We are in the midst of the greatest global spectacle in sports, and 32 countries are gleaming in the optimistic “this could finally be our year” glow. Actually, make that 31 countries, since Team USA coach Jorgen Klinsmann has already declared that Uncle Sam’s side has no chance to capture the Cup. Thanks, Coach.
If Jorgen is the anti-hero of World Cup 2014, the early MVP is everyone’s favorite Ghanaian witch doctor, Devil of Wednesday. The esteemed doctor has claimed responsibility for doing what every man on the planet has often dreamed of: making Christiano Ronaldo a little less pretty. Apparently, Doc Devil chose a literal interpretation of the phrase “knockout stage,” putting a spell on Ronaldo’s knees, introducing the possibility that one of the best players in the world may not be 100% for the opening round matches.
With that in mind, it is time for a group-by-group preview of the World Cup.
Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Cameroon’s Lions of Africa are getting long in the tooth, and that will likely be the only thing lengthy about their World Cup experience. A decade-plus of singular brilliance has taken its toll on Samuel Eto’o, and Cameroon’s seventh all-time World Cup appearance (most for an African nation) will be an unfulfilling one. The host country is the clear class of this group, and anything less than a World Cup championship will leave the locals searching for something to cheer them up. Luckily, they live in Brazil, where cheering-up-ness is the nation’s best natural resource.
The real intrigue in this quartet lies in the battle for second, between Mexico’s El Tri and Croatia. With its penchant for in-fighting, drama and characters named Chicharito, if Mexico were a TV show, they would be a telenovela. Croatia wins the award for hardest last names to pronounce in this group, but it remains to be seen if their stingy defense is enough to shut down Mexico and advance to the round of 16.
Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Let’s begin with the Australian Kangaroos, who likely have already plotted out their Copacabana pub crawl route. The most likable team in the word will certainly make the most of their idle time in Brazil – and they’ll have plenty of it. The headline matchup in this group is Spain vs. Netherlands, a rematch of the gripping 2010 World Cup Final. In truth, though, these are two squads heading in opposite directions, as the Spaniards remain a top title contender, while the Dutch appear to have lost a bit of their edge. The Dutch Oranje has a tendency to put its best forward on the big stage, but Chile will be nipping at its heels. Expect a home-continent boost for Chile’s La Roja, who advanced to the knockout stage in South Africa and are poised to thwart a European one-two punch in Group B.
Group C: Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Unlike Groups A and B, this one is ripe for the taking, as all four countries have a legitimate shot to advance. Unpredictably is nothing new to Ivory Coast. Les Elephants have the most talent on the African continent, but the pieces never seem to fit in the World Cup. Columbia burst onto the scene with a scintillating qualifying run, but they lost superstar Radamel Falcao to injury along the way. Columbia and Japan will seek to push the pace with aggressive play, while Greece will pack it in and rely on its backline to carry the day.
Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Look no further than Group D for the most intrigue in the opening fortnight of the tournament. It may not be the Group of Death, but the presence of England and Italy ensures a fair degree of carnage. For years, Italy’s Azzuri have held their hat on a sleep-inducing defensive system, but thanks to the dynamic play of front liners like Mario Balotelli, they have finally embraced a more open, attacking philosophy.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of Uruguay. La Celeste can ball. Often overshadowed by their Argentine and Brazilian neighbors, Uruguay is poised to make some magic.
Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Say hello to the Group of Shame. Most pundits agree that FIFA’s decision to rank Switzerland as a top eight overall seed is as unfathomable. The head-scratching decisions also extended to France, who benefited from the governing body’s odd decision to reclassify the final two European qualifiers (of which France is one) and thus provide them with a golden road to round two. The French have proven that they are capable of imploding at any moment, but they really have to work hard to mess this one up. That said, one of their top snipers, Frank Ribery, will miss the tournament due to injury, introducing yet another element of instability to this group. Ecuador will look to capitalize on some home-continent good vibes, and they just might have enough to steal a slot from the top dogs, Switzerland.
Group F: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Dysfunction, thy name is Group F. With apologies to the French, no one fails as spectacularly as Nigeria and Argentina. While the Argentines have rid themselves of the buffoonery that is Diego Maradona, it is unclear what measures the Super Eagles have taken to erase the scandal-plagued flameout of 2010. Nigeria is the reigning Africa Cup of Nations champion, and this may be their best chance this century to claw their way out of the group stage. This group belongs to the majesty of Messi, but Nigeria will gladly play second fiddle.
We shouldn’t discount the potentially powerful political messages sent by Bosnia and Iran, whose presence in the World Cup speaks to the idealism of the event. That said, they appear to be on the outside looking in, with Argentina and Nigeria prepared to seize control of the Group.
Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Let’s all say it together: Group. Of. Death. It will take a lot more than the Devil of Wednesday to knock the Germans off the top perch, which leaves a three-way fight for second place. Ghana fully expects to once again crush American dreams for the third straight World Cup, and their opener with the US will be a doozy – and may very well determine the ultimate configuration of this group. The US, meanwhile, remain a somewhat nondescript collection of disparate parts. Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore and Howard are familiar names that can alter a match, but Coach Klinsmann’s footprint is indelibly stamped on this squad, and no one quite knows what that means. Advancing out of this group seems like a tall order. Portugal appears to be a more viable threat, and assuming full health from Ronaldo, we should expect some genuine moments of brilliance in Brazil.
Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Featuring a collection of goal scorers, and a trendy sleeper pick to advance all the way to the Finals, Belgium appears to be in no jeopardy of conceding this group. Perhaps no team enters the World Cup with as much anticipation and hype as the Belgian Red Devils. The remainder of the group lacks identity, with Russia a perennial puzzle and South Korea hoping to scrap its way into second place. Algeria is a team on the rise and would be a feel-good entrant into the knockout round.
After the group round, it will be a mad dash to the finish. All signs point to Brazil advancing to the Finals, but I’m all in with a South American shocker special: Uruguay over Brazil to win it all.