When the World Cup draw was announced on December 6, it could not have gone much worse for the United States Men’s National team. Not only did they draw European powerhouses Germany and Portugal, who are ranked second and third in the world respectively, but the Americans also drew Ghana, who has been a thorn in the United States’ side the last two World Cups: they defeated the Americans 2-1 in the final group stage game in 2006 and also 2-1 in the Round of 16 four years ago in South Africa. While the Americans will struggle to make it out of the group stages in Brazil, there will be other enthralling moments that should capture the viewer’s attention. Ahead is a preview of the 2014 World Cup:
Last Four Standing
The host nation will look to build on the momentum it seized when it captured the Confederations Cup last summer in Rio. The Brazilians will seek to become the first home nation to win the World Cup since 1998 when France took the crown. Although the Brazilians are sitting at number 10 in the latest FIFA world rankings (due to not having to go through qualification), they have the best odds of 3/1 to win the tournament. They boast many prominent players headlined by Neymar, one of the bright up-and-coming stars in the world. Brazil should have a cakewalk advancing through its group, which also includes Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon but things may get interesting in its first knockout matchup, where its foe will likely be Chile or the Netherlands.
The German collection of young talent is ridiculous and without a doubt the best in the world. The Germans boast young stars such as Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, both of whom made heavy contributions to the German’s third place finish in South Africa four years ago. The squad will also carry a plethora of young midfield talent such as Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Julian Draxler, Toni Kroos and André Schürrle, all of whom are under the age of 25. While the German defense may be the only weakness of the squad, captain Phillip Lahm is still one of the best defenders in the world. Although Germany landed in a difficult group, the second ranked team in the world is still the overwhelming favorite to make it to a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup semifinals.
Since 2008, the Spaniards have swept the major tournaments, winning the European Cup in 2008 and 2012 and taking the World Cup in 2010. While the majority of the team makeup has not been altered since its run began six years ago, this could be the end of the line for some players such as Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Iker Casillas. The Spaniards looked vulnerable in their Confederations Cup title loss against the Brazilians last summer, but make no mistake: the team still has the experience and depth necessary to take the crown. Getting through the group will not be easy with the Netherlands and Chile also present, but the Spaniards know the incentive to win the group is large if they want to avoid Brazil in the Round of 16.
Will this be the year that Argentina can finally break through into the semifinals now that its playing on South American soil? Since finishing as the runner-up in 1990, Argentina has had the following disappointing results: a Round of 16 defeat to Romania in 1994, a quarterfinal defeat to the Netherlands in 1998, failing to qualify for the knockout stages after being ranked third in the world in 2002 and quarterfinal losses to Germany in both 2006 and 2010. In addition, while Lionel Messi always appears in-form for this club side at Barcelona, he has never played at a high level for his country. If Messi can finally play at that top level for his home nation, Argentina may have the most dangerous attacking side in the tournament.
Don’t Sleep on These Teams
The Belgian squad finds itself in perhaps the easiest group with the likes of Russia, Algeria and South Korea. While the Germans may be deeper, Belgium possesses a squad that is on the rise with a bevy of young, talented players. Thibaut Courtois, 21, is the best young goalkeeper in the world and the team will be very strong up front with the likes of Eden Hazard, 23, Christian Benteke, 23 and Romelu Lukaku, 20. The Belgians should be a near-lock to make the knockout stages, but their first Round of 16 matchup may be a thriller, as they will likely draw Portugal or Germany.
Of all eight World Cup groups, the most difficult to predict may be Group C (Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece and Japan), where seemingly any different combination of two teams would not be a surprise. Colombia appears to be the favorite on paper, but Falcao, the team’s best player, will likely miss the tournament due to a knee injury. That may leave the door open for any other team to not only advance to the knockout stages but possibly win the group. The Ivory Coast is very talented, and Greece has grit and experience, but the major darkhorse in this group is Japan, the lowest ranked team of the four. Japan was a surprise knockout qualifier in 2010, and Keisuke Honda is one of the most underrated players in the world. The Japanese attack will be aided by Shinji Kagawa, one of the prime contributors in Dortmund’s Champions League run to the final last season.
The Super Eagles qualified for South Africa in 2010, but will look to improve on their disappointing performance, where they could only muster one point. While the Nigerians may be the least talented of the three powerhouse African teams (Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast) they find themselves with the most favorable draw. Ghana will face long odds to advance in a group with Germany, Portugal and the United States, while the Ivory Coast will compete in perhaps the most balanced group of the tournament. On the other hand, while Nigeria will struggle with Argentina, the team should be able to handle Iran. The most important match will be against a Bosnian team that is perhaps slightly overrated; the matchup should favor the faster and more attack-minded African nation. The team has one of the most underrated keepers in the world in Vincent Enyeama, and also Emmanuel Emenike, a bullying forward up front.
Players to Watch
Neymar — Brazil
All eyes will be on the dazzling 22-year-old rising superstar, who will try and carry the home nation to its second World Cup victory in the last four tournaments. The Brazilian forward recently injured his foot and could be sidelined for the remainder of the club season, but he recently told reporters that he will be ready to go once Brazil kicks off the tournament with Croatia on June 12. Neymar performed well in the World Cup tune-up last summer in the Confederations Cup, contributing four goals including two to win the final against Spain. Now soccer fans will expect him to be the face of Brazilian soccer for the next decade, following in the footsteps of the likes of Pele, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
Luis Suarez — Uruguay
Once known more for his antics than his overall play on the field, the Uruguayan striker has emerged as the top goal-scoring threat in the world, leading all of Europe with 29 goals at Liverpool. Suarez was the sidekick to Diego Forlan in Uruguay’s run to the semifinals in 2010, but the 27-year-old forward will enter this tournament in form as one of the world’s top five players. However, with Suarez ensues controversy: he is most remembered for his intentional handball play in Uruguay’s quarterfinal victory over Ghana in South Africa; he was also suspended eight games in 2011 for directing a racial slur at Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, and also ten games for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during a match. Due to his past, Suarez will be a fascinating player to watch even when he isn’t scoring goals for Uruguay.
Cristiano Ronaldo — Portugal
Obviously, everyone needs to keep their eye on this year’s past Ballon d’Or winner, which FIFA awards to the best player in the world. Ronaldo almost single-handedly carried his team into the World Cup after recording a hat trick against Sweden in a game that would have sent the winner to Brazil and the loser home. In addition, United States Men’s National Team fans will want to keep their eye on the stunning Portuguese left wing. The two teams will face off in the second group stage game in the Amazon, which is considered the most difficult venue to play in due to its heat and humidity.
Alexis Sanchez — Chile
Many soccer fans are pegging in Spain and Netherlands to advance out of the difficult Group B, but the Chileans may have something different to say about that. They boast Alexis Sanchez, one of the top forwards in the world; he has recorded 17 goals with Barcelona this season, tied for fourth in La Liga. The Chile squad lacks a lot of star power; playing on South American soil will help, but if the Chileans want to get by the Netherlands to advance to the knockouts, they are going to need Sanchez to play the way he has all season in Barcelona. As a 21-year-old, Sanchez gained World Cup experience in South Africa, where he helped the Chilean side power through a difficult group before falling to Brazil in the Round of 16.
Diego Costa — Spain
Diego Costa may be involved in perhaps the most intriguing off-the-field storyline that this year’s Cup will have to offer. The 25-year-old was born in Brazil, but switched his international allegiance to Spain after rejecting a call-up from his home nation last fall. Many have questioned Diego Costa’s switch, especially considering that the tournament will be held in his nation of birth. Brazil’s one weakness on its roster may be up-front, and Costa would have likely been a starting striker for the Brazilian national team. With the switch to Spain, Costa now has to compete for a starting spot with a loaded group of forwards: David Villa, Fernando Torres, Pedro, Roberto Soldado and Cristian Tello. However, Costa is second in La Liga with 27 goals behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and may have the inside track at starting for Vicente del Bosque once mid-June rolls around.
Potential Breakout Performers
Paul Pogba — France
The 20-year-old French midfielder has been phenomenal for Juventus this season, and there is no doubt that he will be among the most physically gifted players in the tournament. The French have not had a tenacious defensive midfielder like Pogba since the legendary Patrick Viera on the squad in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Heung-Min Son — South Korea
Son, a 21-year-old South Korean striker, is not known by many outside of the Bundesliga. But the Bayern Leverkusen performer is one of the league’s brightest stars and has shown some flashes of greatness, despite only scoring nine goals for his club team this season. If he can perform to his potential, South Korea will have an excellent shot at getting out of Group H.
James Rodriguez — Colombia
Colombia’s hopes of winning the World Cup took a major hit when Falcao tore his ACL in a mid-January match earlier this season at AS Monaco. While Falcao will attempt to make a comeback to play in the tournament only five months removed from knee surgery, he will be far from 100%. Los Cafeteros may instead need to rest their hopes on a 22-year-old midfielder, James Rodriguez, who is considered one of the best young players in the world. Rodriguez depends a lot on servicing the ball to Falcao, which could take a hit on his value if the Colombian striker is unable to play or be effective. However, this flashy playmaker has all the talent to break out and has been compared to Colombian football legend Carlos Valderama.
Xherdan Shaqiri — Switzerland
The 22-year-old has had a difficult time getting off the bench for his club side at Bayern Munich, but that should also give the midfielder fresh legs for the tournament. Shaqiri was just an 18-year-old substitute in Switzerland’s final group stage game against Honduras but has now developed into one of the Swiss’ top players. He will aid an attacking side that Switzerland has lacked in the past, where there last two World Cup exits have resulted in a scoreless defeat.
Julian Draxler — Germany
Draxler could open the tournament outside the starting XI since he plays the same position as Mesut Ozil, but it may be difficult for German manager Joachim Low to keep the 20-year-old midfielder on the bench. Four years ago it was Thomas Muller who emerged for the Germans as the best young player in South Africa, and Draxler will be one of the favorites to keep that honor in Germany.