It’s back! After four years and lots of sweat and heartache, 32 teams have punched their tickets to the tournament of tournaments. The FIFA World Cup is, in my humble eyes, a better sporting event than the Olympics or the Super Bowl. It’s 30 days of nothing but the best players and best teams fighting for something that will define them for a lifetime. That it takes place in Brazil only heightens the excitement, as no country loves the sport as much or puts as much pressure on its stars to deliver quite like the Brazilians. (Let’s set to one side the very real questions Brazilians should have regarding the outlay of billions to put this show before the world while so many are still stuck in poverty and crime).
All that said, I wanted to give everyone a quick rundown of each group, highlight a player who should become integral to how events shake out and a game in each group that should be key to see. Can you find more in depth analysis elsewhere? Of course you can! But I’m the only one giving you pretty pictures to go with my BS online pennies!
The footie buffet is being laid out. Gorge yourselves!
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group Analysis: The good thing for all involved is that Brazil should win this group without too much trouble — leaving the 2nd place spot up for grabs. That said, don’t underestimate the kind of pressure that La Selecao has on them to win it all given they’re the hosts and hosts traditionally do well in this tournament. Mexico and Croatia struggled to get here — each forced to win do or die playoff games — but that was last year. They’ll be hoping Cameroon eventually won their group convincingly. They each have some talent, but between late injuries and warm ups, there isn’t a clear-cut number two team. It’s wide open for that second place spot.
Player to Watch: Neymar, Forward, Brazil. The latest Brazilian superstar, Neymar just completed his first season in Europe with Barcelona. However, if he really wants to cement his place in the pantheon of Brazilian soccer superstars – names like Pele, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo – he has to win a World Cup. He’s young, but this is a team built with him in mind. late injuries and knocks will be no excuse. No pressure.
Game to watch: Croatia vs Mexico (Monday, 6/23, 4 PM EST). If I’m right that it’s a three-team race, then this game could end up deciding that second-place slot. Both teams underperformed in qualifying, but all that goes away if you make the knockout stages.
Reason to watch: The Brazilian soccer fans. Like I said, no fan base is more loyal or devoted. And the girls that follow them everywhere will stand out. And the cameras will follow them everywhere they go.
Winner: Brazil. Second Place: Croatia
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group Analysis: The first of two “Groups of Death.” Three of these teams will be battling for two spots and the poor Aussies will enjoy their time, collect souvenirs, take plenty of photos and go home after the 23rd. Spain and Netherlands will be pre-tournament favorites to go all the way while Chile will be a dark horse darling of so many. It’s tough to see past the two 2010 Finalists but it’s going to be a tight race for all three teams.
Player to Watch: Alexis Sanchez, Forward, Chile. Four years ago, Sanchez burst onto the scene as the main force for his national side. His success led to his own professional move to Barcelona. Now, there’s rumors that he’s surplus to Barca’s cause and could be moved. Chile will need him if they’re to pip the European bluebloods to the knockout stages.
Game to watch: Spain vs Netherlands (Friday, 6/13, 3 PM EST) Things get pretty serious right at the start as the 2010 Finalists square off in the 2nd day of the tournament. Both sides will bring plenty of firepower to the table and each will be angling to take charge of the group.
Reason to watch: Can Spain do the impossible? They have won three of the biggest tournaments in a row – the 2008 European Cup, the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Cup again. No team has repeated as World Cup champions since the Brazil team of Garrincha, Didi and Amarildo in 1962. The odds and history stand against La Furia Roja. If they do this, their place as the greatest soccer team ever will be secure.
Winner: Spain. Second Place: Chile
Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Group Analysis: This looked set to be Colombia’s group. Then the injuries to Radamel Falcao and Edwin Valencia happened. Falcao’s absence will be tough to deal with as he’s one of the best strikers in the world. It does open the door for the Ivorians, the Japanese and the Greeks to try and win this group. There’s plenty of attacking power from the Ivorians (Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Gervinho) and the Japanese (Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda) while the Greeks will hope their old defensive system holds and allows them to steal games.
Player to watch: Yaya Toure, Midfielder, Ivory Coast. The Manchester City midfielder was a force this past season, scoring, commanding and leading his team to the Premier League crown. Now, he’ll be expected to be the force to get the Elephants into the Round of 16 and beyond and helping their “Golden Generation” to live up to its hype.
Game to watch: Colombia vs Ivory Coast (Thursday, 6/19, 12 PM EST) With Falcao’s absence, this game becomes the likely group decider. For Colombia, this is a chance to prove they belong in the same conversation as the other South American powers. For Ivory Coast, this is the chance to finally live up to so many expectations for the perennial African power full of European-based stars.
Reason to watch: Actually, let me go with a reason not to watch. If Greece deploy their traditional defensive style, switch the channel. It’s incredibly effective, but as pretty to watch as toe surgery. They’ll be looking to steal points and games by denying anything and looking for a counter-attacking chance. Good luck.
Winner: Ivory Coast. Second Place: Colombia
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Group Analysis: On paper this looks to be another tough group. But look closer and you’ll see the Uruguayans are heads above the rest. Who’s going to score more goals for them: Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez or Diego Forlan? And yes, I know I say that with Uruguay having finished 5th in CONMEBOL qualifying. I’m still bullish on their chances. So the question becomes instead, which of Italy or England is going to crash out at the group stages? Because one of them will be going home after June 24 and their fans will not be happy. Costa Rica will have a tough going to even consider second place at best.
Player to watch: Luis Suarez, Forward, Liverpool. The man finished with 31 goals in 33 games this past season for Liverpool. Add to that his 26 goals scored for Los Charruas and it’s going to be a tough job for any team to try and shut him down. Four years ago he made headlines for his deliberate handball against Ghana. This time, he’ll be hoping for far more positive stories.
Game to watch: England vs Italy (Saturday, 6/14, 6 PM EST). The Lions and the Azzurri each topped their UEFA group in convincing fashion. Now, they have to play one another and aim to win in order to keep pace with Uruguay. While a loss wouldn’t necessarily end a team’s dreams, it would put them on very shaky ground and amp up the pressure. And it’s not like the English or the Italians would be calm about a loss, right?
Reason to Watch: For many in these teams, this is likely their last hurrah in this stage. Names like Gianluigi Buffon, Diego Forlan, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard are looking at the twilight of their careers and unlikely to be back in this stage. With a newer generation moving to take their place, can they find a month of glorious form and turn back the hands of time?
Winner: Uruguay. Second Place: Italy.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group Analysis: Arguably the least exciting of groups, this group should still provide a firework or two. The Swiss went unbeaten through their qualifying and will be looking to use solid defending to win the group. Ecuador and Honduras each beat bigger nations for their slots and will be hoping for a minor miracle to progress — harder for Honduras which seems to be losing players to injury too fast. The group is there for France to take. They’ve the most talent of any nation and should win this group at a canter. But this is also France and there’s always a landmine or two along their way.
Player to watch: Paul Pogba, Midfielder, France. The 21-year old central midfielder was just part of a Juventus team that won Serie A. He’s highly coveted by many of the top clubs for his strength, his skills and his power. His Les Blues sides will have many talents around him, but he can be the engine for this team and drive it. Or he could be another 21-year old kid at the World Cup and find himself out of his depth.
Game to watch: Switzerland vs France (Friday, 6/20, 3 PM EST). This game should determine who wins the group and who finishes second. The French will be favorites given their overall talent, but the Swiss are masters of denying attackers the space and time on the ball. And if it ends up a draw, it could open the door for Ecuador.
Reason to watch: Who wants to avoid Argentina in the Round of 16? The second place team will have an elimination date against one of the preemptive favorites while the winner will get whoever comes second of Iran, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Win the group and you can see the quarterfinals at the very least in your destiny. Come second and say hi to Messi, Aguero, Di Maria and their pals.
Winner: France. Second Place: Switzerland.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Group Analysis: Just like their continental rivals, the Argentines will feature loads of attacking talent and should win this group without too much of a fuss. So who will end up 2nd is the significant question. It comes down to the Bosnians and their attack vs the Nigerians and their attack. Both sides have attackers with big league experience (Dzeko, Ibisevic and Pjanic for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moses and Musa for the Super Eagles). Meanwhile Iran is very happy to be here but won’t likely do more than enjoy the experience.
Player to watch: Lionel Messi, Forward, Argentina. Messi has won everything there is to win but one thing: a World Cup. It’s what stands between him and canonization in his native country. He’s had great seasons for his club and watched as they meant nothing back home when Argentina finish short of the title that matters most. A season cut by hamstring injuries won’t spare him criticisms until he delivers.
Game to watch: Nigeria vs Bosnia-Herzegovina (Saturday, 6/21, 6 PM EST). Well, I said it came down to these two teams for second place. And here they’ll have a chance to drive a dagger into the other’s hopes of qualification. Barring a miracle by either against the Albicelestes of Argentina, a win here is mandatory in order to qualify for the Round of 16.
Reason to watch: Argentina. They are one of the 4 teams that stand head and shoulders above everyone else as favorites. And they are unlikely to be fazed by playing in their bitterest of rivals’ home. They’re known for starting fast, scoring plenty of goals and sealing up qualification quickly. It should be fun to watch given their firepower.
Winner: Argentina. Second Place: Bosnia-Herzegovina
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
Group Analysis: The OTHER Group of Death features one of the best players in the world, one of the preemptive favorites in the tournament and two old rivals who face for a third straight World Cup. The Germans should win this group — their squad depth is frightening even without Marco Reus and Lars Bender — but none of the other teams will cower in fear of them. Not Portugal, who’ll hope Cristiano Ronaldo can be the difference and help steer a strong Portuguese side. Not Ghana, which features seasoned veterans of past World Cups like Gyan, Essien, Muntari and Assamoah. And not the USA, which arrives without Landon Donovan and reforged by Germany’s old coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. Expect fireworks.
Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo, Forward, Portugal. No surprises here. Ronaldo is the man most capable of manufacturing magic from nothing. And he’ll need to for a talented Portuguese team that’s looking to finally live up to its billing. He’ll have to be captain, talisman and finisher all in one. The eyes of the world will be on him — which is how he likes it.
Game to watch: United States vs Portugal (Sunday, 6/22, 6 PM EST). If the United States is going to have any chance of progressing, they have to win this game. If Portugal want any hope of taking the group out of Germany’s hands, they have to win this game. Ronaldo could easily score a hat trick or he could be shut down by the combined efforts of the Stars-and-Stripes team.
Reason to watch: Time to judge Jurgen Klinsmann and his efforts in building a new Team USA. He has left behind America’s most decorated player and built his team around the talents of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and a host of first-generation Americans of German descent. He may have tried to temper expectations but don’t for a second think that he’ll be allowed a bad outing. Not by the fans and not by the media.
Winner: Germany. Second Place: Portugal
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Group Analysis: The final group features a tough Belgian side, a tough Russian side and an always-tough Korean side. The Algerians will likely get steamrolled by the other sides or, if they manage to take a point or two, it’ll impact on who wins and goes home early. Belgium will be a dark horse favorite of many to go far in the tournament. South Korea will always entice with their form. As for Russia, they’re an enigma. They managed to dazzle at the 2008 Euros and then they missed the 2010 World Cup.
Player to Watch: Eden Hazard, Midfielder, Belgium. The Chelsea attacker led his club in goals this past season and he’s going into a team that’s equally talented and equally demanding of his talents. The Belgians are lesser known collectively, but individually they’re renowned and it’ll be up to Hazard to be their spark.
Game to watch: Belgium vs Russia (Sunday, 6/22, 12 PM EST). More than likely, this game will determine which team wins the group. Combine that with two of Europe’s lesser known teams that are full of names people recognize and this game could be open, attacking and interesting.
Reason to watch: Belgium have a young generation of tested talents from the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues – Hazard, Witsel, Lukaku, Fellaini, Kompany, Vermaelen, etc. But the label of “Golden Generation” is a hard one to deal with and other iterations for other nations have found the crown a heavy one to wear. As I said, for many the Belgians are that team just on the outside that, like Uruguay four years ago or France in 1998 announced their arrival in the world stage. No time like the present.
Winner: Belgium. Second Place: South Korea.
With all that said, let the games begin! Enjoy the smorgasbord of soccer for the next month. I may do a quick recap before the Round of 16 to preview those games. No promises.
And because I don’t want all the girl soccer fans I know to get mad at me, here. I’m an equal opportunity sexist: