World Cup Preview 2014
This time around, and with technology as it is, that number could swell even more. Given that this year's finals are being held in one of the game's spiritual homes, it is fair to say the appeal is certainly there. Brazil are five time World Cup winners and are always cast as one of the pre–tournament favourites whenever the finals come around. This time it is no different, but maybe with the home fans expecting nothing short of a Samba–style victory, the added weight of expectancy could prove too much.
Even though they are the most decorated nation in the World Cup, Brazil have also under–achieved a considerable amount. They have many players reaching their peak at the right time, Neymar, Fred, Oscar and Hulk to name a few, and they are the host nation, so the odds makers have them down as heavy favourite. They have a relatively easy group to escape from, but the latter stages of the competition sometimes see the Samba men slip up . They could be tested as early as the second round where Spain or the Netherlands could await.
Mexico should also come out of this group, they are also young and strong and with favourable South American support will have enough goals in them to outlast the challenge of Croatia and Cameroon.
Spain have been riding a euphoric wave of soccer excellence for the last decade, and take a very strong squad into this year's finals. Once a country that always failed to deliver despite the wealth of individual talent, they now are the team that the rest aspire to be. Players such as Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, Fabregas, Mata and Silva are now superstars across the globe. They are a serious threat once again and it will be a surprise if they didn't get to at least the last four.
They are in a group with the team they beat in the final last time. The Netherlands will be looking to redeem themselves from that final defeat when they tried to literally kick the Spaniards off the pitch in an ugly final that went against their normal way of forward thinking. Throw Chile and Australia into the mix and this could be a tricky group to qualify from, but if the two European nations play as we expect them to we should see them both in the last fortnight of the competition.
With all due respect to the teams in this group, it is arguably the weakest in the opening stage. Having said that, it could prove to be very competitive, but whoever gets out of the group won't progress too much further. If you were to pick a favourite it would probably be Colombia, followed closely by the Ivory Coast. The Colombians had a strong qualification, only conceding 13 goals in 16 games, and again have the added advantage of playing in the home continent. Greece and Japan make up the numbers in the group and if one of these two are to spring a surprise it could come from the team from Asia. The Japanese are tried and tested at this level and experience could help.
Where the above lets us down a little, this group raises the bar somewhat. Three teams that on their day could beat each other, and another that could spring a surprise. Italy, Uruguay and England have won almost a third of all previous World Cups between them. The most recent was Italy's success in 2006 and they start this group as slight favourites, but a lot will hinge on their first game with England. Traditionally the English are slow starters in finals play and if that is the case here they may find themselves flying home early as they play Uruguay after their opening date with the Italians.
England head into this World Cup with no real expectancy. This may help them and they could play with a somewhat free spirit. They have a wily man in charge, the veteran coach Roy Hodgson has seen it all before with club sides across Europe, but he takes charge of his nation for the first time in a major tournament. Look for Uruguay to be very strong again, and with top striker Luis Suarez in the form of his life they could well be a dark horse to go all the way. The spoilers in the group are Costa Rica and if any of the big three have an off day they could spoil the party.
France is a team that either blow very hot, or extremely cold. They have some great talent in their squad but sometimes the team harmony is amiss. In their favour this time around is a group that shouldn't offer too much resistance. Switzerland shocked everyone four years ago by beating Spain in their opening group game, so they are not to be underestimated. Interestingly their opening match this time could set the tone for the group as they face another home continent nation, Ecuador.
Ecuador had a very good qualification with wins against Uruguay and Colombia. Should they beat the Swiss in the first game the group will be wide open, even more so if Honduras could somehow spring a surprise somewhere in their games.
If there is to be a real challenge to the Brazilians winning in their backyard it has to come from their historical rivals Argentina. Like their neighbours they have a recent history of disappointing on the big stage, you have to go back to 1986 for the last time they lifted the trophy. Once again the hopes of the nation will ride with how far Lionel Messi will take them. They have many more strings to their bow though. Di Maria, Mascherano, Zabaletta and Aguero are some support act to the best player in the world. Once into the knockout phase the draw has been quite favourable and the path to the last four should be easily negotiated. This could well be their year.
Matched in a group with Bosnia–Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria they should qualify as top scorers in the group stages. The other three will fight out for the second place in the group with Bosnia favored to go through.
So what are the chances of the USA this time around? Jürgen Klinsmann is the man in charge this time and he has taken time to impress his critics. However, his record breaking run with twelve consecutive victories including a Gold Cup win in 2013 won many over and they are tolerating him – for now. He will relish the chance of getting one over his motherland. The German takes his decent coaching record into this tournament with a good group of veteran players and youth. For some it could well be their last major tournament, Landon Donovan for one will want to end his World Cup career sealing his status as a soccer legend and icon. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey will also be wanting to go out on a high. Omar Gonzalez will want to enhance his growing reputation as a solid centre–back. Others will be playing despite their form not being the brightest: Jozy Altidore will be hoping he regains the scoring touch that has deserted him for the majority of this season in the English Premiership. Realistically this may be the weakest squad the States has taken to a World Cup in a while, but there will be no doubting the commitment from the team once the games begin.
Another group that on paper doesn't seem appealing. Look deeper though and you will find some intriguing matchups. Belgium have the most talented set of players, but you can never underestimate Russia. South Korea are now veterans on the world stage and will be snapping at the heels of the two Europeans. Lastly, Algeria seem to be relying on youth this time around but will also be looking to exorcise the ghost of four years ago when they were one of two teams to not score a goal. When you consider the two that do get through will have to face the qualifiers from the "Death" group they may have an early exit soon after the first round.
Soccer will be the winner
Overall the perception is that even though the South American teams will fare best due to the climate, there will be some surprises along the way. The stage is set for an attacking tournament, lots of flair and open play influenced by the style of the host nation. It will be one long colourful party with soccer the ultimate winner.