Now that we know who goes where, it’s important for you, the casual, U.S.-based soccer viewer, to become intimate with the field during the next six months. Brazil’s World Cup–the first on this side of the globe since U.S.A. ’94–will be a star-studded, deck stacked rodeo. As Americans, we expect to win and compete. We take down the Soviet Union at hockey. Our tiny gymnasts exist to best the tiny gymnasts of Asia. Basketball challenges are always a slam dunk. We’ve had the luxury of riding with Landon Donovan and his friends for 12 years. It’s time to see what they’re up against with a detailed look at all 32 teams.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Fifa Ranking: 10th
Best Finish: Champion; 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002. Runner-Up; 1950 & 1998.
Profile: One of the favorites to win this summer’s tournament as host. No country has won more World Cup titles than Brazil. Always a favorite, the country fell off in terms of its image after winning its last title in 2002, never advancing past the final eight in the previous two tournaments. The Brazilians put the world on notice, though, by spanking defending World Champion Spain, 3-0 in the final of the Confederations Cup this past summer in a tune-up for the 2014 tournament. The player to watch is Neymar. He is the two-time defending South American player of the year despite being only 21 years of age.
Fifa Ranking: 16th
Best Finish: 3rd Place, 1998
Profile: For a team as highly ranked as Croatia, it sure did take the long way to get here. Croatia were expected to at least push Belgium in qualifying automatically out of their European group, but instead was blown away by the Belgians and left to face Iceland in a playoff. It wasn’t until the second leg that Croatia was able to break the deadlock and secure a 2-0 victory to qualify for this summer’s tournament. The Croatians have been ravaged by leadership issues, similar to Mexico, but boast some very big names within their squad including Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić and Bayern Munich forward Mario Mandžukić.
Fifa Ranking: 20th
Best Finish: Quarterfinal, 1970 & 1986
Profile: North America was Mexico’s turf until the early 2000s when the current crop of American stars wrested complete control away from the Mexicans. It had been a back and forth affair until this last qualifying campaign, where the Mexican ride can be described as “bumpy” at best. It took a bicycle kick and some late American magic in Panama for the Mexicans to backdoor their way into a playoff against New Zealand for this tournament. Enter, Miguel Herrera, Mexico’s newest manager, and one of the foremost personalities in all the world. Words won’t do him justice, just pictures. The biggest issue for Mexico has been the telenovela of personalities within its team. Its best player, Carlos Vela, has refused to represent the national team due to a personality clash between himself and the head brass. The player you’ll want to keep an eye on though is Oribe Peralta, who was the only bright spot in Mexico’s qualifying campaign, and has scored nine goals in his last 10 matches for El Tri.
Fifa Ranking: 51st
Best Finish: Quarterfinal, 1990
Profile: Cameroon is ranked lowest out of the five teams from Africa in this competition. Their best finish was in 1990 when it was led by 38-year-old striker, Roger Milla, all the way to the quarterfinals, where it was eventually knocked out by England 3-2 after holding a 2-1 lead. Despite the lowly ranking, the Indomitable Lions are one of Africa’s blue-bloods, qualifying seven times for the World Cup, more than any other African nation, and winning the African Cup of Nations four times. 32-year-old striker and captain Samuel Eto’o will have to shoulder his nation’s aspirations to advance past the group stage for the first time since the magical run of 1990.
Group A Breakdown
Stephen: Brazil is the clear favorite out of this group and in the tournament in general. Cameroon is the clear punching bag of the group. I think the only question mark in this group boils down to the match between Croatia and Mexico. Croatia boasts some serious offensive weapons and Mexico’s backline has been a huge issue. The real wrench is Miguel Herrera and his tactical genius. I think the Croatians will be confused by whatever Herrera throws at them and it will ultimately be the difference in that contest. Brazil finishes 1st, Mexico 2nd, Croatia 3rd, and Cameroon 4th.
Ramon: Mexicans are proud and insufferable today. Despite Croatia’s pedigree and Cameroon’s long-running World Cup tenure, they know in their Aztec hearts that second place is a given. Is this instant gut reaction wrong? I don’t think so. Mexico’s long, competitive history with the hosts means that there’s less fear than there would be facing any other top seed save for Switzerland. Especially since Mexico-Brazil will be Game 2, and on the heels of three in-the-bag points against Cameroon. Croatia is, essentially, a better version of Mexico–qualifying dysfunction, more proven star power. But Herrera is the 3-5-2 tactical guru Mexico needs to sing loudest, coupled with the brash, tequila-swigging Rex Ryan-esque personality that should make for great press conferences.
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Fifa Ranking: 1st
Best Finish: Champion, 2010.
Profile: No team comes into this tournament with more fanfare than Spain. A side considered to long be perennial underachievers, the Spanish finally broke that mold in 2008, winning the European championship. Since that time, they’ve gone on to win the 2010 World Cup, and another European Championship in 2012, setting the record for the most competitive matches unbeaten with 29, from the 2010 World Cup group stage until this summer’s shock defeat to Brazil in the 2013 Confederations Cup final. The Spanish are marked by their style of play, which is characteristic of “passing teams to death.” The Red Fury, as they’re often called, like to hold the ball for long periods of time before attacking at goal. This style of play was unbeatable for a number of years, mostly due to its superior advantage in midfield talent, however a lot of those players are beginning to enter the twilight of their careers and Spain has since begun to look more and more beatable. The Spanish are led in midfield by the creative genius of Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta who have been playing together for years since their days in the Barcelona youth academy, La Masia.
Spain might be the only team in the world that can rival Germany in terms of the amount of talent it leaves off the field. While it no longer appears invincible, Spain is still considered a top favorite to win this tournament along with Germany and Brazil.
Fifa Ranking: 9th
Best Finish: Runner-up; 1974, 1978 & 2010
Profile: They are the 2010 World Cup runner-up, losing to group mate Spain in the final. The Dutch are essentially the early ’90s Buffalo Bills of world soccer in the sense that they are always contenders and title game finalists, but can never seem to win it all. It holds the record for most World Cup finals appearances without a victory. It always fields a strong contingent, however, and 2014 will be no different with friendly faces like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Rafael van der Vaart populating their ranks.
Fifa Ranking: 15th
Best Finish: 3rd place, 1962
Profile: One of the scarier teams coming out of the host continent, the Chileans finished third in South American qualifying. Chile displayed just how terrifying it can be up front by going to Colombia and taking a 3-0 lead early in the first half on the penultimate day of South American qualifying. A red card would allow the Colombians to push back and even the score 3-3 before both teams settled for a draw and automatic qualification into the tournament. Most recently, Chile drew Spain 2-2 in September, then defeated England 2-0, and lost to Brazil 2-1 in November. They will be a very trendy darkhorse contender. Keep an eye on Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. Sanchez has been a key cog in the Barcelona machine that has terrorized Europe for the last five years and Vidal just signed a new contract two days ago to extend his stay in Italy through 2017 where he has led club team Juventus to the title the last two seasons.
Fifa Ranking: 59th
Best Finish: Round of 16, 2006
Profile: Australia comes into this tournament the lowest-ranked team in the field. They are a national team in transition as the last remnants of the golden generation that took them to the very brink of making the quarterfinals in 2006, mixed with the next generation of young players. It’s going to be a brutal gauntlet. The Socceroos finished fourth in Asian qualifying and are led by old guard forward Tim Cahill, who now plays with the New York Red Bulls of MLS, and Robbie Kruse of Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.
Group B Breakdown
Stephen: This is a difficult group to assess. You’ve got the world’s number one team in Spain, followed by the team that finished second in the last World Cup. Chile has come on strong over the last five years and really looks like they could shake things up. Australia looks like cannon fodder in a group that really seems like it will play out similar to the Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Napoli, Champions League group. I’m confident when I say that the Netherlands wins this group. The Dutch tend to be racked with ego mismanagement and strife, but I think that the biggest trend in soccer lately has been that goals win championships. All three teams: Spain, Chile, and the Netherlands defend well enough, but the Netherlands has a clear advantage in firepower. That leaves Chile and Spain left to duke it out for the second and final spot. I know this is a little bold, but I’m choosing Chile on their home continent. Spain’s golden generation has shown cracks, and I think the time is right for Chile to edge them in a repeat of a group game from 2010, which Spain won 2-1. Also, if this were to occur, along with our Group A predictions, it would set up a Brazil-Chile second round matchup, which would also be a replay of the second round matchup from the 2010 World Cup.
Ramon: Australia is going to be key. The ‘Roos will play this tournament in damage control mode, conservatively hoping to avoid face shots. That’s when the goals come in flurries. The stat we’ll hear over and over is that teams that win Game 1 almost always get to the knockout stage, and teams that lose very rarely do.[ref]Spain lost Game 1 in 2010, then didn’t lose for 29 games. There’s that.[/ref] Chile plays Australia first, knowing it has to score. I don’t see how a 3-0 win keeps Sanchez and friends out of the group stage. They’re also ambassadors for a continent desperately trying to usurp continental dominance, and I bet they get results in every match. That, to me, makes Spain-Netherlands a delicious, playoff atmosphere, opening fight to the death. I can’t see La Roja losing outright. My forecast is 1st Chile, 2nd Spain, 3rd Netherlands, 4th Australia.
Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan
Fifa Ranking: 4th
Best Finish: Round of 16, 1990
Profile: It’s been a long way back for a country that hasn’t been ranked this high since the early 2000s when the team’s rise was tangled with the days of one of its most infamous countrymen, Pablo Escobar. The story of that team has of course been documented in the ESPN 30 for 30 film, “The Two Escobars.” If you listen to our podcast, you’ll know that Ramon is very high on this team and rightfully so. Colombia is one of the more rounded teams in the tournament, sporting a squad with a nice mix of European and South American based players. While Colombia’s strike force may not receive quite the name-recognition from the media as some of the other South American powers, make no mistake that Jackson Martinez and Radamel Falcao belong in the discussion of the top tandems in the world. Martinez made his debut in European soccer, playing for Porto of Portugal a season ago. In that season he helped lead his squad to its third consecutive league title while also leading the league in goals scored. Meanwhile, Falcao has torched Europe over the last four seasons, twice breaking the UEFA Europa League tournament scoring record.
Fifa Ranking: 12th
Best Finish: Group Stage, 1994 & 2010
Profile: The Greeks, much like Switzerland, are known more for their defending than their offensive prowess. It had to go through a European playoff to get here, but only after it finished second in group play due to goal difference with Bosnia after amassing an astonishing 25 points, a total that would’ve seen them win five other groups. In 10 qualifying games the Greeks only scored 12 goals. The Greeks are captained by 36-year-old Giorgos Karagounis, the star of their 2004 (!) European championship-winning squad, and will look to Giorgos Samaras and the red-hot Kostas Mitroglou for goals. The best player in the squad is Borussia Dortmund defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
Fifa Ranking: 17th
Best Finish: Group Stage; 2006, 2010
Profile: The Ivory Coast is ranked as the top team on the African continent and has qualified for the past three World Cups. Despite their lofty ranking, the Elephants are probably considered second favorites for a deep run in this tournament behind Ghana. It is led in attack by the immortally young Didier Drogba, who at 35 years old, will attempt to lead a Roger Milla-like run to the quarterfinals, having never advanced past the group stage. Yaya Touré is considered one of the best midfielders in the world with his size and speed coupled with his ability to score goals. If he can get on the field, 24-year-old striker Wilfried Bony will be the player to watch.
Fifa Ranking: 48th
Best Finish: Round of 16, 2002 & 2010
Profile: The Japanese are typically considered the best team coming out of Asia, and finished first in Asian qualifying for this World Cup. They are characterized by their work ethic and their ability to pass and move the ball.[ref]I swear this isn’t an Asian stereotype that has anything to do with Asians as a whole.[/ref] Its success in 2002 has led to a breakthrough for many of their players in Europe including Shinji Kagawa who starred for German power Borussia Dortmund before moving to Manchester United, and Keisuke Honda who plays for Russian runners-up CSKA Moscow and will soon join legendary Italian club A.C. Milan in January.
Group C Breakdown
Stephen: Colombia should comfortably advance out of this group. The two spot will probably come on goal differential as the Ivory Coast, Japan, and Greece all seem fairly even. The Ivory Coast probably has the best offense out of the three with its weapons both up top and into midfield, featuring Yaya Touré, but Japan is very close. Japan, though, seems like a more complete team and I’m going to pick them to go through although I think the Ivory Coast might overwhelm them physically and beat them heads up. Greece I have finishing fourth in this group, but I may change my mind come June as Kostas Mitroglu has been absolutely on fire for his club team Olympiakos in the European Champions League against some very stiff competition.
Ramon: This is one we’ll have to revisit in six months because it’ll come down to form. Colombia will win the group outright, though, but it’s a competitive two through four. The experience, defense, and form of the Greeks makes them a tough out. Their lack of firepower is a big concern, but Ivory Coast has struggled to realize its potential in big dances and I’m off that train. Japan is mechanical and benefits from playing Colombia last–when the country will have clinched its group. But I think they are still the weakest side in the group by a substantive margin. I’ll go 1st Colombia, 2nd Greece, 3rd Ivory Coast, 4th Japan, because of Greece’s proven resolve against African sides.
Group D: Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica
Fifa Ranking: 6th
Best Finish: Champion; 1930 & 1950
Profile: The inaugural World Cup hosts and Champions, Uruguay is one of the proudest soccer nations in the world, but until 2010 La Celeste had not advanced past the final 16 since 1970. In South Africa, though, the Uruguayans surprised quite a few folks by tearing through the tournament, eventually finishing in fourth place. The defending South American champions boast quite possibly the most dangerous attacking duo in the world. Uruguay is led in attack by last season’s leading goal scorer in the English Premier League, Luis Suarez. Suarez is partnered in attack by another league-leading goal scorer, in Edinson Cavani, who topped the Italian league in goals a season ago. The backline is piloted by Diego Lugano and Martin Caceres, while Alvaro Pereira and Cristian Rodriguez pull the strings in midfield. Uruguay is certainly a favorite to win their group and make a deep run in this tournament.
Fifa Ranking: 7th
Best Finish: Champion; 1934, 1938, 1982 & 2006. Runner-Up, 1970 & 1994.
Profile: One of the all-time blue-bloods of world soccer, the Azzuri have hoisted the trophy as winners four times, most recently two tournaments ago in 2006. The Italians seem to be very Jekyll & Hyde though, and are one of those teams that are either in perfect harmony or complete disarray. They followed up their title-winning run of 2006 by finishing dead last in their Group in South Africa at World Cup 2010. This team certainly appears to be much more cohesive, winning its European qualifying group easily. If you haven’t heard of striker Mario Balotelli, Google him. Other names to look out for are iconic midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, as well as one of the greatest goalkeepers in the history of the game, Gianluigi Buffon who will be playing in a record-tying fifth World Cup.
Fifa Ranking: 13th
Best Finish: Champion, 1966
Profile: Because the English league is the most popular in the world, this squad will feature more recognizable names than any other, even more so than the United States. Similar to Australia, they are also a squad in transition, trying to find the right mix of their old guard players and the next generation. England won their European qualifying group, but it was much closer than many in the media thought it should have been over Ukraine and Poland. The English have a habit of getting knocked out in the latter rounds on penalty kicks and have done so in pretty much every tournament since 1998.
Fifa Ranking: 31st
Best Finish: Round of 16, 1990
Profile: One of the surprises in world soccer over the last year and a half has been the Costa Rican national team. It at one point led the North American qualifying for the World Cup before eventually finishing behind the United States. It holds a number of European-based players, and fields a very attack-minded game. It is led by MLS-based Álvaro Saborío and Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz. Los Ticos will fly under the radar, but are definitely a team to watch in terms of making unexpected noise.
Group D Breakdown:
Stephen: This group could quite possibly be the group of death. I think Costa Rica’s FIFA ranking is grossly low in terms of their recent performances. They’re a team that can most definitely beat England and cause a lot of problems for someone like Uruguay. Ultimately though, I think they’ll finish last in this group attempting to face the attacking prowess of England and Uruguay. Italy’s defense may prove a riddle too tough to solve. I’m confident Uruguay will advance from this group, I’m just not sure whether it will be the winner or first runner-up. For now, I’m going to tip them over Italy because I feel like they’re better offensively and are solid enough defending to withstand anything any of these squads can throw at them. I’m going to choose Italy over England because I just think England is in complete disarray right now and doesn’t really know who it is. In summation: Uruguay 1st, Italy 2nd, England 3rd, and Costa Rica 4th.
Ramon: Costa Rica earned the shit out of its bid, but it will take several consecutive miracles for Los Ticos to avoid a fourth-place finish. Uruguay bats against the Costa Ricans first, and in the other match again we have an opening playoff between European powers. I want to circle back to this Uruguay team, which may be top-heavy but has the brass to win it all. Diego Forlan will be 35 next summer, but he’s just a forward that will kill you on set plays. Forlan and Suarez are the one and two all-time leading scorers for Uruguay, and Forlan is its most capped player. Pride, the distinct honor of winning it all in Brazil in 1950, Suarez playing out of his mind for Liverpool (leading the Premier League in goals despite his early season suspension)–Uruguay is a bigger favorite than we realize here. I’d love to see England find itself, and depending on how their starting lineup shakes out I will be tempted to give them an edge over Italy because of the schedule: If they can tie Italy and Uruguay, the pressure will be off and a 2-0 Game 3 win over Costa Rica becomes a given. Fuck it: Uruguay 1st, England 2nd, Italy 3rd, Costa Rica 4th.
Group E: Switzerland, France, Ecuador, Honduras
Fifa Ranking: 8th
Best Finish: Quarterfinals; 1934, 1938 & 1954
Profile: The Swiss are consistently one of the best teams in Europe, despite a general lack of attacking power. It actually upset Spain in the group stage at the 2010 World Cup, but lost to Chile in their second game, and ended up third in the group and did not progress to the knockout stage. The Swiss are characterized by their ability to defend which leads to a lot of close, ugly victories. Switzerland is considered the weakest of the top seeds in Pot 1. That being said, 22-year-old Xerdan Shaqiri and 21-year-old Pajtim Kasami are two of Europe’s up-and-coming stars in the Swiss midfield. They’ll be worth watching in a weak group.
Fifa Ranking: 19th
Best Finish: Champion, 1998. Runner-Up, 2006
Profile: The French are much better than their world ranking of 19th. They had to go through a playoff to get here, but it was always a tough ask to try and defeat Spain for automatic qualification. France’s squad has some of the best talent in the world, but it always seems to alternate showing up at tournaments. After wining the 1998 World Cup, the French completely collapsed in Group play and didn’t advance in 2002. It followed that disastrous effort up by returning in 2006 and rolling all the way to the final before losing to Italy and finishing second. 2010 brought high expectations, but the French squad essentially revolted against manager Raymond Domenech and finished dead last in their group. This French squad looked like it would miss this World Cup all together after going down to Ukraine 2-0 in the first leg of its European playoff, but rallied to win 3-0 in the second leg in Paris. France has the talent to go far in this tournament, whether or not they’ll live up to the billing is always the question.
Fifa Ranking: 23rd
Best Finish: Round of 16, 2006
Profile: This is the South American team with the paltriest of histories, and probably the weakest team representing that continent at this tournament. La Tri does not exactly have the most overwhelming talent in attack and their defense is a bit shaky. The team lost its best attacking player, and third all-time leading scorer, over the summer when 27-year-old Christian “Chucho” Benitez died suddenly of cardiac arrest following a match in July. Benitez had been a man on fire–dominating Mexico’s Liga MX as the Clausura 2013 top scorer for the third consecutive season, winning the league with Club America outright in May. The player you will recognize is Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
Fifa Ranking: 41st
Best Finish: Group Stage, 1982 & 2010
Profile: This is only Honduras’ third World Cup appearance and it might want to focus on baby steps for this tournament. Both of its previous appearances have left Honduras finishing dead last in group play. Certainly, the Hondurans will have higher aspirations though, after finishing North American qualifying comfortably ahead of Mexico. MLS-based Jerry Bengston scored five goals in qualifying and is a star that should stick around for at least another qualifying cycle. The best player in this squad is probably 29-year-old midfielder Wilson Palacios.
Group E Breakdown:
Stephen: This is the group everyone wanted to be in. Switzerland is absolutely the most vulnerable of the one seeds and to draw the weakest team from both North and South America must have been the greatest Christmas gift the French football federation could have ever asked for, just two weeks removed from possibly missing the tournament altogether. France is the overwhelming favorite to win this group. I’ll leave it at that. Switzerland is next, but you could certainly see Honduras sneaking a victory past the Swiss, in that typical “score goals out of nowhere” way Honduras has beaten teams throughout the last calendar year. Honduras and Switzerland faced off in their final group game of the 2010 World Cup in which the Swiss could not gain more than a draw and were eliminated from the tournament. It would make for a very interesting story line if the Hondurans again proved Swiss Kryptonite. Speaking of the way Honduras scores goals, ask Ecuador. Two weeks ago the two teams squared off in Houston with Honduras reversing a 1-0 deficit in just four minutes with Jerry Bengston delivering two wonder goals. Ecuador would eventually draw the match, but the lines in the sand have been drawn. I’m going to stick with Switzerland for now, with Honduras finishing 3rd, and Ecuador 4th.
Ramon: France wins the group on its superior talent. Honduras got here by striking during opportune moments, but are clearly the fourth finishers. The neutral Swiss turned it on during a weak European qualifying group that gave them Norway, Albania, Cyprus, Iceland, and Slovania. By October, FIFA had the surging side ranked seventh in the world, in part because of a 14-game unbeaten streak (including a win over Germany). Seven is less than eight, and so the watch-making red jerseys pulled a top seed. And, sure, everyone wanted to be in Switzerland’s company for this draw and not because the view of the Reuss from Rathaus-Steg in Lucerne is breathtaking. The Swiss are managed by seven-time Bundesliga champ, Omar Hitzfield. Their goals come from Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili, and captain Gokhan Inler–a trio from Serie A’s surging Napoli. But I like Shaqiri and Xhaka, the Kosovo-born pair of midfielders. France is a comfortable favorite because of its talent and ceiling, but the Swiss won’t allow more than two goals in the group stage. France 1st, Switzerland 2nd, Ecuador 3rd, Honduras 4th.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nigeria, Iran
Fifa Ranking: 3rd
Best Finish: Champion; 1978 & 1986. Runner-Up, 1980.
Profile: One of the most talented teams in the world, Argentina always has tons of attacking power and is always considered a major threat for the title, however they have not advanced past the final eight since finishing as runner-up in 1990. They are headlined by Lionel Messi, the defending World Player of the Year, who has won the award four consecutive years. Other attacking stars of note are Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, and Angel di Maria. Tevez and Aguero, together helped place an Argentine among the ranks of the top four goal scorers in the English Premier League from 2008-2011. Aguero is second in goals scored in this season’s Premier League.
Fifa Ranking: 21st
Best Finish: 1st World Cup Appearance
Profile: It’s the first ever World Cup appearance for the Bosnians, but that doesn’t mean this squad should be taken lightly. It absolutely destroyed its group and has a number of well-revered club players from all over Europe populating their ranks. Edin Džeko and Vedad Ibišević are a tandem that are not to be trifled with up top. Both can score on any back line in the world, leading Bosnia to 30 goals in European qualifying only behind Germany, Netherlands, and England. One of the hidden strengths for Bosnia will be its goalkeeping. Asmir Begović has proven to be one of the better shot stoppers in the English Premier League probably due to the practice his defensive unit routinely provides him from game to game.
Fifa Ranking: 36th
Best Finish: Round of 16; 1994 & 1998
Profile: This will be the youngest team in the tournament, even younger than Belgium. Its performance as African Champions during the 2013 Confederations Cup signaled both the squad’s talent, but also its lack of discipline. The average age of the squad that beat Ethiopia in the African playoff to reach the World Cup was just 24 years of age. The player you will probably recognize is John Obi Mikel. The player you will want to keep your eye on is Emmanuel Emenike. American-born Bright Dike is also a player the Nigerians count on their roster. He hails from Edmond, Okla. and played collegiate soccer at Notre Dame.
Fifa Ranking: 45th
Best Finish: Group Stage; 1978, 1998 & 2006
Profile: This is, according to FIFA, the best team coming out of Asia. While its most recent results aren’t noteworthy, the 1-0 victory over South Korea certainly sticks out. The Iranians will lean heavily on striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who, despite playing only 10 games for the national team has scored eight goals, and Ashkan Dejagah who previously represented Germany, but has since switched his allegiance.
Group F Breakdown:
Stephen: Argentina should blow the doors off of everyone in this group and are a favorite to make a deep run as is. The Bosnian squad are also a clear second choice. Argentina and Bosnia met in St. Louis just two weeks ago, with the Argentines winning 2-0. Nigeria and Iran will battle for last place. In terms of talent, Nigeria will be the clear favorites in that encounter, but the Nigerians are a largely undisciplined squad and enough silly mistakes could easily see Iran drop the Super Eagles.
Ramon: Argentina doesn’t have competition. It knows and routinely dispenses goals to Nigeria. Bosnia is the best case European team to draw despite its recent string of goals. Iran doesn’t have the resume to be competitive. Nigeria should advance because of the schedule–it plays Iran first, Bosnia for everything second, and a clinched, starter-resting Argentina side last. That should mean only a 2-1 loss and not a 4-1 breakdancing funk down. Argentina 1st, Nigeria 2nd, Bosnia 3rd, Iran 4th.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, United States, Ghana
Fifa Ranking: 2nd
Best Finish: Champion; 1954, 1974 & 1990. Runner-Up; 1966, 1982, 1986 & 2002.
Profile: No team embodies its countrymen better than Germany. The ultimate team of efficiency, no team has made more World Cup tournament final game appearances than the Germans, with seven. Though they haven’t raised the trophy since 1990, Germany has made the semifinals the last three tournaments; finishing second, third, and third. No European team has won a World Cup hosted outside of that continent, but Germany is a favorite to break that tradition, as they also boast the best club team in the world in Bayern Munich. This is the most complete team in the tournament, hands down. The Germans are air-tight in the back and ruthless through midfield and up top. If you follow world soccer, you will be aghast at the list of names of the players on the bench, such is the depth of talent on the German squad. If you’re just a casual watcher of soccer, here are the names you need to take note of: Phillip Lahm, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller. Muller, despite a paltry age of only 20 years, burst onto the scene at the 2010 World Cup with five goals and three assists earning him both the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player awards. Ozil, also made a name for himself on the world scene in 2010, and like Muller did so at a relatively young age, 21. Many will remember Ozil from his overwhelmingly dominant performance against England, where he led the Germans to a 4-1 blowout victory. Finally, there’s the captain Phillip Lahm, who at 5’7” is nicknamed the “Magic Dwarf.” Lahm is a rock in defense for the Germans that can also get forward, and when he has to, score goals.
Fifa Ranking: 5th
Best Finish: 3rd Place, 1966
Profile: It took an epic, old west style duel for Portugal to get into this tournament against one of the bigger personalities in the world in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden. Those that watched saw all-world studmuffin Cristiano Ronaldo put on a finishing clinic scoring four goals across the two legs to bury the Swedish and ensure the Portuguese made the trip to their former colonial territory this summer. While even your girlfriend who hates soccer knows who Cristiano Ronaldo is, don’t forget about the other cast of characters. Part of the reason Ronaldo was able to score so prolifically was the inch-perfect balls into space he received from Raul Meireles, Nani, and João Moutinho. Portugal is not likely to win the whole tournament, but is an experienced squad with one of the best players in the world and will definitely take a few scalps along the way.
Fifa Ranking: 14th
Best Finish: 3rd Place, 1930
Profile: While their best finish came in 1930, most of today’s soccer fans started following this squad when it made the quarterfinals in 2002, defeating rival Mexico in the round of 16 on the way. The Americans would fall to eventual runner-up Germany, but it would set the stage for sky-high expectations for, what was at the time, a very young team. The young nucleus of that team is now entering the twilight of its respective careers and this will likely be the last hurrah for that generation of players. Casual followers will know Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley, but may not recognize newer stars Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron. If you really want to impress your friends come July, take note of players like Brek Shea and Terrence Boyd.
Fifa Ranking: 24th
Best Finish: Quarterfinals, 2010
Profile: If you’re a United States fan, this might be the one team that rivals Mexico for your hatred. It has knocked the United States out of the last two World Cups; the group stage in 2006, and in extra time of the round of 16 in 2010. The Black Stars don’t have near the fanfare in attack of previous campaigns, but that didn’t stop them from scoring eight goals in two games against former United States coach Bob Bradley in thrashing Egypt in a playoff to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The biggest name on the Black Stars’ roster is Michael Essien, who has been one of the most complete players in the world for the past decade. Kevin Prince-Boateng will be a player you want to keep your eye on, as he has been one of the leading midfielders in Europe over the last three years.
Group G Breakdown:
Stephen: This group is Germany and everyone else, it’s that plain and simple. That doesn’t mean Germany is going to beat every team in this group 3-0, in fact they probably won’t win any game by more than two goals, but they will progress easily out of this group. Portugal should finish second, not because they are eons better than the United States or Ghana, but simply because those teams don’t possess any assets on their squads to track one of the most lethal players in the game, Cristiano Ronaldo. Look for the United States to finally avenge the scourge of World Cups past when it beheads Ghana in its opening game. If the U.S. can earn at least a draw against Portugal, it should stand a reasonable chance at advancing, but I’m going to stay away from the what if game and assume that the United States’ greatest weakness, defense, will not be a problem that’s been solved by this summer.
Ramon: It’s Germany then Portugal then Ghana then the United States. But it’s December. The silver lining is that Sam’s Army has slain Portugal in group play before, Germany is Game 3 and by then it should be a less throttle-happy side facing its former coach and proud son, Jurgen Klinsmann. The Ghana game is everything and the States match up nicely. I don’t see how Ronaldo flames out in group play, but the USMNT will be competitive in three brutal, thrilling, but ultimately narrow losses.
Group H: Belgium, Russia, Algeria, South Korea
Fifa Ranking: 11th
Best Finish: 4th, 1986
Profile: No team is a bigger wild card than the Belgian squad. One of the youngest teams in the tournament with the bulk of its starting players under the age of 26, in terms of talent, no team has a higher ceiling right now. It might be a big ask for a team so young to be considered a favorite to win the entire tournament, but they are most certainly a favorite pick as a darkhorse. Strikers Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke have headlined the goal scoring exploits in England early this season with their play, and winger Eden Hazard earned headlines Wednesday for his two-goal performance in leading Chelsea to a 4-3 win over Sunderland. Belgium is fully expected to make the knockout rounds, but this team’s greatest achievements may lie farther down the line.
Fifa Ranking: 22nd
Best Finish: 4th place, 1966
Profile: The Russians quietly won their qualification group for this World Cup over the more highly touted Portuguese. They’re led by Fabio Capello, former manager of England, and one of the most decorated club managers walking the planet. Capello has won league titles in both Italy and Spain over the last 25 years, including Europe’s biggest club tournament once in 1994. The Russian team is comprised entirely of players from its own domestic league. The last time we saw a bigger European squad filled only with players from its domestic league was Italy back in 2006–they won the whole damn thing. The Russians go as attacking players Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Roman Shirokov go. Keep in mind, this is a team that nearly upset Brazil back in March before Fred scored a goal in extra time to earn a draw.
Fifa Ranking: 26th
Best Finish: Group Stage; 1982, 1986 & 2010
Profile: Many Americans will remember Algeria as the team that the United States defeated in extra time to advance past the group stage on Landon Donovan’s miracle goal. Algeria is the third-ranked team coming out of Africa, but appear to be less talented on paper than maybe every single African team in the competition.
Fifa Ranking: 54th
Best Finish: 4th Place, 2002
Profile: They are Asia’s most successful team, competing in their eighth consecutive World Cup. The Koreans are also the only Asian team to ever reach the semifinals of this tournament. Despite their low ranking, this is the Asian squad with the best chance of advancing to the knockout stage. Like Japan, their success at the 2002 World Cup has seen many of Korea’s players move abroad and breakthrough the ranks in Europe. The most notable of these players is 21-year-old Son Heung-Min, who German club Bayer Leverkusen purchased for a club record 10 million Euros. Circle that name.
Group H Breakdown:
Stephen: Belgium should win this group handily although Russia could make things more difficult than expected. I had originally circled South Korea to escape this group, but the Russians I think will prove just a little too tough. Korea should be able to have its way with Algeria however, as I don’t expect the Foxes to gain a single point in group play.
Ramon: I like the Iron Curtain here. Quiet group winners in the toughest zone. An internationally decorated manager. Staring up at a young one seed, Belgium, that has a ranking inflated because its big names are Premier League darlings. It’s an all Russian league team, so there’s cohesion. And Russia opens with South Korea and closes with Algeria. That means that Belgium and South Korea will be a thrilling rematch of a group play-closing ’98 World Cup duel that saw a heavily favored Belgium needing a win (and some help) to advance, but Korea tying the scoreboard 1-1 late in Paris. Someone has to flame out and I’m going with the stacked, raw Europeans because of South Korea’s rock solid World Cup history. Russia 1st, South Korea 2nd, Belgium 3rd, Algeria 4th.