkids have developed into international superstars while elsewhere dreams have been shattered. It is an intimidating, brutal landscape scrutinized by some of the most vigilant journalists and fanatic supporters on the entire planet.  

Stability does not exist in this world, it is an illusion. Every player, manager, and club has a price which can be paid to acquire their talents. Contracts can be terminated at a moment’s notice for the right fee. Everything and everybody can be purchased for the right price, including the rights for a country to host the World Cup. Russia and Qatar acquired the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively, by maneuvering their bids and lining the pockets of voters with cash. Notoriously corrupt football bureaucrat, Sepp Blatter, offers little objection to the Qatari’s use of slave labor to construct World Cup stadia. So far over one thousand migrant workers have died constructing these cathedrals of football. These stadia will be used for one month in 2022 and then abandoned to a nation devoid of a football culture.

Throughout these four years, Spain has maintained a stranglehold over international football. Their players and clubs find success at nearly every level and every competition. Spain won Euro 2012 without ever looking in danger, aside from a goalless match with Portugal which took them to penalties in the semi-final. Fernando Torres has gone from one of the most lethal strikers in the world to a punchline despite winning two Golden Boot awards, the UEFA Champions League and Europa league.

This Spanish dominance has only recently come into question, with the declared demise of tiki-taka and the ascendance of “parking the bus.” The death of Barcelona’s philosophy did not spell doom for the rest of Spanish soccer. Real Madrid and Athletico Madrid will face off in the UEFA Champion’s League final, making it the first time two clubs from the same city will meet in the final of Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Despite these successes, La Liga continues to struggle with the disgusting acts of racism taking place in the country.

England has seen Manchester United go through its first period of instability following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. The club will not qualify for the Champion’s League for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, Liverpool looked all but ready to break their unsuccessful streak of Premier League seasons, but stumbled late in the season allowing financial fair-play rule breakers, Manchester City, to slip into first place. This coming weekend will determine whether Liverpool win their first Premier League title or whether talismanic captain Steven Gerrard is forced to languish after another unsuccessful season.

In Germany, their national team has flourished thanks in part to the cohesion developed by the national team and German giants Bayern Munich. The club has won the Bundesliga in consecutive seasons, captured the UEFA Champion’s League title, and poached their biggest rival, Borussia Dortmund’s, best player two years in a row. The backbone of the Munich squad is nearly identical to the German national team, which is determined to set the record straight after a third place finish in South Africa and semi-final elimination at Euro 2012.

Meanwhile in Italy, Juventus has regained their place atop Serie A, with their third consecutive league title. AC Milan has seen their owner and former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi disgraced in court decisions and forced to reduce the budgets of the club. Milan made history this season by hiring club legend Clarence Seedorf as manager, making him only the second black manager in Serie A history. Seedorf’s return to the club after ten years as a player came following incidents of racial abuse towards Mario Balotelli and Kevin Prince Boateng.

In France, Ligue 1 has seen the arrival of Qatari money with the purchase of Paris Saint-Germain and more importantly Zlatan Ibrahimovich. Zlatan, Edinson Cavani, Javier Pastore, Thiago Silva and a host of others have brought success to the club, allowing them to capture the league title in 2013 and 2014. Monaco looked poised to mount a title challenge thanks to the arrival of Radamel Falcao, but a knee injury in January put the striker out for the World Cup and the title challenge on hold.

Finally, the United States has witnessed the arrival former German national team manager and player, Jurgen Klinsmann, as manager of the USMNT. Klinsmann has brought a new philosophy and confidence to the national team setup. He has encouraged his players to find success abroad in the world’s best leagues. Klinsmann convinced players such as Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, and most recently Julian Green to leave the depths of the German talent pool for the greener pastures of the American national team. Traditionally, European based players struggle to adapt to the time differences and climate of World Cups based in the America’s. This has led proven national team stars, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to return to Major League Soccer allowing them to train and promote their World Cup push in the western hemisphere.

So begins the most exciting two months of the international football cycle. Triumph and glory lay on the horizon, with defeat lurking in the shadows.