The biggest sporting event on the planet will take place in arguably the most soccer mad nation there is. The World Cup of soccer is in Brazil, the home of the five time champions.
However, not all the talk is on soccer. Many Brazilians are angry at FIFA for not keeping their promises in giving the money to help fund schools, hospitals, and housing. These protests could interrupt the proceedings, so security will be high.(Blame FIFA for this. They are a corrupt organization that needs to be taken down a few notches.)
But the games will go on and soccer is the focus here. Eight groups of four will compete throughout the large South American country, in order to lift the golden trophy. Here’s a look at the groups, featured matches and players and predictions for the tournament.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
The question is, who will join the host nation in the knockout phase of the tournament. Brazil are the obvious favourites as they are at home, and are the perennial powerhouse. Croatia do have stars such as Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic that could see them through. Mexico are a dark horse, led by the mercurial Javier Hernandez. Cameroon have Samuel Eto’o, and a lot of question marks.
Player To Watch: Neymar, Brazil
The 22-year-old forward who plays his club football at Barcelona, has been compared somewhat unfairly, to the legendary Pele. Neymar had a somewhat inconsistent season with the Catalan side, but is expected to lead his home nation to glory. How he handles the pressure could go a long way in determining Brazil’s hopes and dreams.
Match To Watch: Brazil vs. Mexico. June 17
Don’t expect this to be a defensive showcase as both teams love to attack. It would make for some enthralling football, which would entertain the neutrals but give supporters heart attacks. A partisan Brazilian crowd in Fortaleza will make for a memorable backdrop.
Who Advances: Brazil, Croatia
Brazil are the automatic choice. Croatia is more well-rounded than Mexico and should finish second, thus advancing to the knockout phase.
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
The defending champions don’t have the easiest road to the knockout phase, but should see their way through. Holland are an interesting mix of youth and experience. Chile are some people’s choices as a surprise team. Australia are a team in transition.
Player To Watch: Diego Costa, Spain
Many questions surround the current Atletico Madrid striker. Some are about his future with the Spanish club, as the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are currently trying to buy him. Other questions are about his fitness level. Costa suffered a hamstring in Atletico’s final league fixture against Barcelona and he barely played in the Champions League Final, before being substituted off. Costa is a legitimate threat that Spain hasn’t had since Fernando Torres was in his prime. If he’s healthy and focused, Spain could be unstoppable. Costa also wants to show his homeland what they’re missing. (He is Brazilian born, but was granted citizenship in Spain and has chosen to represent Spain internationally.)
Match To Watch: Spain vs. Holland. June 14
A rematch of the contentious 2010 Final that saw Spain win 1-0 on Andres Iniesta’s winner in extra time. But the most memorable moment of that match was Nigel de Jong’s kung fu kick on Xabi Alonso that would have made Bruce Lee proud. What type of match will this be? Will the bad blood carry over from four years ago? These questions will be answered on June 14 in Salvador.
Who Advances: Spain, Holland
Chile will give it a good run, and it wouldn’t be a shock if they squeak into second place. But Spain are the best team in the group and the Dutch want to make amends from an awful showing at Euro 2012. This could be the best group of the tournament.
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
This is the most wide open group of the tournament. None of these teams are considered favourites to win the tournament, but all of them are dangerous opponents. This is the most difficult group to pick, so predict at your own peril.
Player To Watch: Yaya Toure, Ivory Coast
You could make a compelling argument that the Manchester City midfielder was the MVP of the English Premier League last season. His 20 goals in league competition propelled the Sky Blues to their second EPL title in three seasons. Toure is a dynamic midfielder who possesses a thundering shot. He will be a force for the Ivorians.
Match To Watch: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast. June 19
If Radamel Falcao was healthy, this would be a cracker of a fixture. Instead, we’re wondering what could have been. Still, this is an intriguing matchup of two teams who like to push the ball forward. This will be a must-win for both sides so expect the tension to be sky-high, when these two sides meet in Brasilia.
Who Advances: Ivory Coast, Japan
You could pick any two teams in this group and chances are you’re right. No one knows who will get through. I will go with Ivory Coast led by Toure and Didier Drogba. Japan is my second choice because of a strong midfield, led by Keisuke Honda. Colombia will miss Radamel Falcao who tore his ACL in January, and won’t be fit for the tournament. Such a shame. Greece could surprise, but they don’t score enough goals.
Group D: Italy, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica
Some have called this The Group of Death and they might have a point. Italy are the favourites but Uruguay is one of the most dangerous sides in the world, while England is bringing a young team filled with energy. Costa Rica are a decent side, but stuck in a difficult group.
Player To Watch: Luis Suarez, Uruguay
Uruguay head coach Oscar Tabarez has said that the Liverpool striker will be ready to play in Uruguay’s opener against Costa Rica, despite the fact that Suarez is nursing a knee injury. However, his fitness will be called into question right up into opening kickoff. A healthy Suarez is a menacing presence in the box, giving opposing defenders nightmares. Uruguay will need Suarez, Diego Forlan and Edison Cavani to be in top form to advance.
Match To Watch: Italy vs. England. June 14
The Amazonian City of Manaus will host a clash of two soccer giants. Expect this to be a tight, tense affair with neither side giving an inch. It might not be the most entertaining fixture in the World Cup, but it’s always fascinating to see Italy and England match wits. One mistake could decide this one.
Who Advances: Italy, Uruguay
The English won’t agree, but Italy and Uruguay are the picks here. The Azure want to avenge their poor showing in South Africa four years ago. Uruguay are a dangerous attacking side, that could receive a boost if Suarez is fit. England will be a team to watch at Euro 2016, and in Russia four years from now. But this is 2014, so Italy and Uruguay see their way through.
Group E: Switzerland, France, Ecuador, Honduras
An interesting group with no clear-cut favourite. The Swiss are a well-functioning unit with no superstars. France are bringing in plenty of youth in preparation for Euro 2016, in which they will be hosting. Ecuador and Honduras could be surprise teams. The possibilities are endless.
Player To Watch: Karim Benzema, France
With Franck Ribery a question mark due to a back injury, Benzema will be asked to shoulder the load for Les Bleus. Benzema scored 17 goals for Real Madrid in all competitions and was an integral part of Real Madrid winning the Champions League. However, Benzema won’t have Cristiano Ronaldo alongside to help out. Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy will try to pick up the slack, but Benzema will have the spotlight on him.
Match To Watch: France vs. Switzerland, June 20
The last time these two sides met at the World Cup, it ended in a goalless draw back in 2006. It could very well be the same result, but if there are goals, it could decide who wins the group. This will either be a memorable match, or a forgettable fixture. Either way, it is an important tie to see who will be in control of Group E.
Who Advances: Switzerland, France
Neither side will win the World Cup, but they are better than Ecuador and Honduras so expect the two European sides to reach the knockout stage. The Swiss will do just enough to win the group while the French will do just enough to finish in second place. It may not be pretty, but it will be effective.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
On paper, this should be Argentina’s group to lose. But the World Cup can provide many twists and turns in this extraordinary journey. La Albiceleste will be favoured to top Group F, thanks largely to superstar striker Lionel Messi. Bosnia and Herzegovina are making their first ever appearance in the World Cup, and will be led by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko. Nigeria are always worth a surprise or two. Iran will need a miracle to advance.
Player To Watch: Lionel Messi, Argentina
Well duh! One of, if not the best player on the planet, Messi desperately wants to show his doubters he can perform on the biggest stage. The Barcelona superstar had a disappointing World Cup tournament four years ago in South Africa, as he failed to score a single goal in 2010. If Messi wants to prove he is the best player in the world, he will have to lead Argentina to the promised land in Brazil.
Match To Watch: Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. June 15
The opening match in Group F just might be the best fixture in the group. Both teams have superstar strikers. Both like to push the ball forward and both desperately want the three points. Add to the fact the game will be held at the majestic Maracana Stadium in Rio, this has the trappings of a wonderful fixture.
Who Advances: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina
A serious case could be made for Nigeria but I like Argentina to win the group, while Bosnia and Herzegovina to surprise a few experts and go through in their first appearance at the World Cup. Nigeria will be a threat and will challenge, but they don’t have the horses to overcome the top two teams.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Some have called this the Group of Death. All four teams advanced past the Group stage in 2010, but only two will go through this time. Germany are always one of the favourites to win the World Cup. Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo to terrify opponents. Ghana are a tricky side that can surprise. USA will be a tough foe, but are unlucky to be drawn in this group.
Player To Watch: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal
Well duh! If Messi isn’t the best player in the world, then it is Ronaldo who led Real Madrid to their 10th Champions League title last month. Ronaldo is dynamic, forceful, and charismatic. He could be the face of the tournament if Portugal makes a stirring run at the title. While Portugal are still a bit of a long shot to win the World Cup, they have a puncher’s chance thanks to Ronaldo.
Match To Watch: Germany vs. Portugal. June 16
A burgeoning rivalry will resume in Salvador. Germany defeated Portugal in the Group Stage at Euro 2012, and also got the best of the Portuguese in the third place game at the 2006 World Cup. There is no love-loss between these two bitter foes, which should make for some compelling football.
Who Advances: Germany, Portugal
It might be the Group of Death, but Germany and Portugal have too much for Ghana and the USA to overcome. The Germans are always a force and Ronaldo could single-handedly lead Portugal to World Cup glory. They are the two best teams in the group. If Ghana or the USA does sneak in, it will be a major surprise.
Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria
A sleeper of a group that could provide some entertaining football. Belgium are the sexy pick as the team that could pull off a miracle. Russia are an enigma. South Korea are always tough. Algeria are my pick to be the worst team in the tournament.
Player To Watch: Eden Hazard, Belgium
The Chelsea midfielder can be fantastic and frustrating at the same time. There is no doubting Hazard’s skill and talent. But his mental makeup sometimes is spotty. Having said that, if Hazard remains focused on football, he could turn into a superstar right before the world’s eyes.
Match To Watch: Belgium vs. Russia. June 22
An intriguing fixture at the mighty Maracana in Rio. No one knows what the Russians will bring to the table, while Belgium have a side that’s ready to break through. This has the earmarks of a classic, yet it could disappoint as well. Which is why this is a compelling fixture.
Who Advances: Belgium, South Korea
Simple. I don’t trust Russia. Plain and simple. Russia might be a more skilled side, but South Korea play with an even temperament and have the experience playing on the biggest stage. I think the Koreans will finish behind Belgium in Group H.
To follow the format for the knockout stage, click here. Here’s how I see it going down. (This will probably be very wrong, but we all need a good laugh so here comes the comedy.)
Round of 16:
Brazil over Holland
Uruguay over Ivory Coast
Spain over Croatia
Italy over Japan
Switzerland over Bosnia and Herzegovina
Germany over South Korea
Argentina over France
Portugal over Belgium
Germany over Switzerland
Brazil over Uruguay
Portugal over Argentina
Spain over Italy
Brazil over Germany
Spain over Portugal
THIRD PLACE GAME:
Germany over Portugal
Brazil over Spain
Why Brazil? They are at home and they have something to prove. Plus their back four is an underrated group that will be difficult to penetrate. Yes the pressure will be huge on the home side, but they are the best soccer nation on the planet. This is Brazil’s time.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973