Welcome to the 20th edition of FIFA's World Cup! Over the next month or so, the top 32 teams in the world will fight it out until one stands above the rest. I'll be sharing in two installments some factoids, thoughts and predictions I've thrown together. I've done my best to get as up to date information as possible, but i think I may have missed some injuries or some inclusions. I would recommend also that you verify all mach times on your local outlets.
Match 1 - Brazil v Croatia - Thursday June 12, 4pm EDT
Match 2 - Mexico V Cameroon - Friday June 13, 12pm EDT
Match 16 - Brazil V Mexico - Tuesday June 17, 6pm EDT
Match 20 - Cameroon V Croatia - Wednesday June 18, 6pm EDT
Match 35 - Croatia V Mexico - Monday June 23, 4pm EDT
Match 36 - Cameroon V Brazil - Monday June 23, 4pm EDT
One team in the opening group jumps out like a sore yellow and green thumb, and that's Brazil, 5 time World Cup winners, host of the tournament and only team in the world to participate in every World Cup. Brazil last won the cup in 2002 in Yokohama, Japan.
Brazil's last participation in the World Cup was a loss in a quarter final match up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa on July 2, 2010 to Netherlands, 2-0. They followed that up with another disappointment when they lost in a penalty kick shootout to Paraguay in the quarter finals of the 2011 Copa America.
Brazil did, however, host the Confederation's Cup last year and won in a resounding fashion as they trounced Spain 3-0 in the final.
Coach Scolari has a huge pool of talent to choose from on his roster. Julio Cesar is likely to start in goal, with Barcalona's Neymar up top along with Robinho. Neymar's teammate Dani Alvez will line up along with Thiago Silva to head the Brazilian defense. How that defense and Cesar play is going to probably determine how far this squad goes.
To add further mystery to Brazil's chances is the fact that Brazil have really played nothing but friendlies since the Confederation Cup last year as the Host nation automatically qualifies and does not participate in their regions qualifiers, and haven't really impressed much in those friendlies, to be honest. All that being said, Brazil are 3/1 favorites to hoist the cup.
Brazil's greatest threat in Group A, at least on paper, looks to be Croatia. Croatia advanced in UEFA qualifying in a two leg play off with Iceland after finishing second in Group A to Belgium. Also in Group A were Serbia, Scotland and Wales.
Captain Darijo Srna, a defender from Shakhtar Donetsk brings a squad looking to beat anyone on any given day. Real Madrid's Luka Modric makes the plays for a wealth of attacking talent, such as Shakhtar Donetsk's Eduardo, Ivica Olic of Wolfsburg, Hull City's Nikita Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich fame.
Cameroon qualified from CAF after a playoff with Tunisia, holding Tunisia to a scoreless tie in the away leg and then sending them away with a 4-1 drubbing in Yacunde. They had qualified by winning a group with Libya DR Congo and Togo.
Veteran Captain Samuel Eto'o puts aside Chelsea's kit to lead the Indomitable Lions in attack.
Alex Song of Barcalona fame anchors the midfield, along with Jean Makoun of Stade Rennais and Stephane Mbia of Sevilla while Olympique Marseille's Nicolas N'Koulou, Benoit Assou-Ekotto of Queens Park Rangers and Aurelien Chedjou of Galatasaray shore up the defense.
With lots of European Club experience on the pitch, Cameroon will be looking for the upsets and can't be taken lightly.
Mexico's qualifying performance could only be described as horrible, as El Tri barely made 4th place in the last CONCACAF group and the play off with New Zealand, losing their last qualifier to Costa Rica with only a USA comeback win against Panama to see them advance. During that run Mexico stumbled and stuttered, changing coaches and lineups in a frantic attempt to save their trip to Brazil.
Mexico were held to scoreless ties at home in the last group by USA, Jamaica and Costa Rica and even lost to Honduras at Azteca.
To be fair, Mexico went on to dominate the play off, beating New Zealand 5-1 in the first leg and 4-2 in the second, but the level of competition they will face in the next three matches is a bit different.
Mexico will be led by Manchester United's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Leverkusen and Giovani dos Santos from Villareal.
I think Brazil has to be picked to come out of the group on top. Julio Cesar, while not a god of a goalie as he used to be, is still quite capable and with Thiago Silva, Dani Alvez and David Luiz in front of him, he should have good coverage. Question remain as to whether Neymar can show up in the big dances, with this one being, perhaps, the biggest tournament for Brazil of all time. Well, at least our time, I guess.
Brazil are notorious for slow starts, but I think the home field advantage offsets that trend.
I see Brazil beating Croatia 2-1, leaving Ante Rebic's pals chasing the Samba Boys for the rest of the Group. Cameroon will take care of Mexico easily, temporarily putting them selves in first with the home team.
Brazil will have no trouble with Mexico, either, moving to 6 points in the group and all but advancing, while I see Croatia beating Cameroon, putting a tie for second in effect.
Brazil should come into the third round just needing a tie, but will probably beat Cameroon, While Croatia should have no problem with Mexico, earning second in the group and advancing with Brazil. Brazil would play second in Group B, while Croatia would face the Group B winner.
Match 3 - Spain V Netherlands - Friday June 13, 3pm EDT
Match 4 - Chile V Australia - Friday June 13, 6pm EDT
Match 18 - Australia V Netherlands - Wednesday June 18, 12pm EDT
Match 19 - Spain V Chile - Wednesday June 18, 3pm EDT
Match 33 - Netherlands V Chile - Monday June 23, 12pm EDT
Match 34 - Australia V Spain - Monday June 23, 12pm EDT
Spain come to Brazil as the defending World Cup champions, are the defending European Champions and the FIFA number one ranked team in the world and will be looking to impose their will on football yet again with their possession game. However, bookmakers have them rated third, 13/2.
The Spaniards were drawn into the lone European group with five teams. Being in Group I meant having to play two less matches. Also a plus for Spain was the fact that only one team in the group, France, had any realistic changes of advancing, as the rest of the group was comprised of Finland, Belarus and Georgia.
Both France and Spain won their first two qualifiers, setting up the first head to head match, in Madrid, which ended in a 1-1 tie.
In a dead heat for the group lead, Spain hosted Finland and France hosted Georgia. France won 3-0, but Spain were held to a 1-1 tie putting France into the group lead.
That lead was short-lived however, as Spain went on to beat France in Saint Denis and closed out the rest of the group.
Spain's roster is almost embarrassingly rich, from top to bottom, as well we Viola fans know as our guy Borja never gets a sniff.
Where to start? How about in goal with THREE world class keepers in Iker Casillas, David De Gea and Pepe Reina, added only because of Victor Valdes' knee injury.
In defense, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique seem to have solidified themselves as leaders, along with left-back Jordi Alba.
Both David Villa and Fernando Torres have been struggling to score. But Pedro has distinguished himself as an attacker, supported by Cesc Fabregas, while Alvaro Negredo has begun to make himself known as a striker, as well.
Always the bridesmaid, Louis van Gaal's team holds the record for coming in second in the World Cup while never winning it, having placed second three times, including the tourney in 2010, when they lost in the final to, oddly enough, Spain.
The Dutch went on in 2012 to suffer through the worst possible result in the European Championship, being drawn into a group with Germany, Portugal and Denmark and losing all three matches, although they never lost by more than a goal.
Qualifying was a walking the park for the Netherlands, as they cruised through their group undefeated, tying only once in Estonia, while winning the home match against Estonia and every other home and away match against Turkey, Hungary, Andorra and Romania.
Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, joined by Jermaine Lens will lead the attack of a dutch squad hot for redemption and revenge against Spain and won't have to wait for the chance, as they face off against La Roja in the group opener thanks to FIFA's ridiculous ranking and draw rules. The Dutch will miss the services of Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman, who is out with a long-term knee problem, joining Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart on the sidelines.
Chile comes into Brazil 2014 as the 3rd place representative from CONMEBAL, of course with Brazil automatically qualified, those rankings are a tad skewed, but Chile played well in qualifying for long stretches and it's paying off as they're here now.
Chile is also a repeat visitor as they did fairly well in World Cup 2010. Drawn into Group H with Spain, Switzerland and Honduras, Chile beat Honduras and Switzerland and only lost by 1 goal to Spain and advanced to the knock out rounds. The party ended right there, however as Brazil handled them easily and showed them out of the tournament 3-0.
Chile started qualifying by capturing 12 of a possible 18 points in the first six matches, but hit the skids and lost three matches in a row, causing the coach, Claudio Borghi, to be fired. Chile replaced him with Jorge Sampaoli. Although his team went out and lost his first match with Peru, they recovered and went on an undefeated streak of 5 wins and 1 draw in the next six matches to qualify.
Chile looked to be a team that Viola fans could watch with interest, as they looked to have two players participating with La Roja, but David Pizarro's continuously turbulent relationship with his country's national team seems to have come to an end as he was left off the roster and Matias Fernandez had to bow out for ankle surgery.
Chile shouldn't be taken lightly by the European ginats, however, as they have some quality on their roster, with La Liga Forwards Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona and Eduardo Vargas, currently at Valencia, on loan from Napoli, as well as attacking midfielder Arturo Vidal, from that little team up in Torino. Also available are Claudio Bravo(Real Sociedad), Gary Medel(Cardiff City) and Jorge Valdivia(Palmeiras), or exciting rising stars like Jean Beausejour(Wigan Athletic) and Marcelo Diaz(FC Basel).
Australia come in to Brazil as the fourth team from the Asian region. WHY Australia moved to the Asian region when their next door New Zealand is in Oceania is beyond me, but what ever. The Aussies finished second to Japan in Group B, finishing higher than Jordan, Oman and Iraq.
Australia is coming to Brazil for their fourth tournament, and this trip will be the third in a row.
In 2006, Australia shocked everyone by beating Japan in the first group match. They lost to Brazil, but managed a tie with Croatia, and became the first Oceania team to qualify to the knock out rounds.Australia went on to face Italy and played a fairly contentious match, with Italy going down to ten men and the match remaining scoreless for 90 minutes before Francesco Totti scored a questionably given penalty call in the 5th minute of stoppage. The call was just another of a string of controversial calls that the Socceroos would be sujected to that tourney in Germany.
In 2010, Australia were drawn into Germany's group and sadly, drew the Germans for their first match and got a 4-0 drubbing, which would come back to haunt them, as they tied Ghana and beat Serbia, but washed out of tourney on goal differential, having a goal differential of -3 to Ghana's 0.
All time leading scorer for the National Team, Tim Cahill will be the Socceroos main hope in their quest for glory while skipper and central defender Lucas Neill will attempt to rally his troops in an very large attempt to keep the two European giants and Chile off the board.
Pretty obvious, but whomever comes out of the first match between Spain and Netherlands with 3 points will be in the driver's seat for the group. I think Spain gets three points there, but the Dutch could squeak out a tie, Chile will beat Australia,
I think the next two match days end in victories for the Dutch and Spain, so i think Spain wins the group with 9 points and Netherlands comes in second with 6. That would set up Brazil v Netherlands and Spain v Croatia. Even with a Dutch-Spanish tie, both would still advance.
Match 5 - Colombia V Greece - Saturday June 14, 12pm EDT
Match 8 - Ivory Coast V Japan - Saturday June 14, 9pm EDT
Match 21 - Colombia V Ivory Coast - Thursday June 19, 12pm EDT
Match 23 - Japan V Greece - Thursday June 19, 6pm EDT
Match 39 - Japan V Colombia - Tuesday June 24, 4pm EDT
Match 40 - Greece V Ivory Coast - Tuesday June 24, 4pm EDT
Of particular interest to Viola fans will be Colombia, as our own (at least for now) Juan Cuadrado will take the field for them. Colombia qualified second in CONMEBOL and their high FIFA ranking got them into the first pot and so were drawn first into Group C. Colombia are currently ranked 8th in the world, but bookmakers see Colombia having the fifth best chance of winning it all at 20/1.
Columbia returns to the World Cup stage for the first time since 1998 where they lost to Romania and England and beat Tunisia before going home before the knock out round.
Colombia advanced with 30 points in CONMEBOL Qualifying, second only to Argentina but it was largely done at home, as Colombia won 4 and drew 1 of 6 home matches out scoring their opponents 15-3. Colombia were no push overs on the road, however, with 3 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses on the road. point totals were a lot lower on the road, with 6 for and 4 against.
Colombian hopes suffered a bitter blow in January when goal scoring machine Radamel Falcao blew a knee and failed to return in time to make the squad. Without Falcao COlombia will look to Teo Gutierrez of River Plate, attacking midfielder James Rodriguez of AS Monaco, as well as defensive duo Mario Yepes and Luis Perea at the back along with Cuadrado, who has played a much more defensive role for coach José Pékerman this qualifying campaign.
Despite success in other tournaments, Greece has not fared well at World Cups, three losses in 1994 and one win and two losses last tourney led to exits at the end of the group stage. Greece comes into Brazil 2014 ranked 12th in the world.
Greece played well in UEFA qualifying, their point total would have been enough to win 5 other groups, but wound up tied with Bosnia-Herzegovina and lost out on the automatic qualifying slot. Greece went on to beat Romania in the two legged playoff.
Captain midfielder Giorgos Karagounis is the dominant player for the Greeks. Forwards Dimitrios Salpingidis of PAOK and Konstantinos Mitroglou from Fullham will play a part. Greece’s defense was the prime reason for qualifying, conceding just four times in ten matches.
Côte d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, come into their third straight World Cup ranked 23rd in the world. They first appeared in the tourney in 2006, but drew into a group with Argentina and Netherlands, both of whom went on to beat the Elephants in group play. Ivory Coast did manage to beat Serbia and Montenegro and finished third in the pool.
In 2010, the draw once again did them no favors, putting them in with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea, but Ivory Coast managed a scoreless tie with Portugal, while Brazil beat the Koreans. Second match day, Ivory Coast lost to Brazil while Portugal beat N Korea. Ivory Coast finished the win-less run for the Koreans, but Portugal managed a tie from a Brazil team that had already qualified for the knock out rounds.
More recently Côte d’Ivoire breezed through their opening qualifying group but needed a late goal from Salomon Kalou to squeak out a win over Senegal.
Côte d’Ivoire does have talent as well, Didier Drogba and Kalou up front, with Yaya Toure and Gervinho and Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure in support.
Japan are coming into their fifth straight world cup with high expectations as fans expect the most out of their team. Japan have bowed out at the group stage twice and advanced twice, winning their group in 2002, as the hosts and finishing second to Netherlands in 2010. Japan lost each time in the round of 16 and will be looking to better that mark this year.
Japan advanced for coach Alberto Zaccheroni, who took over in the wake of the team’s impressive run at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ by winning Group B in AFC qualifying, beating Australia, Jordan, Oman and Iraq.
Japan's talisman has to be AC Milan player Keisuke Honda who has quickly established his place as the team's new leader, filling the void left by Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura.
leading the attack are Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, who finished the continental finals as the team's top-scorer with three goals. In the central field alongside Honda is set-piece specialist Yasuhito Endo while Schalke 04 defender Atsuto Uchida is the key man at the rearguard.
This group is tough to prognosticate, very evenly matched. I am going to say Colombia beats Greece while Japan beats Ivory Coast in match day 1. I think both teams win match day 2 as well with match day three being the deciding match and i give the nod to Juan Cuadrado's boys. Colombia wins the group with Japan second
Match 6 - Uruguay V Costa Rica - Saturday, June 14, 3pm EDT
Match 7 - England V Italy - Saturday June 14, 6pm EDT
Match 22 - Uruguay V England - Thursday June 19, 3pm EDT
Match 24 - Italy V Costa Rica - Friday June 20, 12pm EDT
Match 37 - Italy V Uruguay - Tuesday June 24, 12pm EDT
Match 38 - Costa Rica V England - Tuesday June 24, 12pm EDT
Uruguay came into Brazil as a top seed, again thanks to FIFA's potting and ranking silliness, as Uruguay barely qualified for the tournament, finishing fifth in CONMEBOL and barely qualifying through an intercontinental playoff
Uruguay was consider a giant in Soccer prior to the 1970s, having won two World Cups prior, but a run to the semis at Mexico in 1970 marked the end of any meaningful participation until more recent tourneys.
La Celeste made their return at Korea/Japan 2002 only to go out in the group phase, but failed to qualify for Germany 2006 as they lost out to Australia in the inter regional playoff in qualifying.
Uruguay faced another qualifying playoff in 2010, this time against Costa Rica and Uruguay made no mistake this time. In what their 11th world finals, the Uruguayans finished fourth, with Diego Forlan winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player.
Uruguay came into this tourney's qualifying expecting to be a favorite to advance, but a poor 2012 campaign saw them drop 16 of the first 18 available points and required them to scramble to qualify for the playoff with Jordan.
Strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani will lead Uruguay. Suarez finished qualifying
as the leading scorer with 11 goals. Diego Lugano and Fernando Muslera will shore up the back end for the South Americans.
Costa Rica comes into their 4th World Cup finals appearance ranked 28th in the world.Costa Rica played in their first finals in 1990, beating Sweden and Scotland to reach the knockout rounds where they lost to Czechoslovakia.
They returned to the world stage in 2002 and again in 2010 but exited each time at the group stage. Sadly, for the Ticos, this time around they were drawn into the group of death.
Colombian Jorge Luis Pinto as national team coach has brought in a new era for Costa Rica. Los Ticos finished second behind Mexico in their group to advance to the final six-team phase, where they finished second behind USA. Pinto’s side conceded only seven goals in the final round, fewer than any other team. They also recorded five wins in five games in the final phase.
Costa Rica will look to Bryan Ruiz formally from Twente in the Netherlands before moving on to Fulham in England. Now back in the Eredivisie with PSV Eindhoven, he ranks among the best play makers in CONCACAF. With Ruiz are Christian Bolanos and goalkeeper Keylor Navas as well as young Joel Campbell.
Forever being unable to live up to the expectations of their fans, England comes to their 14 World Cup looking for their second win. However, it looks likely that British fans will once again be disappointed as they've been drawn into a group of death.
England have appeared in seven of the last eight World Cup finals. They were not as good as expected in 2010, barely qualifying from their group with a victory in the final match against Slovenia, before being beaten by Germany at the Round of 16 stage.
England won Group H to reach Brazil after securing a victory on the final day against Poland.
Wayne Rooney remains the guy for England. In midfield, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will lead the way for youngsters Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley. Danny Welbeck scored four goals on the way to the finals, while Daniel Sturridge's emergence as one of the English Premier League's top forwards can only bolster Roy Hodgson's attacking options for Brazil.
Another of the storied participants in World Cups across the years is Italy's national team headed up by former Fiorentina coach, Cesare Prandelli. Italy is appearing in the 18th World Cup finals, having won it all 4 times (1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006) and are currently ranked 9th in the nation. 2010 was much less friendly to the Azzuri as they only managed 2 ties and a loss and finished fourth in their group.
Italy finished qualifying early, going unbeaten in their group and qualified with time to spare, beating Denmark, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is the only survivor from their 2006 win in Germany along with Andrea Pirlo, and fans will looking for Mario Balotelli to make his mark as the main striker. Former Viola player Riccardo Montolivo broke a leg in a friendly and will miss the tournament, freeing up a place for current Viola Alberto Aquilani.
Very tough group to call, England is the perennial under achiever, Italy starts slow historically, while Uruguay has struggled all of qualifying and Costa Rica is an unknown, although most purists would pooh pooh the possibility of a CONCACAF team escaping the likes of the other three teams.
I think Uruguay wins their first match and Italy defeats England. i see England winning the second match and Italy taking care of Costa Rica, leaving the last match for Italy as the decider. I think they will prevail, however, and win the group, with England taking second.
If my predictions are valid, that would set up a knock out round match up of Italy v Japan and Colombia v England
I'll get part 2 up in a day or three!