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  2. On June 12 in São Paulo, Croatia and Brazil will sing their anthems, shake one anothers' hands, and kick off the 20th World Cup. One month and 64 games later, a sweaty man wearing an armband and a weary smile will lift the world's most famous trophy into the Rio de Janeiro sky, and the watching world will sit back, take a breath, and then resume normal life. The World Cup is nearly here. Those of you who have been watching these for a while know what's coming. Those of you who are here for the first time, prepare to be consumed.

    Last time the tournament was held in Brazil, in 1950, a mere 13 teams turned up. The World Cup was contested without any interest from Africa or Oceania, and only India represented Asia. Coverage was sporadic and patchy, results were transmitted back to the competing nations by telegram, and the report of the final in the Times of London — Uruguay overcame a prematurely celebrating host nation to steal the trophy in the final game — ran to precisely 61 words.

    This time, 32 teams have traveled, and it is a truly global tournament. All the previous winners are here — Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, England and the current holders Spain — along with one debutant, Bosnia and Herzegovina. FIFA claim that over a billion people watched at least part of the 2010 final, and that nearly half the planet tuned in to to one match or another during the the 2010 tournament. Even if we apply a certain amount of justified skepticism to the precise figures, they are indicative. A fair chunk of the world is watching. A fair chunk of humanity cares.

    So far, they've not seen the smoothest of build-ups. FIFA gave the tournament to Brazil in the hope that the World Cup's most successful nation, a country and a population that identifies itself through soccer in a way few others do, would deliver a sun-drenched month of clichéd and photogenic bliss; a month, in other words, of samba, carnival and joga bonito. Instead, the tournament will kick off to scenes of protests in the streets and murmurings of knives in the boardrooms.

    The Brazilian population have pressing questions about the priorities of their government, wondering just who, exactly, will benefit from all the money being spent and why, exactly, it doesn't appear to be them. These are strange times for global sporting mega-events — similar if less marked protests preceded South Africa 2010 and the London Olympics in 2012 — and the gratitude of the host populace can no longer be airily presumed. Meanwhile the rest of the world is digesting new revelations about the murky workings of FIFA, as the decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar continues its slow and dispiriting procession from 'resoundingly stupid' to 'thoroughly corrupt.'

    But it's still the World Cup. It may not get the respect of the moon landing or penicillin, but this competition, in all its planet-uniting attention-grabbing time-consuming glory, is one of humanity's finest and most durable achievements. That durability may well be what lets FIFA get away with being FIFA, but it's also what ensures that the World Cup has so far survived FIFA being FIFA. A poor World Cup is better than almost any of the other months that life will give you. A good one — and some people will tell you that there hasn't been one of those since 1986, even as they sit down to their third group game of the day — is a thing of wonder.

    Will this be a good one? It has every chance. The two favorites are each chasing a different version of history. Brazil are looking to stretch their record five victories into a sixth, in the process reinforcing their claim to be this tournament's greatest nation and laying to rest the ghosts of 1950. Holders Spain, for their part, are looking to win a fourth consecutive major trophy, and in the process establish this generation of international players as perhaps the best of all time.

    Yet neither is without their weaknesses. Brazil have to cope with unprecedented pressure, and will attempt to avenge the trauma of 1950 with a squad that is largely untested in international tournament soccer. Spain, meanwhile, have two main concerns. Prosaically, there are question marks about the age of parts of their squad, and the depth of other parts. More intriguingly, their distinctive, possession-centered style of play has come under increased scrutiny over the last few years. The last time they played Brazil, in the 2013 Confederations Cup final, they didn't just lose. They got taken to pieces.

    But if the favorites stumble, there are plenty of other teams to pick up the slack. Take Argentina, whose Lionel Messi-centered forward line is the stuff of dreams even as their defensive options are the stuff of sleepless nights. Then there’s France, built around the magnificent Paul Pogba, and looking to be hitting form at exactly the right time. Germany’s unreal collection of attacking talent is starting to come under a little pressure to achieve something tangible. Italy are always Italy, even when you least expect it. Meanwhile England … no, probably not England. Probably not.

    Then there's stable of dark horses — Belgium, Colombia, the Netherlands, Portugal, maybe even the likes of the USA, Croatia and Japan — who, while unlikely to be bothering the engravers come mid-July, certainly have the capacity to bloody one or two supposedly superior noses. And as ever, there will be a couple of individuals, young or unheralded, who will introduce themselves to an eager world, just as there will be a couple of big names who will fail to live up to the adverts. Reputations will be inflated and broken. Somebody's going to get their move to Real Madrid; somebody else is going to be burned in effigy.

    So yes, the ingredients are there for something spectacular. But even if things unfold predictably, or the soccer itself ends up being dominated by the negative, the destructive and the cynical, there is still much to look forward to. World Cups don't just resonate through the years for the eventual results. They aren't just about the grand sweep of soccer’s history. They're about the moments, important or incidental, that stick in your brain for what can often seem like no good reason at all. Funny moments. Silly moments. Shocking moments. Controversial moments. Moments that never lose their appeal despite YouTube, despite clip shows, despite the endless degradations of nostalgia.

    Rashidi Yekini shaking the net. Diana Ross and Roberto Baggio. Roger Milla and Nobby Stiles. Fabio Grosso and Marco Tardelli. Ronaldo and Romania's follicular experimentation. The Battles of Santiago and Nuremberg. Harald Schumacher's improvised dentistry. Luis Suarez's dream-slaughtering save. The other Anschluss. Zidane nutting Materazzi to the floor. Rattin being dragged from the pitch. Cameroon assaulting Caniggia. Rivaldo clutching his face. Senegal equalizing with Denmark. Ahn Jung-hwan and Byron Moreno. Jared Borgetti. Saeed Al-Owairan. Lillian Thuram, twice. Dennis Bergkamp. Dennis Bergkamp! DENNIS BERGKAMP!

    In short, something (and probably several somethings) will happen over the next few weeks that will stay with you for the rest of your life. If you're lucky, it might be the team you support winning the World Cup; if we're all lucky, it might be a referee taking a ball in the face. It could be funny; it could be sad. For those of you who are new to all this, it might just be the moment you fall in love with soccer. Don't worry. It's quite the most beautiful thing anybody could ever hope to fall in love with.

    And when that moment pops back into your head in 10, 20 years' time, you'll be transported right back here, right back to this month, and you'll smile or you'll seethe all over again. You'll be who you were again, just for a second. Soccer isn't just a diversion, and tournaments aren't just tournaments. They provide the reference points by which we navigate our memories. They are the staging posts in the life of the fan. And the World Cup is the best, the biggest and the brightest of them all.

    If even one of the names above raises a grin or furrows a brow, then read on. If none of them do, but this all sounds alluring and exciting and just the right side of ridiculous, then read on. We adore this wonderful nonsense, and we really, really want to talk about it. But if not, then we're sorry to say that you're not just in the wrong corner of the internet. You're on the wrong planet. For the next few weeks, this one's ours.

    Contributors: Callum Hamilton, Kevin McCauley, Ryan Rosenblatt, Jack Sargeant, Kirsten Schlewitz, Andi Thomas, Zach Woosley.
    Editors: Graham MacAree, Kevin McCauley, Jeremiah Oshan, Kirsten Schlewitz.

  3. Introduction

    Group A is not a Group of Death by any measure, but it is perhaps a Group of Heavy Cold and a Few Days In Bed. Brazil are obvious favorites, but both Mexico and Croatia have enough about them to ensure that progress won't be easy. In an odd sort of way that might benefit Brazil: this Group pairs up with a strong-looking Group B in the round of 16, and assuming the hosts progress they will at least have been tested. All of which, rather sadly, leaves a weak-looking Cameroon side as the likely whipping boys. Not the World Cup swansong Samuel Eto'o would have wanted


    1 - Brazil

    2 - Croatia

    3 - Mexico

    4 - Cameroon

    Brazil: Quite simply, they're the best team in the group, and will go into all three games as clear favorites. If they can deal with that, as well as with all the concomitant pressures that come with being hosts, being Brazil, and so on, then they should be fine. And they need to be: a first-place finish here means avoiding the winners of Group B, most likely current World Cup holders Spain. Nobody wants that game too early.

    Croatia: The concern for Croatia is their opening game against Brazil is likely to end in defeat, which will leave them chasing things from the outset. Assuming they can deal with that initial setback, then the squad should have enough talent to handle a vulnerable Mexico and a limited Cameroon. Certainly, coach Niko Kovač is feeling positive: "I am confident that we have the players to enjoy all the games."

    Mexico: But Mexico get out of the group! Mexico always get out of the group! Well, probably not this year. While they've got the talent to compete with Croatia, and the advantage of a first game against Cameroon, it's difficult to predict whether they're truly over the shambles of qualification. Thumping New Zealand in a playoff is one thing; getting the better of either Brazil or Croatia is quite another.

    Cameroon: By any assessment the weakest side in the group, they'll be looking to defend near-perfectly and get a result in their opening game against Mexico, then take things from there. However, recent friendlies haven't exactly been encouraging on the defensive front, and a general lack of creativity throughout the squad suggests a respectable last place is the best that can be hoped for.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 12 4:00 pm Brazil vs. Croatia
    Jun. 13 12:00 pm Mexico vs. Cameroon
    Jun. 17 3:00 pm Brazil vs. Mexico
    Jun. 18 6:00 pm Cameroon vs. Croatia
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Croatia vs. Mexico
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Cameroon vs. Brazil

    Must-Watch Game

    Brazil vs. Croatia

    Look, it's the first game of the World Cup, so if you're not planning to watch then you'd better have a very good excuse indeed. But beyond that, this is a meeting between the two strongest sides in the group, and could set the tone for the entire tournament. If Brazil turn up and blow Croatia away, then the hosts are up and running along with the tournament and likely the whole country as well. If, on the other hand, the Croats can winkle something out of their illustrious and fancied hosts, then all of a sudden the whole thing starts to look very open indeed. All that, Ivan Rakitić, and an opening ceremony as well. You lucky people.

  4. Five-times champions, hosts, a nation symbiotically intertwined with their soccer team and the World Cup; there has maybe never been another team under as much pressure going into a tournament as this latest incarnation of the Seleção. Other nations can talk about trying their best and seeing what happens; Brazil will either win or be judged to have failed. As coach Luiz Felipe Scolari puts it: "There is no other objective we are interested in."

    The pursuit of their sixth title — the hexa, because all multiple titles need nicknames these days — also offers Brazil the opportunity to lay to rest one of soccer’s most persistent ghosts, one that has haunted Brazilian soccer since 1950. Last time the World Cup final was held in Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã, Brazil only needed a draw against Uruguay to win their first title. It was a foregone conclusion, it was a done deal, it was impossible that they might lose ... and they lost. This is their chance, 64 long years of hurt later, to avenge the Maracanazo. No pressure, lads.

    • Group a
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 3
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Julio César; Marcelo, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Dani Alves; Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo; Neymar, Oscar, Hulk; Fred.

    Key Player

    Predictably and obviously, Neymar. Brazil have talent all over the pitch, but the 22-year-old Barcelona forward is the attacking, improvisational genius that alchemizes a good side into a great one. At least, that's the theory. At his best, Neymar is a tricky-footed runner with the ball, a calm and precise finisher, an excellent free-kick taker, and is blessed with an uncanny ability to slice through defenses at speed. At his best, in other words, he is terrifying.

    However, he comes into the tournament on the back of a peculiar domestic season. Initially excellent upon his arrival at Barcelona, he diminished throughout a difficult campaign, and his goalscoring dried up as the details of his complex, expensive and slightly scandalous transfer emerged. Brazil will be hoping that a change of circumstances and a return to his native country serve to re-energize his game. He is already the poster-boy of the tournament, but his team need him to be the star.

    How they play

    Last time Scolari won the World Cup he did so with a free-wheeling front three of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Rivaldo; this time we can expect his Brazil side to be a little more controlled. A target man, most likely Fred, will serve as the point of the attack, and his ability to play with his back to goal enables him to bring in the support: Hulk, who will cut in from the right; Neymar, who will nominally start on the left but is essentially unfettered; and Oscar, who will start in the No. 10 position and look to link defense and attack.

    Brazil will press hard and attack at speed and, unlike many Brazilian sides of the past, can do so in the knowledge that their defense is secure. Thiago Silva and David Luiz, shielded by Luiz Gustavo, should prove the equal of any bar the very best attack, and Marcelo and Dani Alves have the legs to cover their flanks as well as support the attack. But Brazil wouldn't be Brazil without some kind of question mark at the back, and in this case it's the goalkeeper. Julio César spent the last couple of years in and out of the Queens Park Rangers team before recently taking his search for first-team soccer to Toronto FC. His presence in the line-up is a sign of Scolari's faith in his players; it's also a gamble. An early concession, a Moacir Barbosa moment, and the inexperience in the line-up might start to tell.

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    How they got there

    Host nations qualify by right, which is just as well, otherwise things might get a bit awkward. So while the rest of the world have been struggling against one another for the right to come and visit, Brazil have been gallivanting around the globe playing a series of prestige friendlies. Most have gone well for the Seleção, with a surprise 1-0 loss against Switzerland perhaps the only real blemish, but the nature of international friendlies, where the intensity diminishes as the substitutions increase, make it difficult to draw many conclusions of note.

    In amongst all the exhibition stuff, however, came a brief flurry of competitive soccer. Brazil won five games from five at the 2013 Confederations Cup, an eight-team mini-tournament held the year before each World Cup. After beating Italy, Japan and Mexico in the group stages, Brazil overcame Uruguay in the semi-final to set up a final against the current World Cup holders Spain. Neymar was brilliant, Brazil won 3-0, and the shape and identity of Scolari's side came together.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 12 4:00 pm Croatia
    Jun. 17 3:00 pm Mexico
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Cameroon
  5. No African nation has been to more World Cup finals than Cameroon; this adventure to Brazil will be their seventh. However, this is also arguably the weakest Cameroon side ever to attend, and anybody hoping for a nostalgic re-flowering of that blithe 1990s spirit will likely be disappointed.

    Indeed, it seems fair to characterize current Cameroonian soccer as something of a mess, both on and off the pitch. Recently elected FA president Iya Mohammed is currently in prison for misappropriating state funds, while veteran star Samuel Eto'o complained in January that he was victim of "a plot not to pass to me." Coach Volker Finke, for his part, has been criticized for ignoring Cameroon-based players: he recently held a three-day training camp for domestic players, then promptly chose not a single one in his next squad. Only two will be traveling to Brazil.

    • Group a
    • Federation CAF
    • Fifa Ranking 56
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3)

      Charles Itandje; Henri Bedimo, Nicolas N'Koulou, Joël Matip, Allan Nyom; Alex Song, Stéphane Mbia, Eyong Enoh; Benjamin Moukandjo, Samuel Eto'o, Maxim Choupo-Moting.

    Key Player

    Charles Itandje. Drummed out of Liverpool in disgrace after cameras caught him chuckling his way through a Hillsborough memorial service, the career of the once highly-rated (and potential future France) goalkeeper has taken on a peripatetic and underwhelming aspect, and he is currently plying his trade in the mid-table of the Turkish Süper Lig.

    Internationally, though, he's taken advantage of Carlos Idriss Kameni's relegation to the bench at Málaga to establish himself as his country's No. 1. Cameroon has a long and proud goalkeeping history, back through Kameni to Joseph-Antoine Bell and the legendary Thomas Nkono, and Itandje sealed his position with an outstanding performance in the first leg of the qualifying playoff against Tunisia. If Cameroon are going to keep the clean sheets they need, he'll have to produce more of the same.

    How they play

    Having labored with a miserable 4-4-2 diamond in qualifying, Finke switched to a three-man midfield for the second leg of the qualifying playoff and was rewarded with a 4-1 victory. Despite that glut of goals, the emphasis is on defensive solidity: Itandje in goal, the imposing pairing of Nicolas N'Koulou and either Aurelien Chedjou or Joël Matip in front of him, and Alex Song and Stéphane Mbia in front of them.

    Things are far less clear in attack. Samuel Eto'o will likely lead the line yet again, but while his instincts are still sharp and his spirit is still spiky, his legs are going the way of all flesh. Quick and tricky Benjamin Moukandjo may start on the left. But none of their midfield options really offer much in the way of playmaking ability, and despite Finke's preference for attractive, attacking soccer, Cameroon may well end up tacking toward the utilitarian end of things, keeping it tight and looking to break. And while they were fielding a slightly experimental side, a recent 5-1 defeat against Portugal suggests that their defence may not hold up to a stiff examination.

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    How they got there

    Cameroon's presence at the World Cup owes plenty to good fortune and the failings of other teams. Neck and neck with Libya in a tight group, Cameroon lost 2-0 away in Togo, only for it to emerge that the Togolese had selected an ineligible player. That 2-0 defeat became a 3-0 default victory and Cameroon, despite having never entirely convinced, were in pole position going into the final game against the Libyans.

    Then, on July 4, 2013, they were suspended indefinitely from international soccer as FIFA took exception to what it perceived to be government interference in soccer matters, relating to the election of Iya Mohammed. With the final qualification game against Libya looming, expulsion from qualification was only averted when they agreed to FIFA’s appointment of a normalization committee. Victory over Libya set up a two-legged playoff against Tunisia, and after drawing the away leg 0-0 — Itandje was outstanding in goal — they surprised everybody, including perhaps themselves, by winning 4-1 at home.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 12:00 pm Mexico
    Jun. 18 6:00 pm Croatia
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Brazil
  6. In the 1998 World Cup, Croatia finished third, having been this close — *holds up two fingers no more than a few millimeters apart* — to beating eventual champions France in the World Cup semi-final. Indeed, given the state of Brazil in the eventual final, perhaps that wonderful side of Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and Davor Šuker came this close — *holds up two fingers a couple of inches apart* — to winning the whole thing. Which is not really what a tiny Balkan nation of 4 million people is supposed to be doing, but was hugely fun for any neutrals watching.

    Since then, however, not much. Talent is never a problem, but confidence and coherence have at times been entirely lacking. Eliminated in the group stage in 2002 and 2006, they failed to qualify for South Africa in 2010 and nearly missed out on this edition. Which would have been a crying shame, for Croatia at a major finals guarantees three things: excellent traveling support, a minimum one or two of the most eye-pleasing players in the world and magnificent shirts. Those checks. Oh, those checks.

    • Group a
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 18
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Stipe Pletikosa; Darijo Srna, Vedran Ćorluka, Dejan Lovren, Danijel Pranjić; Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić; Ivan Perišić, Mateo Kovačić, Ivica Olić; Mario Mandžukić.

    Key Player

    Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić. Slightly cheating here by choosing two, perhaps, but it's the combination between Croatia's two stand-out talents in the middle of the park that will determine whether their side gets out of the group. Both have had excellent domestic seasons topped off with European triumphs: Rakitić was outstanding in Sevilla's Europa League final victory over Benfica, while Modrić's box-to-box performances were crucial in Real Madrid's progress to the Champions League trophy. Sadly, Modrić cut his hair off after the final, the silly fool, so we're denied what would have been one of the all-time great midfield hair duos.

    Internationally, they’re likely to sit in front of the defense behind Mateo Kovačić, though defensive midfielder Ognjen Vukojević could get introduced in favor of one of Croatia’s attacking midfielders against Brazil. If Rakitić and Modrić can control distribution from deep, then they will be able to ensure that Kovačić, striker Mario Mandžukić and the overlapping right-back Darijo Srna see plenty of the ball. If they can be shut down, however, then the Croats are in trouble, and a lot depends on whether they can curb their naturally attacking instincts to screen what is a vulnerable and slightly slow defense.

    How they play

    With first-choice central defender Josip Šimunić suspended for 10 games following a chanting incident that might at best be described as "unwise" (and at worst as "pro-Nazi"), the likely pairing of Dejan Lovren and Vedran Ćorluka isn't the most secure. This, combined with the lack of a true holding midfielder (if Vukojević doesn’t play), means that Niko Kovač may instruct his side to sit deep and retain a disciplined defensive shape, while looking to attack at pace on the counter.

    While Croatia's squad isn't the deepest, the one place they have options is up front. Noted pest Ivica Olić is likely to start on the left and Mario Mandžukić — suspended for the first game — is the first choice central striker, but should Kovač feel the need to change he can turn to Nikica Jelavić, revitalized at Hull, or Shakhtar Donetsk's Eduardo. Those options, allied to the proficiency of Rakitić, Modrić and Srna from set pieces and with crosses, mean there is always the option for something more direct if a game needs chasing.

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    How they got there

    At Euro 2012, following Croatia's 1-1 draw against Italy, then-manager Slaven Bilić mocked a television analyst for failing to notice that he'd switched formations at halftime. Worryingly for everybody, that analyst was former international Igor Štimac, who was taking over the team at the end of the tournament.

    It looks as though Bilić was onto something. Croatia's results were initially good, but having won five of their first six games they took just one point from the next four, including home losses to Belgium and Scotland. A 2-0 victory over Serbia aside, this was a pretty limp, near-disastrous campaign, marked by constant formation switching and a general collapse in morale. Though they scraped into second place in Group A behind the Belgians, they qualified for the playoffs only thanks to Denmark managing to put together an even less impressive campaign. Štimac was summarily axed, to widespread relief, and Niko Kovač was promoted from the U21s.

    A relatively kind playoff draw pitted Croatia against Iceland rather than France or Sweden, and Kovač's men won 2-0 over the two legs. However, Mandžukić managed to pick up an entirely unnecessary red card, meaning he will miss the opening fixture against Brazil.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 12 4:00 pm Brazil
    Jun. 18 6:00 pm Cameroon
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Mexico
  7. Models of consistency, Mexico have attended each of the last five World Cups, have progressed though the group stage to the last 16 in each of those, and have then been knocked out, occasionally in a welter of bad temper. Last time, Carlos Tevez's flagrantly offside goal led to howls of protest, while in 2002 a youngish Rafael Márquez was dismissed, to general amusement, after kicking the USA's Cobi Jones soundly up the arse. So while coach Miguel Herrera has been thinking big, booking Mexico's travel home for the day after the final and pronouncing "I aspire to be champion of the world," it will in truth be an achievement to make it out of the group.

    Still, they're almost always good value while they're in the tournament. Technically capable and generally attack-minded, they've usually enough about them to trouble anybody while being vulnerable enough to encourage everybody. Their Olympic gold medal in 2012 promised great things to come, but a miserable qualifying campaign and a succession of coaching changes means that they arrive in Brazil as something of an unknown quantity. Except for their kit, which is unequivocally terrible. Lightning bolts stopped being cool at the age of 12, lads.

    • Group a
    • Federation CONCACAF
    • Fifa Ranking 20
    • Projected Starting 11 (5-3-2)

      Guillermo Ochoa; Andrés Guardado, Héctor Moreno, Rafael Márquez, ‘Maza’ Francisco Rodríguez, Paul Aguilar; Héctor Herrera, Carlos Peña, Marco Fabián; Giovani dos Santos, Oribe Peralta.

    Key Player

    In keeping with the domestic flavor of Miguel Herrera's squad, Mexico's most important forward will not be Manchester United's Javier Hernández, who has endured an unhappy season in the Premier League, but Liga MX's Oribe Peralta. The 30-year-old striker, who World Soccer magazine claim "might be the best No. 9 to play outside the big European leagues", scored 22 goals for Santos Laguna last season, but it's on the international stage that he's really impressed. Ten goals in qualifying, including five in the playoff against New Zealand, leave him as one of the few players to emerge from Mexico's journey to Brazil with any credit.

    One of those useful strikers that can score from nearly anywhere, be it a 25-yard drive from distance or a back-post header after a well-timed run, Peralta also has experience of inconveniencing Mexico's Group A opponents Brazil. Five of the hosts' likely starting XI were on the field at Wembley in 2012, when Peralta scored twice to win the Olympic gold for Mexico. Another early goal could unearth all manner of trauma.

    How they play

    One of the consequences of having four coaches in six months is a certain stylistic unpredictability, and the Mexico side that kicks off against Cameroon will look markedly different from that which labored through qualifying. The man currently in charge, Miguel Herrera, is a big fan of his own attacking variation on 5-3-2, and prefers to pick players who have either played for him or in similar systems at the club level.

    The wing backs, likely two from Paul Aguilar, Andrés Guardado and Miguel Layún, will spend much of their game charging forward to generate width, while one of the two strikers will drop deeper while the other takes point. Of the three midfielders, meanwhile, only one is deployed as a defensive screen; the other two will look to support the attack where possible. What this means, basically, is that Mexico can have up to seven players committed to any attack. Expect goals ...

    … at both ends. Hilariously exposed at the back will be the veteran captain Rafael Márquez — appearing at his fourth World Cup — alongside Héctor Moreno and the promising young defender Diego Reyes, if Herrera’s being sensible, and ‘Maza’ Rodriguez if not. Expect Márquez to take charge of distributing the ball while the other two get on with the tackling and running and all the rest of the mucky business.

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    How they got there

    Of all the teams that will be turning up in Brazil, Mexico had by some distance the messiest qualification process. After advancing through their first stage of qualifying with six wins out of six, they stuttered, stalled and nearly fell apart completely in 'the Hex', CONCACAF’s six-team final stage. A 2-1 loss in Costa Rica meant they had to rely on two late goals from the USA — oh, the indignity! — against Panama, which sent El Tri through to the intercontinental playoff at the expense of their hat-wearing, canal-minding brethren.

    In keeping with their struggles, Mexico chewed their way through four managers in the course of 2013. José Manuel de la Torre, in the post since 2011, was dismissed in September and replaced by his assistant, Luis Fernando Tena. He was removed after just one game; his replacement, Víctor Manuel Vucetich, lasted two fixtures before also being dismissed. Mexico then appointed Club Americá’s Miguel Herrera on temporary basis for the playoffs. He took the understandable but not-entirely-uncontroversial decision to ditch the underperforming stars from the European leagues in favor of players based in Liga MX, and was rewarded with a 9-3 aggregate win in a playoff against New Zealand, a place in Brazil and a huge cross-national sigh of relief.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 12:00 pm Cameroon
    Jun. 17 3:00 pm Brazil
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Croatia
  8. Introduction

    At first glance, Group B appears to be fairly easy to work out. Spain? Defending World and European champions. The Netherlands? Last tournament’s runners-up. Surely we’re looking at a two-team race. Well, not so fast. Chile’s presence means there are three teams with a legitimate shot of advancing to the knockout stages, and therefore a guarantee that a very good side will be going home earlier than they would like.

    We’ve got Spain’s dominance, the attacking prowess of the Netherlands and Chile, as well as a potentially amusing wild card in Australia. On paper, Group B looks to be both entertaining and extremely dramatic — now we just have to hope that translates to the pitch itself.


    1 - Spain

    2 - Chile

    3 - Netherlands

    4 - Australia

    Spain: Sure, there are some questions about Spain’s ability to repeat their 2010 triumph, but they’re still the strongest team in the group and should be able to claim the top spot. Their squad is as experienced as it is talented, and their suffocating possession-based system is great for knockout tournaments where the only thing that matters is avoiding losses over a short period of time. It’s entirely possible, however, that their potential lack of scoring punch could derail their push for a fourth straight major tournament win. If Diego Costa isn’t healthy, they’ll need David Villa or Fernando Torres to step up.

    Chile: It might be a bit of a stretch to predict that Chile finish second in Group B, but there are good reasons to believe it will happen. Chile play an attractive, attacking brand of soccer that will seriously challenge both the Spanish and Dutch defenses, and they also boast a ferocious, talented midfield headlined by Juventus’ Arturo Vidal. In addition, there’s always an advantage for South American teams when the World Cup is played on their home continent. With the Netherlands in a bit of a lull, Chile have every chance of advancing here.

    Netherlands: Trying to predict where the Dutch will finish in an international tournament is like trying to predict which way a plastic bag will blow in the wind. There’s no question they’re a good enough team to win the entire thing, but there’s also no question they could fail to make it out of the group stage, especially with a defense that’s most kindly described as ‘questionable.’ Injuries to Kevin Strootman and Rafael Van der Vaart are major blows for the Dutch, and Louis van Gaal’s side seems ripe for the picking.

    Australia: The Aussies aren’t getting out of Group B, and there’s a real chance they won’t get a point either. That said, they won’t be a pushover for the rest of their opponents in the group. The very fact that they’re such underdogs — they’re the lowest ranked team in the tournament, and indulging in a youth movement besides — could actually make them dangerous. They’re a team expected to accomplish nothing, and so they have absolutely nothing to lose. They won’t escape the group, but they could easily end someone else’s dreams along the way. And that’s the next-best thing, right?

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 3:00 pm Spain vs. Netherlands
    Jun. 13 6:00 pm Chile vs. Australia
    Jun. 18 12:00 pm Australia vs. Netherlands
    Jun. 18 3:00 pm Spain vs. Chile
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Australia vs. Spain
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Netherlands vs. Chile

    Must-Watch Game

    Spain vs. Netherlands

    The opening match between Spain and the Netherlands is the easy pick here. While the Spain vs. Chile match will probably be more important in terms of who advances, it doesn’t have the sex appeal of a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final.

    If ‘rematch of the 2010 World Cup’ brings to mind images of Nigel de Jong attempting to rearrange Xabi Alonso’s ribs with a flying boot and of Spain passing sideways in an effort to circumvent the Dutch defense, don’t worry — this time should be more fun on account of the Dutch not having much of a defense to speak of, though they’re apparently trying to rectify that by playing a fifth defender.

    With most of the Netherlands’ star power concentrated in the attack, Louis Van Gaal will hopefully turn away from the negative tactics we saw in the last final. If he does that, the opener will be far more fun than the last time these two sides met in anger.

  9. The Socceroos have the misfortune of being the weakest team in one of the toughest groups at this year’s World Cup. Australia weren’t particularly impressive in qualifying, and made a coaching change last October after two particularly poor performances in friendlies. Holger Osieck was sent packing, and former Australian international Ange Postecoglou — the most successful coach in Australian club soccer history — was brought in with the expressed instruction to start a youth movement, overhauling the squad with an eye to the future.

    The newfound reliance on younger players means there are a great deal of unknowns surrounding this Australian side. Many of the familiar faces we’re used to seeing play for the Socceroos are gone, with newer, more youthful and far less predictable ones taking their place. Veterans Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Brett Holman and Archie Thompson have all been left home.

    The team will be led by newly appointed captain Mile Jedinak, who does much of the heavy lifting in the Crystal Palace midfield and will be expected to do the same for Australia. No, that probably won’t work against any of the Socceroos’ opponents in Group B, but this squad is in Brazil to get some vital experience for the next cycle, not because they have any real hope of making it to the knockout rounds.

    • Group b
    • Federation AFC
    • Fifa Ranking 62
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3)

      Matthew Ryan; Jason Davidson, Ryan McGowan, Matthew Špiranović, Ivan Franjić; Mile Jedinak, Mark Milligan, Mark Bresciano; Tommy Oar, Tim Cahill, Mathew Leckie.

    Key Player

    Mile Jedinak is Australia’s new captain, and will play a pivotal role in any hopes Australia might have of pulling off a major upset in Group B. In the Premier League, his performance as a box-to-box midfielder was instrumental in Crystal Palace’s strong 2013/14 season, and the Socceroos will be hopeful that his strong form continues into summer.

    Ideally, Jedinak will provide both defensive coverage in front of the back line and serve as an anchor point for the attack, moving the ball up the pitch and sliding passes out to the wingers.

    Since Australia will need to get physical to have a chance, Jedinak’s most important contribution will surely be his willingness to get stuck in. He’s not afraid to mix it up and muscle people off the ball, and if he can get the opposition playing scared in the middle of the pitch, it’ll be at least a start for the Socceroos.

    How they play

    Predicting just how Australia will play is difficult, due in large part to the fact that new head coach Ange Postecoglou hasn’t had much time to implement a new system. The manager’s been in charge of just two matches so far, and has to date stuck with the same 4-2-3-1 shape utilized by Holger Osieck before he was fired in October.

    The Socceroos’ formation — 4-3-3 seems most likely for now — probably won’t matter very much. They’re heavy underdogs in Group B, and the pessimist might describe their style of play as something like ‘defend as well as humanly possible against Chile, Spain and the Netherlands and hope to grab at least one draw.’ With expectations low, and Postecoglou tasked with a long-term reclamation project, he’ll likely rely on the grit and physicality for which the Aussies are known. Postecoglou typically prefers to use a more attacking-minded system, but attacking the rest of the teams in this group is a good way to get blown out.

    Australia should be strong defensively, but the lack of a true creative player means they’ll struggle to create any real chances. Any offense they have will come through a direct style of play, centered around the aerial ability of Tim Cahill. That’s probably not a great sign for the Socceroos, but nobody will fault them if they can’t get things done in this group.

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    How they got there

    Australia qualified through the Asian Football Confederation — they left Oceania in order to face tougher competition and avoid the inevitable playoff that the OFC winner must navigate — earning an automatic spot by finishing in second place in their AFC group behind Japan. It wasn’t an easy route for the Socceroos, however: they needed a goal in the 83rd minute in their final qualification match against Iraq to avoid falling into set of a playoff matches, against first Uzbekistan, then Uruguay if they got through that.

    Qualification began poorly and stayed poor for some time, and only two very timely wins — 4-0 against Jordan and the final day 1-0 against Iraq — ensured that they ended up in second place. What does a 3-4-1 record in a group consisting of Japan, Jordan, Oman and Iraq tell you about their chances against the likes of Spain? Not even the most optimistic Socceroos fan would give their team much of a chance this time around.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 6:00 pm Chile
    Jun. 18 12:00 pm Netherlands
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Spain
  10. With two true world-class talents and a solid supporting cast, Chile aren’t just dark horses to trump the Netherlands to second place in Group B — they’re serious threats to beat Spain to the top spot. Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal will be the stars of the Chilean show, with both able to single-handedly win points for La Roja. In fact, if Vidal is fit, he’s more than capable of winning the midfield battle by himself.

    Vidal’s fitness, however, is a significant question. He underwent knee surgery in May to repair a torn meniscus, and if Chile don’t have Vidal at his best and are forced to rely on their depth, they won’t be nearly as dangerous. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has molded a dynamic, solid side around his two superstars, but if they lose one of them (or their sometimes-wobbly defense lets them down), you can forget about Chile making a deep run.

    With Vidal and Sánchez in top form, La Roja can perhaps dream of matching their best ever World Cup finish — they finished third in 1962 as hosts — but even getting to the 2014 tournament represents a significant achievement for the country of 18 million: this is only the second time they’ll have played in back-to-back World Cups. They’ve actually missed more World Cups (11) — two absences due to being banned because goalkeeper Roberto Rojas faked an injury to try to get Brazil disqualified — than they’ve played in (nine) . They’re definitely not just here to make up the numbers, though, and their high-pressure style should make for some fun watching, especially when they come up against Spain for a rematch of their 2010 second-round loss.

    • Group b
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 14
    • Projected Starting 11 (3-5-2)

      Claudio Bravo; Gonzalo Jara, Francisco Silva, Gary Medel; Eugenio Mena, Marcelo Díaz, Charles Aránguiz, Arturo Vidal, Mauricio Isla; Eduardo Vargas,Alexis Sánchez.

    Key Player

    You could almost flip a coin to choose between Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sánchez. Both are world-class stars, both can win Chile games. But while Vidal’s contribution on the scoresheet is indirect, Sánchez is likely to make a rather more spectacular impression in Brazil. The 25-year-old attacker had an up-and-down year with Barcelona, but looked very good — and that’s by Barcelona’s standards — when he was finally able to get some regular playing time.

    At his best, Sánchez is unstoppable. He’s able to beat defenders at will, using his freakish balance and ball control to make everyone trying to stop him look stupid, links up brilliantly with other forwards and can score from virtually anywhere. The world already has a pretty good idea of what he can do (he did fetch €26 million when he moved from Udinese to the Camp Nou, after all), but with talk of Barcelona putting him on the market this summer, Sánchez has a chance to turn even more heads with a strong performance in Brazil.

    How they play

    Chile underwent a major overhaul at the end of 2012, when manager Jorge Sampoali took over the team. Under Sampoali, La Roja returned to their roots, switching back to an aggressive, energetic, high-pressure system — the kind of soccer they played so effectively under Marcelo Bielsa. When Chile’s game plan comes off, they play an extremely effective attacking game that continually keeps the opposition off-balance. When it doesn’t, they can sometimes be left open at the back.

    The most noteworthy feature of Chile’s setup is their ability to adapt to any given situation. They’re one of the few teams in the tournament capable of switching from a three-man defense to a back four without any real drop in performance, and on top of that they’re more than happy to tinker within their two main shapes (3-5-2 and 4-3-3) to exploit weaknesses in their opposition or shore up against potential strengths. As a result, barring the twin facts that they’ll always try to hound their opponents into coughing up the ball as high up the pitch as possible and that they’ll attack with pace from wide through Alexis Sánchez and Eduardo Vargas, it’s difficult to know what to expect from La Roja.

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    How they got there

    10 qualifying matches in and Chile didn’t look to be on their way to a second consecutive World Cup finals. They lost five of those games, including three in a row against Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, and a few of those losses were absolute blowouts. The team wasn’t playing well, confidence was low, and it was clear that a change was needed.

    Head coach Claudio Borghi was dismissed, and Chile almost immediately got their groove back. Jorge Sampaoli took over the team in early December, returned to the high-pressure tactics that had served La Roja so well between 2007 and 2011, and although his first match in charge was a disappointing 1-0 loss against Peru, the team quickly adapted to win five of their last six matches and finish third in CONMEBOL qualifying, securing an automatic berth to the finals. Their only blemish was a thrilling 3-3 draw against Colombia, in which Chile collapsed from 3-0 up after 30 minutes. But is allowing Falcao to score twice really a major blot on their copybook?

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 6:00 pm Australia
    Jun. 18 3:00 pm Spain
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Netherlands
  11. 2013 was a good year for the Dutch. They were undefeated and spent much of it scoring goals with the reckless abandon of an 18-year-old college student who’s just found out that when you’re a grownup nobody stops you from eating pizza whenever you want to.

    Conversely, 2012 was a very bad year for the Dutch, who suffered a shock defeat to Denmark in the opening match of the European Championships and ended up going home with zero points. It wouldn’t be total football without a wild emotional ride, right?

    The Netherlands are perhaps the most storied nation never to have won a World Cup. They’re certainly the most historically stylish — the modern pass and move game has its origins in the great Oranje side of the 1970s — and something of that flair lives on in the current generation. But flair alone rarely gets teams anywhere, and this Dutch outfit don’t have the sort of consistency — or defensive solidarity — of most of their top competitors.

    This tournament will likely be the final chance for several of the Netherlands’ aging stars to claim a major international trophy. The likes of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder came agonizingly close in 2010, falling to Spain in the World Cup final, and they have the firepower to make a run this time around as well. But they’ll need the rest of the team to live up to their side of the bargain to do it.

    • Group b
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 15
    • Projected Starting 11 (3-5-2)

      Jasper Cillessen; Bruno Martins Indi, Ron Vlaar, Stefan de Vrij; Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie, Nigel de Jong, Daryl Janmaat; Wesley Sneijder; Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben.

    Key Player

    Robin van Persie is the Netherlands’ best player, and his form will be pivotal for their hopes of advancing out of Group B. The Manchester United striker spent much of the 2013/14 season dealing with injuries, which largely prevented him from hitting the highs of the previous campaign.

    There are two ways of looking at this, so far as the Dutch are concerned: the optimist will tell you that he’s fully fit and the injuries just mean he’s well-rested compared to his peers, while the pessimist will not unreasonably point out that the injuries are further evidence that van Persie’s various ligaments are about as structurally sound as Holland’s Ron Vlaar-led defence.

    A healthy van Persie is decidedly unhealthy for the opposition — he might be the best natural finisher in the tournament and he is fully capable of turning the faintest of chances into goals. But even at his best, van Persie can’t do everything on his own, and he’ll need plenty of support from his midfield if the Netherlands are going to advance.

    How they play

    ‘Total football’ is mostly out in the Netherlands camp. The Dutch are the authors of the most fluid system of soccer the world has ever seen, and they’re never going to entirely escape from the playing style that’s seared into their bones, but this current squad isn’t built for it. They’ll get part of the way there — the front line will interchange to devastating effect — but their defense isn’t as strong enough to be as adventurous as the team would like, and that sad fact will probably prevent the Netherlands from being as entertaining as in generations past.

    Expect Louis van Gaal to line his side up in a 3-5-2, with an eye towards the attack, although it’s equally possible that the manager will spring a surprise just to annoy everyone. The Netherlands typically use two deep midfielders, tasked with playing in a calm and cool manner that frees up the advanced midfielder and strikers to do what they do best. When it works — and by works we mean the complex egos involved are all on the same page — it can produce both beautiful and effective soccer. When it doesn’t, the attack breaks down, possession is lost and the team is forced to defend. Which is bad news for them.

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    How they got there

    Qualifying was a breeze for the Netherlands, who went undefeated through their 10 group stage matches. That’s hardly a harbinger of a dominating performance in Brazil, however: no other team in UEFA’s Group D was ranked above 30 in the FIFA World Rankings. Beating up on Hungary and Romania is nice, but hardly indicative that the Dutch are going to cruise past the likes of Chile and Spain.

    Still, the qualification campaign was impressive, despite the straightforward group. They amassed 28 points from a possible 30 and had a tidy +29 goal differential. Their only blemish was a strange draw against Estonia in the seventh round, by which point they’d already more or less booked their flight to Brazil. Whether or not their lack of a real test in qualifying will hurt them in Group B is an open question, but we’ll find out the answer soon enough.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 3:00 pm Spain
    Jun. 18 12:00 pm Australia
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Chile
  12. Once upon a time, Spain were perennial losers. That seems ridiculous now — La Furia Roja haven’t been knocked out of a major tournament since being dispatched by France in the Round of 16 in the 2006 World Cup — and an entire generation is growing up seeing Spain as the defining side in world soccer. Certainly, you wouldn’t rule out a repeat of the heroics of South Africa, with Spain becoming the first country to boast two World Champions in a row since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962. While this team doesn’t seem quite as formidable as Spain’s side from four years ago, they’re still amongst the favorites to lift the most coveted trophy in international soccer.

    There’s no doubt the talent and experience is there for Spain to walk away from Brazil 2014 with their fourth consecutive major international championship, but it’s difficult to know whether the collective mind and body are willing. Vicente del Bosque’s key stars are all four years older than last time out, most of them having just completed long and grueling club seasons, and thanks to their success the last time out they no longer have a first winner’s medal to motivate them. Will the prospect of a repeat be enough to get Spain going? We won’t really be able to tell until the matches begin.

    • Group b
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 1
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3)

      Iker Casillas; Jordi Alba, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Piqué, César Azpilicueta; Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Xavi; David Silva, Diego Costa, Andrés Iniesta.

    Key Player

    It’s tough to pick out one player on a squad as deep as Spain’s. For most teams, any of Spain’s starters would be the focal point, the guy who you build a team around. But with this much star power, del Bosque doesn’t need to rely on any of his attackers. However, Spain might live and die in the defense, and that’s where Sergio Ramos will come in.

    The 28-year-old central defender is, at his best, one of the top center backs on the planet. He can shut down attacks and provide a threat of his own on set pieces (big goals are a thing for Ramos — see this year’s Champions League final), but on the flip side he’s also more than capable of having utterly epic trainwreck moments. Which version of him shows up game-to-game will be a significant barometer of whether or not Spain will be able to repeat.

    Spain will need Ramos on his game, and they’ll need him to keep his cool as well. He’s always been a player with a short fuse, and he has a knack for picking up red cards, having set the La Liga record for career dismissals earlier in the year. To win it all, La Furia Roja will need less fury and more focus from Ramos.

    How they play

    Tiki. Taka. Spain have long been regarded as a sort of Barcelona-lite, lacking the ruthless guile that comes with Lionel Messi but able to do the rest fairly happily. Control the ball. Keep the ball. Score on occasion. Win. It’s pretty basic stuff, predicated around the simple idea that having the ball means your opponent doesn’t, and therefore cannot beat you.

    It can also be rather… dare we say it? … boring. But the slow pace of the Spanish game has been exaggerated. Yes, sometimes they’re content to go 1-0 up and draw the sting out of a game, but when they want to turn on the style they’re more than capable of blowing their opponents off the pitch. One only has to turn to the 4-0 thrashing of Italy in the Euro 2012 final for evidence of just how dangerous this Spain side can be going forward.

    Del Bosque will generally line up with his side in a 4-3-3, leaning heavily on his wealth of midfield and attacking talent. They won’t just be looking for the forwards to score goals — the Spanish style needs proactive defensive work across the park, and you can expect to see red shirts swarming around the opposition on the rare occasions that Spain aren’t in possession. La Furia Roja indeed.

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    How they got there

    In the good old days (i.e. before Spain were successful), the holders of the World Cup didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of qualifying for the next tournament. But with that rule abandoned following the 2002 tournament, they had to do things the hard way. Arguably, that’s a good thing — despite being placed in a group alongside France, who actually ran them pretty close for most of the campaign — Spain were hardly going to fail to get to Brazil, and this way they got to play real games rather than faffing around with pointless friendlies for two years.

    Spain came out of their five-team qualifying group with 20 points from a possible 24 (three ahead of France) and never went behind in any of their eight matches. Sure, they struggled to beat Georgia and somehow ended up drawing against Finland at home, but it’s better to get those blips out of the way during qualifying rather than wait to fall down on the big stage. Right?

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 13 3:00 pm Netherlands
    Jun. 18 3:00 pm Chile
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Australia
  13. Introduction

    Welcome to the Group of Pretty Good. Nobody here will embarrass themselves, but it seems rather unlikely that anyone in Group C will make a major impact on the tournament either. They’ll just play some pretty even, interesting soccer and, after six matches in this tranquil little garden, two will be let into the wilds of the knockout rounds, whereupon they will be messily devoured.

    Colombia are the seeded team in the group, but Radamel Falcao will miss the tournament with a serious knee injury. Ivory Coast are a good team, but their stars are aging and they have never managed to make it out of the group stages. Japan have the top end talent and recent history, but there are questions at the back and they lost all three matches in the Confederations Cup last year. Greece are … somewhat effective, but in a very limited way and no one who isn’t actually Greek wants to see a team who plays ultra-defensive soccer do well.

    By the time July 13 rolls around and we’re gearing up for the final, Group C will probably be an afterthought, but that’s no reason to ignore them. With at least some quality in every team and all four capable of finishing anywhere from first to fourth, this group could make for the most entertaining watching of the first fortnight.

    With the possible exception of Greece’s games, of course.


    1 - Colombia

    2 - Japan

    3 - Ivory Coast

    4 - Greece

    Colombia: When Radamel Falcao tore his ACL in January, Colombia’s dreams of winning the World Cup — ambitious, but not completely unrealistic — were destroyed, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely devoid of quality. There may be questions at the back, but they have options throughout the midfield and James Rodríguez and Teófilo Gutiérrez are plenty good enough to earn Colombia top spot in the group.

    Japan: Last year’s Confederations Cup disaster will scare people away from picking Japan. Sure, they can blow through AFC qualifying, but there are maybe three good teams in that region. What’s that supposed to prove? Not much, but Keisuke Honda is great, he has the help of Shinji Kagawa and while there are questions at the back, at least it’s because they have too many options, not too few. Japan get the nod for second spot because of the balance in their squad. And it’s not like there are good (or bad) picks in this group anyway.

    Ivory Coast: The Ivory Coast won’t have the “we were in too tough a group” excuse this year. In previous World Cups, les Elephants had been confronted with some horrendous pairings — Brazil-Portugal and Argentina-Netherlands are nobody’s idea of a picnic. With respect to the rest of Group C, this edition looks easier to handle. That said, Didier Drogba isn’t in his prime anymore, Salomon Kalou hasn’t developed as les Elephants had hoped and Didier Zokora — an aging defensive midfielder — is still starting in the center. If Ivory Coast could bring their 2010 squad to Brazil, they would probably be favored to win the group, but time doesn’t work that way, so, barring some heroics from Yaya Toure, we’re going for a third-place finish here. What’s a World Cup without a failed Golden Generation?

    Greece: Defend-and-pray-the-other-team-gives-you-a-chance has worked out pretty well for Greece. Be it in the World Cup, the Euros or qualifying, Greece has been able to get results — admittedly while producing performances that had the neutrals wanting to gouge their eyes out. But even the unwatchable-but-effective version of Greece had a starting striker with a good knee, sadly unavailable to the current edition. They also normally don’t break up their defense between qualifying and the real deal, but they’ve done so this time around because ... why the hell not?

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 12:00 pm Colombia vs. Greece
    Jun. 14 9:00 pm Ivory Coast vs. Japan
    Jun. 19 12:00 pm Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
    Jun. 19 6:00 pm Japan vs. Greece
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Japan vs. Colombia
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Greece vs. Ivory Coast

    Must-Watch Game

    Japan vs. Ivory Coast

    The group’s opener features a Japan side trying to prove that going to Brazil doesn’t zap them of their ability to play soccer like it did in the Confederations Cup against an Ivory Coast team trying to make good on their promise as the best African team ever. With these two sides figuring to battle for second place in the group, this might also be the most important match of the group in terms of working out who advances to the knockout rounds and who goes home early.

    Didier Drogba will do his utmost to pummel a back line in flux, while Ivory Coast decides whether they think their holders can possibly contain the slippery duo of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, or if they need to pull Yaya Toure back to do it. Toure can do pretty much everything and les Elephants may task him with doing just that here. Don’t tell us that you’re willing to miss out on The Yaya Toure Show.

  14. The last time Colombia entered a World Cup as a dark horse contender was back in 1994 … and they didn’t make it out of the group stage, losing to both Romania and the United States. Since then, they’ve been mostly irrelevant, picking up just one point in 1998, then failing to reach another finals until now.

    Two decades after the humiliation of ‘94, Colombia seemed back to their best. They finished second in South American qualifying, had risen to fifth in FIFA’s world rankings and the phrase “dark horse” was bandied about once more. And then Radamel Falcao tore his ACL.

    José Pékerman had built his team around the ace center forward, but he’s going to have to do without in Brazil. Colombia still have James Rodríguez and Teófilo Gutiérrez, which is nice and all, but they are not Falcao. Falcao at his best is one of the most dangerous players in soccer, and replacing that production is essentially impossible.

    Maybe Colombia should just never get good ever again.

    • Group c
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 8
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-4-2)

      David Ospina; Pablo Armero, Cristián Zapata, Mario Yepes, Juan Camilo Zúñiga; James Rodríguez, Abel Aguilar, Carlos Sánchez, Juan Cuadrado; Teófilo Gutiérrez, Carlos Bacca.

    Key Player

    The bright lights and blazing sun in Brazil were meant to provide an opportunity for Radamel Falcao to shine. He was the hottest striker on the planet, playing for an exciting international side and the tournament was being played on his home continent. But a torn ACL ruined that dream, leaving Colombia with a huge vacancy in terms of both production and star power. Teófilo Gutiérrez could be the man to fill it.

    Gutiérrez is one of the most eccentric personalities in the sport. Allegations of selfishness and immaturity have followed him around as he’s bounced from team to team. His leaving Trabzonspor, without the club’s permission, just because he wanted to go home, didn’t help much. Nor did telling CA Lanús he couldn’t play due to national duty, despite Colombia not calling him up. Then there was the time he threatened his teammates with a paintball gun …

    There might not be a bigger character at the World Cup than Gutiérrez, but coaches squash their sense of reason and judgment, giving him yet another chance, for a simple reason: He’s good. Very good. This is a player who has led the both Colombian and Argentinean leagues in scoring, and a year ago was a Copa MX champion with Cruz Azul. He scored six goals in World Cup qualifying and has every tool necessary to set Brazil alight — as long as he leaves that paintball gun behind.

    How they play

    Colombia’s mantra is pretty simple: don’t screw up too badly at the back, get the ball to the attacking players and then get the hell out of the way.

    With a backline that ranges somewhere between aging and shaky, Colombia avoid asking for much. Instead, they give them plenty of help from the midfield, which always contains two defensively capable players and sometimes has three. It works. Los Cafeteros defend in numbers and when they win possession, they have a pretty good idea of what to do with the ball — find James Rodríguez, and find him fast.

    Once James has the ball, the Colombia attack takes off. He’s the creative force that drives them forward and with any of Los Cafeteros’ six outstanding forwards to feed, his job is pretty easy. Few teams in Brazil will be as dangerous on the counterattack or as lethal in front of goal as Colombia, but they do struggle at times when teams pack defenders. Normally, Los Cafeteros just give the ball to Falcao and let him bail them out, but obviously that’s not going to be an option in Brazil, so they’re going to have to find a new way to score when the match slows down.

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    How they got there

    Brazil got a World Cup spot as the host, so South American qualifying was a little easier this time around, but that doesn’t make Colombia’s run through the long, two-year, 16-match campaign any less impressive.

    Colombia finished second in qualifying behind Argentina, boasting a remarkable four-match stretch from September 2012 to March 2013 in which they beat Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Bolivia by a combined score of 14-1. That put Los Cafeteros well on their way to qualification, but they managed a 0-0 draw in Buenos Aires anyway, just to demonstrate that they could hang with the World Cup’s heavy hitters.

    Just how good were Colombia’s 30 points? It was more than they have tallied in any qualification rounds before, and they did it in just 16 matches, two fewer than the previous two cycles. If their performance over the last two years is any indication, this is the best Colombia team ever. Not bad.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 12:00 pm Greece
    Jun. 19 12:00 pm Ivory Coast
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Japan
  15. In 2004, Greece shocked the world by winning the European Championships. They defended at all costs throughout the tournament, and it worked. It was a lovely Cinderella story and people jumped on the underdog bandwagon, but the excitement left them blind to what was to follow — a decade of horribly boring soccer.

    For the last 10 years, Greece have continued to play like they did in 2004, putting men behind the ball and defending their way into, and through, international tournaments. Every once in a while they put out some lip service about evolving and wanting to become a more well-rounded team, but since that never actually happens, those claims are getting less and less believable.

    It’s possible to applaud their effectiveness — there is no doubt that it has worked, even if just once — but in truth it can be difficult to watch them play. Greece aren’t villains, by any means, but that’s mostly because villains are rarely this dull. When Giorgos Samaras is considered a creative force, it’s not surprising that the neutrals tend to shun this team.

    • Group c
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 12
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3)

      Orestis Karnezis; José Holebas, Kostas Manolas, Sokratis Papasthathopoulos, Vasilis Torosidis; Giannis Maniatis, Alexandros Tziolis, Kostas Katsouranis; Giorgos Samaras, Konstantinos Mitroglou, Dimitris Salpingidis.

    Key Player

    On a team that often defends with nine men behind the ball, the lone man up front takes on a huge burden to not just score goals, but to initiate the attack. The center forward has to be the heart of every foray forward simply because he’s the only player who starts anywhere near the opposition goal. They must score, and they must also create. That’s Kostas Mitroglou’s job for Greece.

    Even if the Greeks were able to give Mitroglou some help in the form of Dimitris Salpingidis’ four goals in qualifying, it was still Mitroglou who led the team when they needed it. He scored three of Greece’s four goals in the two-legged playoff — Salpingidis scored the other — to put them in the World Cup.

    The 26-year-old was supposed to make a major jump on the club level when he joined Fulham in January, giving him a Premier League stage on which to shine, but a knee injury limited him to just three matches after joining the club. In summation, Greece’s most important player is someone who hasn’t scored at any level for any team since November 19, 2013 and may or may not have a functioning knee. Good luck!

    How they play

    You would be hard-pressed to find a more defensive team in the world than Greece. They will change their formation from time to time, from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-3-1, but there’s really only one variable in how they play — whether they are putting nine or 10 men behind the ball.

    Greece’s success is based on their ability to defend. They allowed just four goals in the group stage, making the two they allowed in the playoff seem like a breakdown. They are big and strong throughout, from defense to forwards, relying on their ability not just to stay organized, but to out-muscle opponents.

    Greece rely on their wingers to make their tactics work. It’s easy to pack men behind the ball, but teams also need to be able to relieve pressure and score the occasional goal. Enter Dimitris Salpingidis and Giorgos Samaras. The duo’s tireless work out wide allows Greece to not just defend with nine, but to break through the wings to give Kostas Mitroglou options on the rare occasions Greece do go forward.

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    How they got there

    Greece played exactly to form in World Cup qualifying, limiting Group G opponents to just four goals and mustering only 12 of their own in reply. They got the results they needed, winning eight and drawing one in ten matches, but their points tally was matched by the far more free-scoring Bosnia and Herzegovina. With first place in the group determined by goal difference, Greece were done for.

    Relegated to second place, Greece were paired with Romania in the resulting two-legged playoff. Once there, Konstantinos Mitroglou made sure they would be making their way to Brazil. He scored a brace in the first leg and Dimitris Salpingidis added one of his own as Greece rolled to a 3-1 win. Mitroglou scored again in the second leg, a 1-1 draw, and with that, Greece had qualified for back-to-back World Cups for the first time in their history.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 12:00 pm Colombia
    Jun. 19 6:00 pm Japan
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Ivory Coast
  16. The Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation looks about to embark upon their final major tournament. Anchored by Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré and Kolo Touré, les Éléphants have, for more than a decade, been pegged as the African team that could go deep into a World Cup, proving that teams from the continent can compete with the world’s best.

    The results so far: two World Cups, two group stage exits.

    Despite the hope that Ivory Coast could blaze new trails, they’ve yet to make an impact at the World Cup. The Elephants have been thrown into tough groups and despite winning a match in each of the last two tournaments, they went home early. This generation hasn’t done much better in continental play either, failing to win an African Cup of Nations and losing the final on penalties twice since 2006.

    The terms “overrated” and “choke artists” have been thrown Ivory Coast’s way. They might be harsh, but with Drogba and both Tourés on the wrong side of 30, les Éléphants are one more group stage knockout from having those labels inked into the history books forever.

    • Group c
    • Federation CAF
    • Fifa Ranking 23
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Boubacar Barry; Arthur Boka, Sol Bamba, Kolo Touré, Serge Aurier; Didier Zokora, Cheick Tioté; Salomon Kalou, Yaya Touré, Gervinho; Didier Drogba.

    Key Player

    Former Chelsea star Didier Drogba has long been in the spotlight for Ivory Coast, but in truth it’s been years since he has been their best player. That title belongs to Yaya Touré, winner of three straight African Footballer of the Year awards.

    When Touré was at Barcelona, he was a defensive midfielder, but he played his final match for the Blaugrana at central defense. Since his move to Manchester City, however, he has been pushed further and further up the pitch, and his transformation into a key attacking player culminated in a 24-goal campaign this season.

    Basically, Touré can do anything.

    Want Touré to tackle? He will. Want him to score? He’ll do that too. Anything in between? No problem. Ivory Coast ask Yaya Touré to do more than should be humanly possible. And he does it, mostly without breaking a sweat. If this team does manage to get to the knockout rounds, they’ll almost certainly have Yaya to thank.

    How they play

    As is often the case with teams that play a 4-2-3-1, les Éléphants’ play revolves around their central attacking midfielder. Luckily for Ivory Coast, they have a pretty good one in Yaya Touré.

    Didier Drogba will do the grunt work up front, while out wide the Elephants are still dependent on Gervinho and Salomon Kalou to remember how to soccer (it’s a coin flip) with Didier Zokora still lugging his old legs around alongside Cheick Tioté in the midfield. It makes for a wonderful spectacle of steel, tired legs, inconsistency and mass confusion, but Touré’s at the center and that alone makes it work more often than not.

    Then again, that all goes for naught if their defense can’t hold up, and it may not. Ivory Coast struggled to keep the opposition out at times during qualifying, but when the defense melts down, at least it’s fairly entertaining to watch. Unless you’re an Ivory Coast fan, that is.

    This section could probably be replaced with ‘hope Yaya Touré wins games by himself.’

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    How they got there

    Ivory Coast almost broke a sweat in qualifying. Almost.

    They went undefeated in the second round to win Group C with ease — Morocco, Tanzania and Gambia were their opponents — but because CAF has a nonsensical qualifying format, they still had to win a two-legged playoff to make it to the World Cup. Senegal were duly seen off by an aggregate score of 4-2, and les Éléphants had their place in Brazil.

    Overall, Ivory Coast played eight qualifiers and didn’t lose a single game, scoring 19 goals and surrendering seven. Only Ghana came even close to looking as good. Not coincidentally, les Éléphants and the Black Stars are far and away the two best teams on the continent. Amazing how that works.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 9:00 pm Japan
    Jun. 19 12:00 pm Colombia
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Greece
  17. There are a lot of countries in the world that have never been to the World Cup. And there are a lot of countries that haven’t ever reached the knockout stages, let alone got their twice. And most of those poor countries have taken soccer seriously for more than 21 years.

    Japan laughs at all of them.

    Japan didn’t even have a proper professional league until 1993, when the J-League was formed. They didn’t qualify for a World Cup until 1998 and didn’t make a knockout stage until 2002. And yet despite being a footballing nation so young they would get carded for a drink*, they have hosted a World Cup, been to the knockout stages twice and have players at the likes of Manchester United and AC Milan.

    *Admittedly probably not in Brazil.

    Now the Japanese find themselves in a thoroughly manageable group. They won’t just be hoping to squeak into second and advance to the knockouts — the Samurai will be aiming to top Group C and advance to the second round as a seeded team. If they do so, it will leave even more countries around the world wondering how the hell Japan have done in 21 years what they haven’t been able to do in a century.

    • Group c
    • Federation AFC
    • Fifa Ranking 46
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Shusaku Kawashima; Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Yasuyuki Konno, Atsuto Uchida; Yasuhito Endō, Makoto Hasebe; Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki; Yoichiro Kakitani.

    Key Player

    Keisuke Honda is Japan’s creative attacking midfielder. He’s also the man at the center of their their transition play. And he’s their false nine. He takes their free kicks, too.

    Basically, Keisuke Honda is Japan’s everything, at least on the attack.

    Shinji Kagawa and the rest of the Samurai are lovely and all, but Honda is the player who makes Japan go. He won MVP at the 2011 Asian Cup and led the final round of AFC World Cup qualifying in goals despite missing two games. That he now plays for Milan — who handed him the No. 10 shirt upon his arrival — is fairly impressive as well, at least for a minor soccer power.

    And in case you doubt Honda, think back to four years ago and the 2010 World Cup. What comes to mind first: the sublime 30-yard free kick against Denmark, his strike against Cameroon or the gorgeous Cruyff turn to pick up the assist that sent Japan to the knockout stages?

    The correct answer is “yes” and “more please.”

    How they play

    If you’re a new soccer fan — or are trying to explain formations to a new soccer fan — Japan is your holy grail. No formation is more en vogue than the 4-2-3-1 and Japan plays the most straightforward and basic one around.

    Four defenders with fullbacks that look to get forward? Check.

    Two holding midfielders, neither of which is a true destroyer and both of whom are tasked with moving the ball to the forward players as soon as it’s been won? Check.

    Wingers that like to cut in? Check.

    A brilliant No. 10 — okay, so Keisuke Honda wears No. 4, but he’s good enough to get away with it — behind a versatile striker? Check.

    Call Japan basic if you’d like. You can even call them boring. But if you want to see what the formation of the 21st century looks like in its purest form, look at Japan. And by the way, there’s a reason why Japan plays the way so many other teams do in 2014 — it works. They execute the simple things, and they do so very well.

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    How they got there

    Japan was the first team in the world to qualify for the World Cup (OK, technically it was Brazil, but you are being a tad pedantic, aren’t you?). They don’t get an award for that — maybe they got a second helping of orange slices — but they did get a trip to Brazil after topping AFC’s Group B, and that’s pretty good going.

    The Samurai cruised through the third round of qualifying with 10 points from their first four matches. With that they had booked their spot in the next round, so they promptly punted their last two games and moved on with their lives.

    In case teams thought those last two losses meant Japan were vulnerable, they won their first two matches of the final round by a combined score of 9-0. That’s pretty much how qualifying went for Japan — Keisuke Honda led the final round in goals, with Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki tying for second.

    When they officially clinched a spot in Brazil, it was June 4, 2013, 373 days before the tournament’s starting date. World Cup qualifying might be a battle for some teams, but for Japan it was a lovely stroll through a park made of bubblegum and chocolate. The real deal should prove somewhat more challenging.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 9:00 pm Ivory Coast
    Jun. 19 6:00 pm Greece
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Colombia
  18. Introduction

    One of the more interesting groups at the tournament, Group D contains three good teams who will all be disappointed not to qualify plus a spoiler side in Costa Rica, who are unlikely to advance but still fully capable of having a say in how things turn out.

    England, Italy and Uruguay will almost certainly be competing for the two qualification spots, and there are subplots aplenty to spice things up even further. Luis Suárez should be fit to face England, so there are lots of potential shenanigans there, and we also get a replay of the Euro 2012 quarterfinal between Roy Hodgson’s men and an Andrea Pirlo-led Italy.

    In all, it’s a very dangerous group, likely to be tight to the point that goal difference could play a part. One moment could change everything for any of these sides. That means we should have the sort drama and tension normally reserved for the knockout stages nice and early, which will make for excellent viewing.


    1 - Italy

    2 - England

    3 - Uruguay

    4 - Costa Rica

    Italy: Italy simply have the best, most complete and most experienced squad in the group. They’ve also been performing at the highest level and have an excellent coach. They should finish top, but they will need to pick up a win against Uruguay or England to do it. It’s not really the Italian style to rattle a shedload of goals past Costa Rica, and in the potential scenario where the three games between the big three teams in the group all end up in draws, it could come down to who can beat the Central Americans by the highest scoreline. That could see Italy in trouble, but otherwise, their quality should send them through.

    England: Uruguay are arguably a better side than England, but Hodgson has his men playing as a coherent unit and they do seem to possess the bizarre ability to unsettle opposing teams even with their overly-predictable method of attacking. For that reason, it seems likely they’ll just about squeeze out Suárez and Co. for second place. Their two-banks-of-four rigidity will always give them the option of playing negatively, and if they decide to, they’ll be difficult to beat.

    Uruguay: Expect this to be very close, but Uruguay have several blind spots in their side. Their defense and midfield are slightly creaky, and while Suárez-Edinson Cavani should be the best strike partnership at the tournament, the latter has been in relatively poor form since joining Paris Saint-Germain. They certainly could qualify, but the odds are probably just about against them.

    Costa Rica: Unfortunately, it’s probably not Costa Rica’s year. They’re not so bad that they’ll be guaranteed a defeat in every game, so they could well have a big say in how the group ends up, but it’s very unlikely they’ll be going through themselves, or indeed by finishing anywhere but bottom. Los Ticos simply don’t have the quality to compete with the rest of the teams in the group, even if they shouldn’t be written off in individual games. Losing leading scorer Álvaro Saborío to a broken foot just two weeks ahead of the tournament only serves to make matters worse.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 3:00 pm Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
    Jun. 14 6:00 pm England vs. Italy
    Jun. 19 3:00 pm Uruguay vs. England
    Jun. 20 12:00 pm Italy vs. Costa Rica
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Italy vs. Uruguay
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Costa Rica vs. England

    Must-Watch Game

    England vs. Uruguay

    All three of the games between the big three teams will be required viewing, but this one is likely to be the most tense. It will be a match between two deeply flawed sides with contrasting styles — one unpredictable outfit containing a handful of world-class players sandwiched between cloggers, and one consisting mostly of average players in a well-drilled unit — and on top of that it features the rather interesting subplot of Luis Suárez, to English fans easily the most obvious villain of the tournament, taking on the Three Lions. It will probably have the feel of a knockout game, contain plenty of nastiness and will certainly be decisive.

  19. 2014 represents an incredibly unlucky tournament for the Central American side even before a ball has been kicked — while they’ve assembled one of their most talented squads of all time, they’ve ended up in very a tricky group, mostly thanks to FIFA seeding procedures. Confronted by Italy, England and Uruguay, Costa Rica are overwhelming favorites to finish last as, on paper, the weakest of the four teams by some distance. To make matters worse, they lost their leading scorer, Álvaro Saborío, to injury two weeks before the tournament.

    Despite Saborío’s absence, los Ticos still possess some firepower, and in any given game they could easily give any of their more illustrious opponents a scare. Celso Borges, Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz give them plenty of options in attack, although at the other end of the pitch they may struggle, and will probably be more than a little reliant on goalkeeper Keylor Navas for any points they might manage to grab. While it would be a major upset to see this team get out of the group, it’s far from out of the question that they could decide which of the other teams does make it through. There’s nothing wrong with playing spoiler.

    • Group d
    • Federation CONCACAF
    • Fifa Ranking 28
    • Projected Starting 11 (3-4-3):

      Keylor Navas; Michael Umaña, Giancarlo González, Johnny Acosta; Júnior Díaz, Celso Borges, Yeltsin Tejeda, Cristian Gamboa; Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell, Christian Bolaños.

    Key Player

    A huge part of Costa Rica’s defensive efforts in qualifying came down to the emergence of Keylor Navas as one of the best keepers around. The 27-year-old had an excellent season in La Liga with Levante (especially in the important games, which bodes well for this tournament) and could easily be playing for a much bigger side next season.

    Navas is supremely confident and absolutely fearless. He'll throw his body into scrums to punch away crosses and will dive at players' feet for loose balls, even if it means getting caught on the follow-through. That bravery will serve him well in Brazil. With Costa Rica expected to be under fire, they will need him to go right at, and through, some of the world's best players to get balls before they become scoring chances as often as they will need him for his shot-stopping.

    That shot-stopping is nothing to sneeze at, though. Navas has a knack for making ridiculous saves, and the more saves he makes, the more confident he gets, leading to the occasional match in which he’ll keep clean-sheets single-handedly. If he can pull off a few majestic saves to keep los Ticos in tight games and get on a roll, then they might just have an outside bet of causing an upset in Brazil. And if that happens, you can bet that his name will be a constant presence on the transfer-rumor circuit this summer.

    How they play

    Costa Rica have used a variety of subtly different formations, but generally they tend to have one striker supported by two other attackers close behind. Joel Campbell has staked his claim to be that main striker after an impressive season at Olympiacos and Álvaro Saborío’s unfortunately-timed injury, and the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolaños will be buzzing around behind him in support.

    Costa Rica spent most of qualifying in 3-4-3, with Júnior Díaz and Cristian Gamboa as wing backs, but they could just as easily field a 4-3-3 at the World Cup. They’ve bounced around between the two over the last two years, but regardless of their formation, they're a team that thrives in open spaces and controlled chaos. Whereas most underdogs like to sit back and play in small spaces, Costa Rica like to make a mess of things and hope their front three can make the most of their opponents’ mistakes.

    Los Ticos will have to be very hard-working, and they’ll apply a heavy press to try to keep the opposition off balance. If the other teams in the group are slow to move the ball around — we’re looking at you, England — Costa Rica’s energy could prove problematic. Should you see them start to win possession high up the pitch on a regular basis, watch out for an upset.

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    How they got there

    Costa Rica sprung a surprise to finish second in CONCACAF’s hex round, emerging ahead of both Honduras and Mexico to claim an automatic qualifying berth. The did so with some solid, well-drilled performances — los Ticos conceded the fewest goals in qualifying and lost only two out of 10 games, one of which arrived in conditions that came closer to ice hockey than they did to soccer.

    A 2-1 final day home win against a Mexico side desperate for points confirmed this team wasn’t just getting lucky — Costa Rica are definitely a good side, and they’re definitely good enough to be on the same field as the traditional powers. That’s probably not going to be enough to see them out of Group D, but at the same time it’s unlikely that they’ll embarrass themselves either.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 3:00 pm Uruguay
    Jun. 20 12:00 pm Italy
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm England
  20. Perennial underachievers in their own minds, England’s story in tournaments is usually an interesting one, almost always resulting in some combination of comedy and tragedy. Paul Gascoigne’s tears, the Hand of God, Frank Lampard’s goal that never was — there’s always a hard-luck story to be had when the Three Lions are involved.

    This year, curiously, England appeared to be heading to a World Cup without any expectation whatsoever. They seemed to have a mediocre team under a mediocre manager, and looked to be just there for the ride. But Roy Hodgson had a surprise or two up his sleeve, and picked a surprisingly young, dynamic squad to head to the tournament. At that point, everyone got rather excited. Is the belief back for England? Will they fail as dramatically as they usually do?

    It’s almost admirable that they seem to head into a tournament with the same mix of bravado and blind fear regardless of the circumstances.

    • Group d
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 10
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):

      Joe Hart; Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Glen Johnson; Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson; Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana; Daniel Sturridge.

    Key Player

    Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are the more seasoned veterans, Daniel Sturridge has been more prolific, and plenty of players will have their parts to play, but Rooney is the only player England possess who can legitimately win a game single-handedly. Whether he plays up front or deeper, he brings the same thing to the team — mind-blowing inconsistency and the ability to score goals out of nowhere to settle tight encounters.

    Sometimes Rooney isn’t worth the bother — as evidenced by the fact that the fans who rate him the least in England are probably those of his own club, Manchester United, who watch him every week. But Alex Ferguson and then David Moyes refused to drop him for his club for the same reason his England managers keep him in the starting lineup — his habit of scoring important goals.

    If England get the best out of Rooney, they’re in very good shape to advance to the knockout rounds and perhaps get even further than that. But if they get Bad Rooney, the man who looks like he has no idea of where to move or even how best to kick a football, they’re in all sorts of trouble. As he goes, so too goes the team.

    How they play

    This is a difficult question to answer, since Hodgson has been experimenting a lot with England but hasn’t really adjusted his style to accommodate several big changes that have happened over the past year. Steven Gerrard has moved deeper with Liverpool, Daniel Sturridge has emerged as a prolific and consistent goalscorer, and Gary Cahill’s excellent season means he’s now first choice at center back.

    They’ll probably go defensive with two solid banks of four, since this is Roy Hodgson’s England, but there may be changes ahead. If Hodgson selects Adam Lallana and Danny Welbeck down the flanks, they’ll have some balance. Lallana will serve as a secondary creative force, coming inside off the right to pick out a pass, while Welbeck will deploy his customary brand of industry and physicality on the left. They also have some interesting bench options in the way of teenage wonder Raheem Sterling and defensive rock James Milner.

    England’s inability to keep the ball means they’re certainly not a possession side. And they’re hardly a pacy counter-attacking side either, especially if Sterling’s not playing. They’re simply a defensive team, who attack primitively, launching long passes, hoping Wayne Rooney will get on the end of loose balls around the box or that Phil Jagielka can head in from a corner. It’s not pretty, but that style proved surprisingly effective at Euro 2012 when the Three Lions made the quarterfinals. Italy and Uruguay are ostensibly better sides but it would be no shock at all were England to beat one or even both.

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    How they got there

    England qualified in surprisingly nervous fashion. Drawn with Ukraine and Poland — two teams with good players but which play well beneath the sum of their parts — Montenegro, and two whipping boys in San Marino and Moldova, England proved unable to get the better of any of the three of their serious opponents until the last minute. England were forced to settle for four draws against those three before victories against Montenegro and Poland in the final two matches enabled them to qualify as group winners, a solitary point ahead of Ukraine.

    It was a poor showing, and they could quite easily have failed to qualify, but thankfully for Hodgson, Ukraine and Poland struggled to stand out either. England should be much better than they were in UEFA Group H, but there are still question marks over their ability to perform at the level they’re theoretically capable of in competitive matches

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 6:00 pm Italy
    Jun. 19 3:00 pm Uruguay
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Costa Rica
  21. With Italy a class below the likes of Germany and Spain, and not enjoying the continental home advantage, nobody is really expecting the Azzurri to do much of anything at this tournament. But nobody expected them to do anything in 2006 or 2012, either — this is a country with a long history of turning up when nobody expects them.

    Not only do Italy have a good coach and some respectable recent performances, but they have a quietly brilliant squad, too. They have a great blend of youth and experience, with wonderkids like Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and Mattia De Sciglio rubbing shoulders with legends like Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. They also have one of the most composed, deadly strikers in the game in Mario Balotelli, a solid defensive partnership who play together along with their goalkeeper at club level, and a host of solid, versatile squad players. They could well be a dark horse for the tournament, and they certainly have enough about them to top Group D comfortably should they play at their best.

    • Group d
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 9
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-2-1):

      Gianluigi Buffon; Mattia De Sciglio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Ignazio Abate; Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Verratti; Claudio Marchisio, Antonio Candreva; Mario Balotelli.

    Key Player

    Mario Balotelli. Italy will need performances from several key players to do well, among them Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, but AC Milan’s Balotelli will be the game-changer. One of the most ruthless finishers at the tournament, he’s built for World Cups and the tense, cagey soccer they produce: an all-rounder, capable of finishing the one half-chance he might get all game. He’s also a great deal of fun to watch, both on and off the pitch.

    Balotelli’s performances were key to Italy’s good run at Euro 2012, and they’ll need another strong display from the 23-year-old to do well in Brazil. If they don’t — and Balotelli’s detractors take pains to remind everyone that the former Manchester City man is nothing if not erratic — they’re probably in some trouble. A number of young attackers, such as Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile, might step up to offer an at least palatable alternative, but they don’t offer the quality and composure that Super Mario can bring to this Azzurri side.

    How they play

    This shouldn’t surprise you: Italy will play in the classic Italian style. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean a ridiculously defensive game. Rather, it means a controlled one. The Azzurri will focus on keeping possession, moving the ball with a deliberate, patient tempo and remaining responsible and solid in defense.

    They don’t lack for pace on the flanks, but they’ll probably be reliant on a moment of magic to unlock defenses — a stunning Balotelli finish, a defense-splitting Pirlo pass, a De Rossi thunderbolt, or a moment of wizardry from the likes of Alessio Cerci or Lorenzo Insigne. Their probing, languid attacking scheme isn’t always a reliable method of playing, but it suits World Cup soccer played in scorching heat perfectly, allowing them to conserve energy while their opponents chase shadows.

    Italy are not set in their ways as far as formation and personnel, however. They have a variety of players and Prandelli isn’t afraid to use all of them. He’s switched between three and four-man back lines, and plenty of variations of them to boot. There are also quite a few players in this team that didn’t participate much in qualifying, but will be key in Brazil.

    Cesare Prandelli has got the Azzurri working together well as a unit, and although he’s an unpredictable coach, the Italians will always be the Italians. And that will make them very difficult to beat.

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    How they got there

    Pretty comfortably, and without losing a match. Italy certainly weren’t spectacular, but they got the job done with relative ease, going undefeated as they finished six points clear in UEFA’s Group B. Denmark, the Czech Republic, Armenia, Bulgaria and Malta provided a set of solid teams who could be potentially dangerous in one-off games — the Azzurri were held to a draw in four of 10 matches — but were unlikely to be able to keep it up for the whole campaign, and so it proved.

    Despite the relatively low level of competition, Italy still showed some admirable resolve in going unbeaten, with a late Alberto Aquilani equalizer in Denmark preserving that record in their penultimate game. On the other hand, there were no truly impressive results, either — Italy’s largest margin of victory in qualification was a rather lame two goals, which is slightly embarrassing when one remembers that Malta were in the group.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 6:00 pm England
    Jun. 20 12:00 pm Costa Rica
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Uruguay
  22. Although Uruguay are the top seeded team in Group D, the bookmakers have them coming in at second place ahead of England; even then it’s only by a narrow margin. They undoubtedly have some sublime talent in their ranks, including what are probably the group’s two best players in Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani, but their side is also a flawed one with an aging backline and more than a few average players making up the numbers in an unbalanced-looking team.

    There’s really not a big gap between Italy, Uruguay and England so they’ll be hoping to qualify for the knockout stages and will be hugely disappointed if they don’t. Equally, it would be a huge surprise if they were to repeat their heroics from South Africa, where they got to the semifinal stage after a penalty shootout win that introduced the black arts of Suárez to the wider world.

    To make a long story shorter, Uruguay are a good side, a dangerous one to boot, but this time around they’re not really dark horses to make a deep run in the tournament.

    • Group d
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 7
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-4-2):

      Fernando Muslera; Martín Cáceres, Diego Godín, Diego Lugano, Maxi Pereira; Cristian Rodríguez, Walter Gargano, Egidio Arévalo Ríos, Gastón Ramírez; Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez.

    Key Player

    It has to be Luis Suárez, doesn’t it? The entire midfield and Edinson Cavani will undoubtedly be important too, but the World Cup is about shocking moments, drama and ingenuity, and unless Cavani puts his long-range-thunderbolt boots on — which, come to think of it, isn’t so out of the question — Suárez is most likely to provide the sparks for this team.

    Suárez is the complete player’s complete player. Where others might settle for being a visionary talent, capable of beating defenders one-on-one with mesmerising runs and finding the goal from impossible positions, Suárez has gone beyond that and added a few dashes of villainy to his game. That handball against Ghana. Words that may or may not have been said to Patrice Evra in a way that may or may not be construed as racial abuse. The bites that were definitely inflicted upon Branislav Ivanović and Otman Bakkal. That ‘is a horrible diver’ is the least of his perceived sins is instructive — no other player in the world combines this much talent with this much controversy.

    While Cavani could be called the superior striker on his day, the facts are simple. If Suárez has a good World Cup, Uruguay will have a good World Cup. And if he doesn’t, they’re doomed. Which makes his recent knee injury even more problematic — how well Suárez recovers from the meniscus tear he suffered in Liverpool’s final game of the season could very well make or break this World Cup for Uruguay.

    How they play

    Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez likes to keep his side in a fairly rigid 4-4-2, which allows his two strikers, Cavani and Suárez, to wreak maximum havoc up front. But impressive as that duo is, those aren’t Uruguay’s only threats. They’ve certainly got some skill in midfield, and in Cristian Rodríguez they possess a skillful and creative winger.

    There’s a problem in the wings, however — with Cavani having had a relatively poor season and Suárez not fully fit after a knee injury, Uruguay may need to have a plan B to turn to should things not go according to plan early on. They have also played 3-5-2 and 4-5-1 under Tabárez, so they do have the capacity to spring a surprise.

    Should their attacking game fail to click, Uruguay could be in dire straits. Diego Godín might be half of Europe’s best club-level center back pairing, but captain Diego Lugano couldn’t even cut it at West Bromwich Albion last season and Fernando Muslera is good for a calamitous error every few games. Defensively, their best hope is to outscore everyone they meet.

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    How they got there

    Uruguay should have qualified comfortably from South America, but they were shockingly inconsistent in the middle stages and only just managed to find their way to Brazil. A dismal run of games saw them thrashed by Colombia, Argentina and even Bolivia, and they only managed to draw against Ecuador and Paraguay.

    Eventually, wins against lowly Venezuela and Peru saw Uruguay steady the ship before pulling out a victory over Colombia, suffering a major setback with defeat to Ecuador but beating Argentina to clinch fifth place. Fifth bought them a playoff spot rather than an automatic berth in Brazil, but it was a playoff against the fifth team from the AFC — in this case Jordan. Unsurprisingly, Uruguay cruised past their hapless opponents 5-0 on aggregate, finally securing their place in Brazil after a thoroughly nervy campaign.

    Óscar Tabárez will be hoping that the various blips in qualifying have been worked out of the system over the last two years, but considering the state of the defense it seems likely that Uruguay’s inconsistency is embedded in the team rather than anything that they can expel when the going gets tough.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 14 3:00 pm Costa Rica
    Jun. 19 3:00 pm England
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Italy
  23. Introduction

    When the World Cup draw was first made, Group E looked like one of the weakest in the tournament. Switzerland’s easy qualification draw had given them a surprise seed as a top eight team in the FIFA rankings, France looked their classically inconsistent selves, and Ecuador and Honduras were widely regarded as two of the worst teams to have qualified. However, after some closer inspection, you wouldn’t be so quick to write any of these sides off.

    Didier Deschamps appears to have ironed out the flaws that saw France only just squeak into the World Cup with a dramatic playoff victory over Ukraine. Their recent friendlies have featured phenomenally slick performances, combining devastating power with a delightful flair. Make no mistake, Les Bleus are in the World Cup to win it.

    Meanwhile, Switzerland travels to Brazil armed with one of the most underrated teams in the competition. Spearheaded by wonderkids like Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, and guided by the wily old coach Ottmar Hitzfeld — who will no doubt want to make a mark in his last ever major tournament before retirement — they certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly. They’re a team for both the future, and the present.

    Ecuador and Honduras aren’t in the same league as France and Switzerland, and both will need to upset some serious odds to make it through the group stages. However, they both offer a genuine counter-attacking threat, thanks to their high-tempo passing, pace and width. If they iron out their respective defensive flaws, then squeaking through the group isn’t out of the question.


    1 - France

    2 - Switzerland

    3 - Ecuador

    4 - Honduras

    France: France are coming into immense form at just the right time, with Didier Deschamps having seemingly hit upon his best tactics and personnel after a shaky qualifying campaign. Les Bleus have several top-tier players, and most of them head to Brazil untarnished by the horrific experiences of past World Cup disasters. France isn’t just a contender to win the group; they’re a contender to win the whole tournament.

    Switzerland: Switzerland is perhaps the most underestimated team heading to Brazil, despite containing some of the finest talent in European soccer. Ottmar Hitzfeld has been around long enough to mold his young wonderkids into a fluid attacking unit that could inflict some serious damage on some of the World Cup favorites, while a steely, experienced midfield ensures they have the bite to match their bark. Should Switzerland fail to progress though the group, it’ll go down as an opportunity missed.

    Ecuador: Ecuador caused an upset in their last World Cup appearance eight years ago by progressing into the knockout stages for the first time in their history. They’ll be quietly confident of doing the same again this time around, thanks to the pace provided by wingers Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero and striker Felipe Caicedo’s attacking firepower. However, their shaky defense means they’ll likely fall victim to the ruthless attacks of both France and Switzerland, and will probably have to settle for a narrow elimination.

    Honduras: Without a doubt, Honduras is one of the weakest squads heading to Brazil, and it would take a minor miracle for them to progress through to the knockout stages. Merely achieving qualification was an impressive feat for Luis Fernando Suárez’s men. Though they do offer some promise in attack, particularly through the likes of midfielders Andy Najar, Óscar Boniek García and Roger Espinoza, they are lacking in a great goalscorer and are extremely flimsy in defense. They’ll do well to pick up a point before heading home.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 12:00 pm Switzerland vs. Ecuador
    Jun. 15 3:00 pm France vs. Honduras
    Jun. 20 3:00 pm Switzerland vs. France
    Jun. 20 6:00 pm Honduras vs. Ecuador
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Honduras vs. Switzerland
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Ecuador vs. France

    Must-Watch Game

    Switzerland vs. Ecuador

    Though the game between the two best teams in the group is Switzerland versus France, it’s likely the opening match between Switzerland and Ecuador will be the most significant. With every side expecting to beat Honduras, and France looking ever-more likely to progress with a maximum nine points, it could well be that this game’s result will prove decisive in determining the second qualifying team.

    Since this game is both critically important and the opening match for both sides, it could well turn out to be an extremely dull, cagey affair. But these teams excel at attacking over defending, and will see weaknesses in the opposition they can exploit. Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka should delight in the gaping space between Ecuador’s midfield and defense, though La Tri’s counter-attacking threat will be especially dangerous down Switzerland’s right side, where their best player, Jefferson Montero, could get in behind attacking fullback Stephan Lichtsteiner.

    With any luck, we’ll see a game with plenty of attacking thrust, and a few goals to cheer.

  24. Ecuador has reached their third World Cup in the face of great tragedy after the sudden death of their star striker Christian Benítez last July. Occurring midway through their qualification campaign, Chucho’s death understandably hit La Tri hard. However, inspired by their fallen comrade, Ecuador overcame the odds to automatically qualify ahead of a much stronger Uruguay team. They’ll hope to cause further upsets in Brazil.

    Ecuador are certainly not one of the strongest teams in the tournament. However, they do have a handful of genuinely dangerous players; some of whom head to Brazil with memories of their excellent showing in Germany in 2006, when they progressed into the World Cup's knockout stages for the first time in their history.

    Having been drawn in the same group as the very talented France and Switzerland, it’ll be difficult for La Tri to match that run, particularly having seen legendary center back Iván Hurtado retire since their last World Cup appearance. But as long as Ecuador’s wingers Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia are firing on all cylinders, opposition defenses will have to be on guard. If they’re not, an upset or two isn’t out of the question.

    • Group e
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 26
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-4-2):

      Alexander Domínguez; Walter Ayoví, Frickson Erazo, Jorge Guagua, Juan Carlos Paredes; Jefferson Montero, Christian Noboa, Édison Méndez, Antonio Valencia; Felipe Caicedo, Enner Valencia.

    Key Player

    Though captain Antonio Valencia is probably Ecuador’s most successful player, their most important at present is probably their other winger, Jefferson Montero. The 24-year-old, who plays his club soccer at Morelia in Mexico, has already made nearly 40 appearances for his country since making his debut as a teenager, with his impressive performances establishing him as one of the first names on Reinaldo Rueda’s team sheet. Expect him to start every game in Brazil.

    Ecuador’s reliance on wing play and crosses means Montero is vital to their chance creation, invariably operating on the left of midfield in their 4-4-2. Whereas Valencia appears to have lost the pace and power that characterized his brilliant performances at Manchester United a few seasons ago, the younger Montero is outstanding in one-on-one situations; always looking to beat a full back for pace and skill, and very often managing it. Against teams like France and Switzerland, who both play with attack-heavy right backs and therefore leave plenty of space to attack on that flank, Montero could well prove to be a matchwinner.

    How they play

    Ecuador’s style is highly characteristic of South American domestic soccer in its focus on direct, high-tempo passing and wing play. Reinaldo Rueda’s 4-4-2 is ideal for such an approach, with the two central midfielders, Édison Méndez and Christian Noboa, usually relying on Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero to carry the ball into the final third. As such, opposition defences can be expected to be peppered with crosses, where the physical forward Felipe Caicedo will be at his most dangerous.

    Caicedo’s strike partner is usually Enner Valencia, who started out as a winger but has since been converted into a center forward. The second striker can be crucial to Ecuador’s attack, often drifting laterally across the pitch to create passing triangles with Antonio Valencia on the right flank, and Montero on the left.

    Ecuador are rather less convincing defensively than going forward, despite conceding only 16 times in as many games in qualification. Their pressing is often incoherent, leaving them with big spaces between their high midfield and deep defense as different players do different things. However, their squad is, if nothing else, highly industrious, with their wingers expected to consistently track back and shield the full backs, and the strikers defending from the front. If they nail their defensive organization in the run-up to the World Cup, they have the potential to surprise.

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    How they got there

    Ecuador's qualifying campaign didn't start in particularly convincing fashion, with Reinaldo Rueda coming under pressure after defeats to Paraguay and Argentina early on. However, a string of squad alterations saw him quickly get things back on track, with Ecuador going on a six-game unbeaten run after being smashed 4-0 in Buenos Aires back in June 2012.

    That unbeaten run included surprise victories over hotly-tipped Colombia and Chile, and a draw away against ever-challenging Uruguay. They certainly benefited from home advantage, with their national stadium situated in the middle of the highest altitude capital city in the world. In fact, Ecuador didn’t lose a single match in front of their own fans in their entire qualification campaign, which more than made up for their woes on the road. Their unbeaten streak surprisingly came to an end in Peru, though three days later they held group leaders Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Quito to get their campaign back on track.

    However, just over a month later came the devastating news of the death of Christian Benítez, which preceded a defeat to Colombia and a disappointing draw away in Bolivia. It looked like Chucho’s death had derailed their campaign, but a win at home to Uruguay proved enough to guarantee Ecuador a place in Brazil.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 12:00 pm Switzerland
    Jun. 20 6:00 pm Honduras
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm France
  25. France is certainly among the true giants of international soccer, with some of the world’s greatest ever players, from Michel Platini to Zinedine Zidane, having donned Les Bleus’ shirt. However, they also come with an unfortunate tendency to dramatically implode at major tournaments.

    In 2002, four years on from their only World Cup win, they were hotly tipped to retain their crown. But they crashed out in the group stages without scoring a single goal; the worst ever performance by a defending team. Four years later they reached the final, only for the retiring Zidane — France’s greatest ever player — to headbutt Italy’s Marco Materazzi in extra time, earning himself a red card. Italy would go on to win on penalties. But without a doubt, the worst came in 2010, when a string of off-field issues culminated in defender Patrice Evra leading his teammates in a training boycott. Jean-Louis Valentin, head of the French Football Federation, quit on the spot. France was eliminated without winning a game.

    Fortunately for Les Bleus, this time around coach Didier Deschamps appears to have his players in check. He’s got a wonderful blend of youth and experience, and a couple of genuine stars in his starting 11. Thanks to an astonishingly powerful midfield and a nimble, mobile attack, Les Bleus are looking like serious contenders, quietly making great strides under the cover of their previous underperformance. Let’s just hope they can keep things together.

    • Group e
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 17
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3):

      Hugo Lloris; Patrice Evra, Laurent Koscielny, Mamadou Sakho, Bacary Sagna; Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye, Paul Pogba; Loïc Rémy, Karim Benzema, Mathieu Valbuena.

    Key Player

    Paul Pogba is arguably the best central midfielder in world soccer at present. Considering he’s only 21 years old, that’s a particularly terrifying prospect. He's a marauding powerhouse, a physical giant capable of brushing attackers off the ball and leaving defenders sweating at the prospect of trying to stop him at full tilt. He quickly established himself as a starting midfielder at Italian champions Juventus after arriving from Manchester United back in 2012, and he’s swept up two league titles in as many seasons since.

    His role in the French national side is actually very similar to the one he plays in Juventus’ midfield trio, with Didier Deschamps perhaps inspired by the success Juve coach Antonio Conte has had in Turin. Pogba will operate in a box-to-box role; tasked with making dangerous runs forward into the opponents’ penalty area, but also dropping back to shield France’s central playmaker Yohan Cabaye in the defensive phase. Pogba’s game is all about mobility and power, which means he can be both a devastating attacking threat and a thumping midfield enforcer.

    How they play

    Didier Deschamps has created a France team capable of playing with a thrilling fluidity when they go forward. Their two wingers, likely Mathieu Valbuena and Loïc Rémy — Franck Ribéry has been ruled out thanks to a back injury — both tend to act as inside forwards; drifting into the center of the pitch and creating overloads through the middle. The width is then provided by advancing fullbacks, who should provide energetic outlets.

    Through the middle, Karim Benzema will probably operate as the lone center forward, while Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are expected to flank deep-lying playmaker Yohan Cabaye in central midfield. Both Pogba and Matuidi offer offensive options, alternately driving forward in possession to win second balls or meeting crosses in and around the opposition penalty area. But they’re just as important when France are defending, and both are more than capable of breaking up attacks well before they become dangerous.

    The most important part of the Matuidi-Pogba duo’s game might be covering the space vacated by the marauding full backs when France is in possession. If they don’t do so effectively, the team will be at serious risk down the flanks on counter-attacks, especially against quick, technical wingers like Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Ecuador’s Jefferson Montero. Deschamps’ system is reliant on hard work and energy, with the wingers expected to track back and contribute to intense pressing once opponents dare to cross into their half.

    France’s strategy is a blend of flair and industry, and watching them in full flow is a treat.

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    How they got there

    For all of their talent and promise, France’s World Cup qualification was far from routine. They had the misfortune of being drawn in a qualifying group with reigning champions Spain, so they were facing an uphill battle right from when the draw was first made. Still, they opened their campaign well, with wins against Finland and Belarus, before their first meeting with Spain in Madrid ended all square.

    They followed that up with a win over Georgia, though they stumbled for the first time when they hosted Spain in Paris. Vicente del Bosque’s men took home a narrow 1-0 win courtesy of a goal from Pedro, and the gap at the top of the group grew even further when France dropped points in a goalless draw in Georgia. Les Bleus rallied back with two wins over Belarus and Finland, though their second-place finish meant they were forced into the playoffs.

    They drew Ukraine, and promptly suffered a humiliating 2-0 defeat in Kiev. They needed a minor miracle to overturn the deficit in Paris, but first-half goals from Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema had the Stade de France rocking, and a late third from Sakho ensured they’d make it to Brazil, if only by the skin of their teeth.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 3:00 pm Honduras
    Jun. 20 3:00 pm Switzerland
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Ecuador
  26. This year’s World Cup is only Honduras’ third-ever finals, with the small Central American nation defying the odds to secure back-to-back qualifications after an appearance in South Africa four years ago. Under the guidance of manager Luis Fernando Suárez, they edged out a considerably stronger Mexico team for the third and final automatic qualification spot in CONCACAF, and head to Brazil high on confidence.

    Unfortunately, they’re probably not going to achieve much more than what they already have. Honduras almost certainly has one of the weakest squads of all the qualified teams, and it’s difficult to see them bettering the first-round exits they suffered in both of their prior World Cup appearances. Despite having a pleasing blend of youth and experience and a handful of players who’ve made a mark in European soccer, they are not expected to progress out of Group E.

    Then again, Suárez is probably more than happy to head in with the odds stacked against his team, and with expectations as low as any other side in the tournament. Honduras’ final group game opponents, Switzerland, know all too well the price you can pay for underestimating Los Catrachos, having been eliminated by them courtesy of a goalless draw in South Africa four years ago. For Honduras’ opponents, complacency could prove costly.

    • Group e
    • Federation CONCACAF
    • Fifa Ranking 33
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-5-1):

      Noel Valladares; Brayan Beckeles, Víctor Bernárdez, Maynor Figueroa, Emilio Izaguirre; Andy Najar, Roger Espinoza, Luis Garrido, Wilson Palacios, Óscar Boniek García; Carlo Costly.

    Key Player

    The versatile Roger Espinoza could probably be forgiven for feeling more American than Honduran. The 27-year-old was born in Honduras, but moved to Denver at 12, and became an American citizen in 2008. However, when Reinaldo Rueda, then coach of Los Catrachos, gave him his first international call-up a year later, there was never any question he'd turn it down. Since, he’s gone on to become one of the staples of the Honduras team.

    Despite only being used as a rotation player with his domestic team, England’s Wigan Athletic, Honduras coach Luis Fernando Suárez started Espinoza in the majority of Honduras’ World Cup qualifying games — making the most of his versatility in the process. Espinoza is capable of playing both on the left and the center of midfield, serving as a link with the attack and handily allowing Suárez to change formation at the drop of a hat. It’ll be a surprise if he doesn’t start every game in Brazil.

    How they play

    Honduras don’t have enough world-class players to be tactically ambitious, with Luis Fernando Suárez switching between a rather rudimentary 4-5-1 and a 4-4-2 in qualifying, depending on the strength of the opposition. As we’re at the World Cup and Honduras will be facing some dangerous sides, we can probably expect to see the five-man midfield favored over the two-man attack.

    When playing with a packed midfield, it’s usually veteran striker Carlo Costly who’s left plowing a lonely furrow up top. He’s a strong, physical player without great technical skill, albeit with the potential to be dangerous on deep crosses from left-back Emilio Izaguirre or wingers Óscar Boniek García and Andy Najar, the latter having enjoyed a promising domestic campaign with Belgian club Anderlecht. Costly usually looks more comfortable in the 4-4-2, where he’s paired with the New England Revolution's Jerry Bengtson, a slightly more refined striker often looking to pounce on any flick-ons from long passes. It’s not pretty, but hey, it’s gotten them this far.

    Defensively, Honduras place an emphasis on individual pressure over collective pressing. Unlike the bigger, better organized teams that look to chase in packs and win the ball back as high up the field as possible, Los Catrachos will tend to sit deep and compact, with only one player challenging the opponent in possession and the others dropping in behind to cut off passing lanes. They’ll be hoping to improve their defensive organization in the run-up to the World Cup — Honduras conceded more goals in the Hex than CONCACAF’s other three qualifiers.

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    How they got there

    Honduras' World Cup qualifying campaign started with a shock 2-0 defeat at home to Panama and a similarly unconvincing goalless draw away in Canada in June 2012, though fortunately coach Luis Fernando Suárez stopped the rot before it became terminal. Consecutive wins over Cuba in September preceded a draw with Panama and an 8-1 thrashing of Canada a month later, as Los Catrachos progressed into the Hex as Group C winners.

    They carried the momentum with them, downing the United States and Mexico on home turf in their first two games, though they found things a little harder on the road. Their qualification campaign was dealt successive blows with defeats in Panama and Costa Rica. By June 2013, qualification was far from assured.

    September brought arguably the biggest game of Honduras’ entire campaign, as they faced off against struggling Mexico in the Estadio Azteca with both sides locked in battle over the third automatic qualification spot. Mexico went into an early lead with Honduras looking lackluster, and then the visitors stunned the home crowd by producing two second-half goals and taking all three points. It was the impetus Honduras needed, and Suárez’s side went on to beat Costa Rica and draw with first Panama then Jamaica to secure their World Cup spot.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 3:00 pm France
    Jun. 20 6:00 pm Ecuador
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Switzerland
  27. Boasting some of the best young players in the world and a veteran, winning coach, Switzerland is an undeniably dangerous team. Seeding aside, they’re certainly not yet among the true elite footballing nations, but they have the potential to progress into the World Cup’s knockout stages and perhaps the quarterfinals for the first time since 1954.

    La Nati is an exceptionally diverse young team, with many of their star players having arrived from war-torn Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The duo at the heart of nearly all of their attacking play, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, were both born in Kosovo. So too was holding midfielder Valon Behrami, while star striker Josip Drmić is of Croatian descent. Captain Gökhan Inler put in an appearance for Turkey’s U-21 team back in 2006 before accepting a call-up from his country of birth.

    But make no mistake, on the field Switzerland is as cohesive and unified a team as any. Ottmar Hitzfeld has turned them into a ruthless counter-attacking unit, mixing dogged midfield tenacity with exotic attacking flair. They were impressive enough in qualifying that they edged out the likes of Italy, the Netherlands and England to a seeded spot in FIFA’s admittedly flawed rankings, and that affords them a great chance of progressing deep into the competition. Don’t be surprised if they take it.

    • Group e
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 6
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):

      Diego Benaglio; Ricardo Rodríguez, Steve von Bergen, Johan Djourou, Stephan Lichtsteiner; Gökhan Inler, Valon Behrami; Valentin Stocker, Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri; Josip Drmić.

    Key Player

    Xherdan Shaqiri established himself as a first-team regular for Basel at just 17 years old, and picked up his first league title that very season. And his second the season after that. And his third the season after that. Sure, Basel have dominated the Swiss Super League over the last decade, but that only makes it more impressive that a teenager managed to become so important as quickly as Shaqiri did. The Kosovo-born wunderkind scooped up Player of the Year awards in both 2011 and 2012, and it was no surprise when German giants Bayern Munich eventually whisked him away to Munich two years ago.

    Shaqiri's found it a little tougher to break into one of the best teams in the world, having made only 23 Bundesliga starts in his first couple seasons at the Allianz Arena. However, his 10 league goals aren't a bad return, and he’s still shown glimpses of his incredible talent. At the international level, the 22-year-old is Switzerland’s most important creative force, cutting inside off the right flank, often before threading a teammate through on goal or dribbling past defenders one-on-one. If there’s one man in this Swiss team that defenders will be genuinely afraid of, it’s Shaqiri.

    How they play

    Switzerland is a team that is built to cause the World Cup contenders harm, boasting a lethal ability to capitalize on any space their opponents may leave in behind their defense. Ottmar Hitzfeld invariably sets his side up in a 4-2-3-1, with the pace and fluidity of their attacking midfielders the key to their entire attacking system.

    Xherdan Shaqiri nominally starts on the right of the attack, although he frequently darts through the center of the pitch to exchange positions with the advanced playmaker, Granit Xhaka. Xhaka’s a master of creating space for Shaqiri, and can twist defenses out of position with his lateral movement. Striker Josip Drmić isn’t normally involved in build-up play, but his height and finishing make him a genuine goal-scoring threat, looking to capitalize on crosses from the more orthodox left winger Valentin Stocker.

    In midfield, the holding duo of Gökhan Inler and Valon Behrami rarely venture forward, instead looking to stay deep and protect the defense. Inler’s long passes are often the trigger for their quick counters, though Switzerland’s lack of a genuine deep-lying playmaker means they can struggle to create chances against compact defenses, instead resorting to hopeful, inaccurate hoofs. In this regard, it’s possible they’ll rather counter-intuitively struggle against the likes of Honduras and Ecuador more than they will against France.

    Defensively, Switzerland look to stay tight through the middle, forcing their opponents wide, before collectively shifting onto the flanks to cut off passing lanes with intense pressing. Should the first line of defense be breached, Inler and Behrami are like terriers, snapping at the heels of opposition attackers. Full backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodríguez press up against their direct opponents, although both can occasionally be caught too high up the field by a tricky winger. Expect teams to try to target this space.

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    How they got there

    Switzerland were fortunate to be drawn in one of the easiest World Cup qualifying groups possible, though, as the old cliché goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. And that they most certainly did. Switzerland took a proud position alongside Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, England and Spain as the only teams to have emerged from the arduous European qualifying campaign unbeaten.

    The most interesting things got was when Iceland roared back from 4-1 down in the second half of their match in Bern to draw 4-4 last September, though Switzerland’s campaign was hardly derailed by the embarrassing collapse. In fact, that tie spurred them on to wins away in Norway and Albania, with the latter guaranteeing their spot in Brazil. They maintained their focus right to the end, winning the dead rubber at home to Slovenia 1-0.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 12:00 pm Ecuador
    Jun. 20 3:00 pm France
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Honduras
  28. Introduction

    Group F is often overlooked, considering it’s not one of the World Cup’s so-called Groups of Death. But, despite what many believe, it’s also unlikely to be a cakewalk. Yes, Argentina will almost certainly win. Yes, Iran will almost certainly bow out. But Argentina have their weaknesses (defense) and Iran have their strengths (defense). In between we have Bosnia and Nigeria, two sides so evenly matched, yet so disparate in their approaches to the game, that it’s almost impossible to discern who might progress to the knockout round.


    1 - Argentina

    2 - Bosnia and Herzegovina

    3 - Nigeria

    4 - Iran

    Argentina: Unless Argentina completely fall to pieces, they’ll finish top of their group. Under coach Alejandro Sabella, Lionel Messi is playing better than he ever has for his country. And around him, La Albiceleste have Ángel di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero – that’s one of the best attacking quartets in the world. Even Iran’s dogged defense are unlikely to stop them from scoring. And even though Vincent Enyeama has denied Messi in the past, it’s tough to believe that such a combination won’t be able to overcome Nigeria.

    Bosnia and Herzegovina: Not even the most ardent Bosnia fan would claim the Dragons will top the group. But it’s not unrealistic to think they can progress to the knockout stages. It may be their first World Cup, but Bosnia have a potent attack, and although they’re unproven in the back, Asmir Begović is there to bail them out. If Edin Džeko can put the goals past Nigeria and Miralem Pjanić can unlock the Iran defense, Bosnia’s debut will be a dream.

    Nigeria: It’s a tough call between Nigeria and Bosnia. While Bosnia go all out in attack, Nigeria are more patient, but can hit with pace from wide areas. The problem is Nigeria’s caution in building up attacks may well prevent them from scoring as often as they need to progress to the next round. Nigeria are hoping for a decisive win over Iran in their opening match, but sometimes their finishing lets them down. If they’re caught out by how well Team Melli defend, their hopes of advancing will be dashed.

    Iran: It might be taking the easy way out to point to the least known of four entities and declare them the fated loser. That said, it’s difficult to picture a scenario in which Iran emerge from the group stages. Well, if both Bosnia and Argentina experience total defensive meltdowns, and Nigeria just can’t find the goal, it’s possible Team Melli will progress for the first time. But it’s probably best for Iran’s supporters not to book hotels past the first two weeks. While the team is solid in defense, they’ve yet to face any top-class opposition, and they lack both creativity and firepower up front.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 6:00 pm Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 16 3:00 pm Iran vs. Nigeria
    Jun. 21 12:00 pm Argentina vs. Iran
    Jun. 21 6:00 pm Nigeria vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Nigeria vs. Argentina
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Iran

    Must-Watch Game

    Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina

    Let’s hope Safet Sušić doesn’t take to heart the criticisms he received about Bosnia’s dismal performances in friendlies against Argentina and Egypt. Sure, when the Dragons met Argentina earlier this year, they barely put up a fight, prompting many to assert that Sušić needs to change his team’s approach for Group F’s crucial opening match. Bosnia needs to be more defensive in hopes of shutting down Argentina’s Fantastic Foursome. But Sušić just doesn’t have the personnel available to change his team’s ways.

    With Mensur Mujdža back from injury and the emergence of young Sead Kolašinac, Bosnia’s defense is already better than it was in January. Even so, they won’t be able to contain Argentina’s attacking threat. Why not just go for it? Bosnia are best when they’re in full-on attack mode, and that will open up plenty of space, allowing Argentina’s forwards room to create chances. If Bosnia refuse to be cowed by the presence of La Albiceleste in the Maracanã, this game could be a thriller.

  29. It's been 36 years since the last time the World Cup was played in South America, and it was Argentina that last lifted the trophy there. Now many are tipping them to make a deep run, slip into the final, then cause an upset by pipping hosts Brazil to the cup. If nothing else, almost everyone is expecting a substantial improvement to their 2010 campaign, when Argentina found themselves humiliated by Germany in the quarterfinals.

    Much of the hype which now surrounds the team is due to the appointment of Alejandro Sabella as head coach. The former Estudiantes manager came on board in 2011, after Argentina disappointed in that year's Copa América as hosts. While Sabella has made Argentina fun to watch once more, the biggest change has been in the team's superstar. Lionel Messi has never received much love from his native land, but should his performances in qualifying continue throughout the World Cup, leading Argentina to glory, little Leo will finally be a big hero in Argentina.

    • Group f
    • Federation CONMEBOL
    • Fifa Ranking 5
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Sergio Romero; Marcos Rojo, Federico Fernández, Ezequiel Garay, Pablo Zabaleta; Javier Mascherano, Fernando Gago; Ángel di María, Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero; Gonzalo Higuaín.

    Key Player

    No surprises: It's Lionel Messi. Yes, Argentina have enough firepower that they'll be able to threaten without the inclusion of the Barcelona forward. But to make a deep run in the tournament, the albiceleste will need Messi to be at the top of his game. Should opponents elect to play deep, doing their best to keep Argentina from scoring, they'll need Messi to unlock the attack. That much was obvious against Romania, when the star wasn't at his best (literally vomiting all over the pitch) and Argentina labored to a lucky draw.

    Messi terrifies defenders in a way nobody else can match thanks of his combination of speed, agility, vision and finishing. Unlike many of the other stars at the World Cup, Messi is thoroughly unpredictable, which makes him even more difficult to stop. When he’s double or triple-teamed, he’ll pick out whomever the opposition’s left open. When there’s a gap in the back line, he’ll burst through it with a diagonal run that makes it seem like he’s coming from nowhere. When he’s one-on-one against a defender, he’ll shimmy past them so quickly that they’re beaten even before they’ve tried to put in a challenge.

    The only predictable part of Messi’s game is that once he’s through on goal, he will score. Argentina’s other forwards, stars in their own right, will need to rein in their natural game and sizeable egos and reinvent themselves as Messi’s supporting cast, giving him options but staying out of the space he likes to use. If they can do that, Argentina could go all the way.

    How they play

    Argentina's best defense is a fantastic offense: Lionel Messi, supported by Kun Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín, with Ángel di María close behind. This World Cup provides Messi the chance to prove his doubters wrong. For years it's been said that he can't perform for Argentina as he does for Barcelona, and his lack of goals in the 2010 tournament seemed to cement that belief. But under Alejandro Sabella, Messi looks set to shine. He's scored 20 goals for the albiceleste since October 2011, and if he's not scoring, Agüero and Higuaín can pick up the slack.

    Sabella has designed his side's approach in order to best showcase los cuatro fantasticos, with Argentina able to hit hard on the counter, giving the fantastic foursome plenty of space in which to move. Should all four stay healthy, Argentina can count on fielding one of the best attacks in the world.

    Argentina's back line is widely acknowledged to be their Achilles' heel. Yes, they've got Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta, but on the other side is Sporting Lisbon’s Marcos Rojo. In between, it's Ezequiel Garay from Benfica and Federico Fernández of Napoli, not names widely acknowledged to be amongst the best in the world. To top it all off, first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero made all of two starts for Monaco this season — although he's likely still a better choice than having Mariano Andújar, whose Catania side got themselves relegated, step in between the sticks.

    It's worth noting, however, that for all the stick Argentina's defense is getting, they conceded just 15 goals in 16 matches during qualifying. But the reason they took top so easily was the 35 goals scored. Romania discovered how to neutralize Sabella's men in their friendly last March, and should other Group F opponents manage the same trick, Argentina may not cruise into first as easily as many anticipate.

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    How they got there

    With Brazil qualifying automatically as hosts, Argentina was the major power in CONMEBOL qualifying, and it showed — they topped the region, taking 32 points from 16 games. Their only serious blip came early on against rather unlikely opposition when the albiceleste found themselves on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Venezuela and then drawing 1-1 against Bolivia in Buenos Aires.

    But the team soon found their feet, reeling off a series of impressive results, and they wouldn’t lose again until the final matchday, when they suffered a 3-2 reverse in Uruguay having already clinched a berth in Brazil (and fielding a B-squad to boot).

    Even the draws are excusable. In the latter stages of the campaign, Argentina did end up drawing against both Colombia and Ecuador, but neither of those games features Messi in the starting XI, which is a pretty good excuse for under-performing. Half of the opponents the albiceleste met in qualifying ended up at the World Cup, and every one was clearly outclassed by the Argentinians. That can only be a good sign for Messi and company.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 6:00 pm Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 21 12:00 pm Iran
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Nigeria
  30. Bosnia and Herzegovina are the only side making their debut in the 2014 World Cup. That alone is cause for celebration. Bosnia declared independence in 1992, but thanks to sanctions imposed during the Yugoslav wars, did not become a full-fledged FIFA member until 1996. The first few years were difficult, but the team grew in strength, only narrowly missing out on both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Both times, they were eliminated by Portugal in the playoff rounds.

    When the Dragons qualified for their first World Cup, much of the country was ecstatic. Some even theorized that the national team could help close the country’s divisions, uniting the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in a way not seen before the Yugoslav breakup.

    But now tragedy has struck once more, and suddenly, football doesn’t seem quite as important. In mid-May, river levels rose and, as very little of the country is not crisscrossed by water, almost a third was affected by the flooding. Now the country is focused on a massive cleanup and rebuilding effort.

    Still, sport often provides a distraction from the hardship of everyday life, and that’s certainly what Bosnia’s World Cup could do for its country. There’s little pressure on the team – although Bosnia fans will tell you their side can make a deep run, even making it out of the group stages will likely satisfy even the most passionate supporters.

    • Group f
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 21
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1)

      Asmir Begović; Sead Kolašinac, Emir Spahić, Ermin Bičakčić, Mensur Mujdža; Miralem Pjanić, Muhamed Bešić; Senad Lulić, Zvjezdan Misimović, Izet Hajrović; Edin Džeko.

    Key Player

    Yes, Edin Džeko has the spotlight. The Manchester City forward scored 16 goals in 31 Premier League appearances for his club this season, while also putting in 10 goals for Bosnia during their qualifying campaign. He’s considered the best player to come out of Bosnia in recent times, but that also means when the team doesn’t go well, he’s the focus of fans’ anger – such as after the loss to Egypt.

    But it’s not Džeko who’s really key to this Bosnia side. That honor belongs to Miralem Pjanić, the 24-year-old midfielder who showcased his development by helping Roma to a second-place finish in Serie A this season.

    Pjanić slots in alongside Zvjezdan Misimović, a similar player but one he easily outshines. Pjanić’s raw talent has been evident since his debut in 2008, but his time with Roma has refined his technical abilities, and it’s his passes that can split open defenses. He also boasts a deadly free kick, one that opponents should be wary of should they make the mistake of giving away a foul close to goal.

    Now that Safet Sušić has added a genuine defensive midfielder to the squad (Muhamed Bešić of Ferencváros), Pjanić should shine even more brightly. No longer needing to worry about how to gain possession, the playmaker can concentrate on just that: providing the link between defense and offense, creating the spark that allows the Bosnia attack to flourish.

    How they play

    Ever heard the saying, “The best defense is a good offense?” Well, Safet Sušić lives by that maxim. Unfortunately, this Bosnia team could very well die by it. While Bosnia scored 30 goals in their 10 qualifying matches, 25 of those came against Liechtenstein, Lithuania and Latvia. When up against Egypt and Argentina in March friendlies, Bosnia lost both matches 2-0. Their flaws had finally been exposed.

    However, Sušić, previously welded to a 4-4-2, and without a true defensive midfielder in the squad, has finally realized that there’s beauty in adaptation. Bosnia has used its warm-up friendlies to tinker with both tactics and personnel, and the result could very well pay off in the form of a ticket to the knockout stages.

    Having previously noted he couldn’t fathom not playing both Vedad Ibišević and Edin Džeko up top, Sušić is now likely to deploy Džeko alone up top. That shift allows the addition of another midfielder, one that might help shield the shaky defense.

    Previously, Sušić had shoehorned Haris Medunjanin into the role of defensive midfielder. He was capable but not spectacular, and the worry was that Bosnia’s shaky defense would be left exposed, allowing Argentina to have their way with the Dragons.

    That may still happen — after all, Argentina have one of the best attacks in international soccer. But at least now Bosnia has found a screen to shield their backline. Muhamed Bešić, just 21 years of age, really came into his own at Ferencváros this season. He’s looked strong in the warm-ups, and could be the final key to Bosnia’s progression.

    The addition of Bešić should provide the balance Bosnia need. They’ll now be able to kick off the World Cup without fear of getting forward, which benefits all who tune in — this Bosnia team in full flow is a joy to watch.

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    How they got there

    After failing to qualify for the last two major international tournaments, Bosnia were determined to get their World Cup qualifying off to a strong start. They did just that by hammering Liechtenstein 8-1 in Vaduz, then winning 4-1 at home to Latvia. The Dragons failed to score just twice, playing out a goalless draw with Greece (surprise!) and losing 1-0 to Slovakia.

    Just days after losing at home to the repre, Bosnia were in Žilina, heading into halftime with Slovakia again up 1-0. Two goals in 10 minutes gave them the win, keeping them even on points with Greece, who beat Latvia later that day. Bosnia were lucky, with their last two games against Liechtenstein and Lithuania, while Greece needed to face Slovakia.

    But an own goal from Martin Škrtel gave Greece all three points, meaning Bosnia had to win in Kaunas, or hope Greece couldn’t overcome Liechtenstein. At halftime, Greece were already ahead, while it was goalless in Lithuania. It seemed Bosnia were set for yet another playoff tie, one with the potential to end in heartbreak.

    Then, in the 68th minute, Vedad Ibišević scored what was to be the only goal. Greece, too, held on for a win, but thanks to a far superior goal difference, Bosnia were able to bypass the playoff round — and book tickets for their first World Cup. Parties in many cities across the country continued throughout the night, and around 50,000 turned up at the Sarajevo airport to welcome their heroes home.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 15 6:00 pm Argentina
    Jun. 21 6:00 pm Nigeria
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Iran
  31. Three World Cup appearances. Three first-round exits. One win, famously, over the United States. Can we expect more from this year’s Iranian side?

    Team Melli are more or less an unknown quantity. Unless you paid close attention to Asia’s World Cup qualifiers, you probably don’t know much about them. After securing a trip to Brazil with a 1-0 win over South Korea on June 18, Iran’s national team then went 116 days without playing another match. As a result, it’s somewhat difficult to get to grips with this team.

    Iran are constrained not only by the amount of talent on offer but by a political system that makes it difficult to adequately prepare for a major tournament. Sanctions imposed on the country make it nearly impossible to entice other teams to Tehran. And the football federation simply doesn’t have the money for the team to travel elsewhere.

    So while others are using the final weeks before the World Cup to take on dangerous opponents, Iran are still unlikely to be ready to face the likes of Argentina, Bosnia and Nigeria. Their final four warm-up matches are against teams outside of FIFA’s top 50 and with two World Cup appearances between them. Compare that to, say, Honduras, who will take on England in Miami before the World Cup starts.

    It looks as though Iran are destined to once again leave the tournament without making a lasting impression. But Carlos Queiroz is OK with that. The coach, last seen managing Portugal in South Africa, has used his tenure to deepen the talent of Team Melli. He’s brought in players from the Iranian diaspora, including Ashkan Dejagah, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Steven Beitashour. Rather than hoping to make a splash, what Queiroz wants is to do is leave a legacy upon which Iran can grow.

    • Group f
    • Federation AFC
    • Fifa Ranking 43
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-5-1)

      Daniel Davari; Mehrdad Pouladi, Amir Hossein Sadeghi, Jalal Hosseini, Pejman Montazeri; Masoud Shojaei, Ashkan Dejagah, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Javad Nekounam, Andranik Teymourian; Reza Ghoochannejhad.

    Key Player

    It’s not often that the key to a team’s success lies with a second-division forward who, at 26 years old, has just 11 caps. But it’s true for Iran.

    Reza Ghoochannejhad, who grew up in the Netherlands and went through that country’s youth system, was brought in by Carlos Queiroz in response to the troubles his side had in finding the back of the net during qualifying. Adding the striker certainly helped: he scored nine goals in his 11 caps, and scored the winner in the final match against South Korea.

    Gucci’s approach doesn’t mesh well with Queiroz’s, which may account for why he’s scoring so many goals. Rather than playing a careful, defensive game, Ghoochannejhad has the Dutch attitude toward soccer ingrained in him: all attack, all the time. The desire to grab three points rather than one is likely what has led to Ghoochannejhad scoring so many goals in such a short time – and if he keeps that up, which is admittedly unlikely, Iran might just sneak out of Group F.

    How they play

    If you watched Portugal in South Africa, you probably have a fair idea of how this Iran team approaches a match. Carlos Queiroz brought with him the same defensive system, geared toward hoping to catch opponents out with a rare counter-attack.

    Iran are a safety-first team. Solid defensively, they’ll be pinning their hopes of progression on not conceding goals. It worked in qualifying, when Team Melli conceded just two in their last eight games. But Uzbekistan and Lebanon don’t have a Sergio Agüero, an Edin Džeko, or even an Emmanuel Emenike. And both relative lightweights managed to score.

    There’s not a lot Queiroz can do to alter his tactics. Up front, Iran are depending on Reza Ghoochannejhad for goals. The Charlton man had just one goal in half a season in the Championship, but he’s scored nine in 11 matches for Iran. It’s up to Ashkan Dejagah to orchestrate play in the middle of the park, but the fact that he remains employed by Fulham despite relegation probably tells you all you need to know when it comes to Iran’s creative abilities.

    So Team Melli will sit back, invite pressure, and hope their defense holds. It’s doubtful just how well this system will work, however. Under Queiroz, Portugal failed to score in three of their four matches in the 2010 World Cup – although they did put seven past North Korea. Unless Ghoochannejhad goes on a scoring run, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see Iran knocked out without scoring a goal.

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    How they got there

    Ranked seventh in Asia when qualifying began, Iran’s trip to Brazil began in the second round of AFC qualifying. Way back in July 2011, Team Melli beat the Maldives 5-0 over two legs to progress to the third round. Iran then finished top of the group, moving on to face South Korea, Uzbekistan, Lebanon and Qatar in the final stages.

    It could’ve been a tricky group for Iran. South Korea are one of the top teams in the region, while Qatar gave Iran trouble in the previous round, coming back to draw in both matches. In fact, Iran did get off to a poor start. They beat Uzbekistan, but managed just two goals in first four matches, stuttering to a draw against Qatar and losing to Lebanon.

    But then Carlos Queiroz unearthed a gem. Reza Ghoochannejhad, who’d represented the Netherlands in his youth, made his debut in the shock win over South Korea. Gucci then went on to score the lone goal in the win over Qatar, the second in the 4-0 rout of Lebanon, and finally the winner against South Korea in the last match of the group stages – the goal that took Iran to the World Cup.

    Qualification was by no means glamorous. In the final round, Iran scored just eight goals in eight matches, including the four they put past Lebanon. But they allowed just two, further emphasizing their status as defensive stalwarts – a trend they’ll undoubtedly like to continue against the likes of Argentina and Bosnia.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 3:00 pm Nigeria
    Jun. 21 12:00 pm Argentina
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Bosnia and Herzegovina
  32. Nigeria are hoping for a rather better World Cup than they’ve experienced this century. The Super Eagles have only been involved in the tournament for the past 20 years, and their first two trips saw them progress to the Round of 16. However, in 2002 and 2010 (they didn’t qualify in 2006) Nigeria finished bottom of their group, picking up a solitary point both time.

    They’ve got more reason to be optimistic this year. That’s mostly down to Stephen Keshi, former Super Eagles captain. Keshi, 52, was named manager in 2011, after Nigeria failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. That low gave Keshi license to rebuild, casting aside many of the team’s veterans, keeping an experienced core (Vincent Enyeama, John Obi Mikel, Joseph Yobo) and adding many fresh new faces (Ogenyi Onazi, Kenneth Omeruo).

    The rebuild paid off. Under Keshi, Nigeria lifted the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, beating Burkina Faso last February. They then cruised through qualifying, topping their group before defeating Ethiopia 4-1 over two legs in CAF’s playoff round. The goal now is to ride that wave of success. Beating Iran and Bosnia will mean getting out of the group without needing to show much fight against Argentina — a round of 16 appearance, and perhaps more, hardly seems out of reach for Nigeria.

    • Group f
    • Federation CAF
    • Fifa Ranking 44
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-4-2)

      Vincent Enyeama; Elderson, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo, Efe Ambrose; Victor Moses, Ogenyi Onazi, John Obi Mikel, Ahmed Musa; Peter Odemwingie; Emmanuel Emenike.

    Key Player

    Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. Both Bosnia and Argentina have no shortage of players that can knock the ball into the back of the net, so Nigeria need a fail-safe last line of defense. Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona, Keshi’s favored centerback pairing, are solid, but can’t possibly be expected to keep the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko at bay forever.

    That’s where Enyeama comes in. The 31-year-old joined Lille in 2011, but spent the 2012-2013 season on loan at Maccabi Tel Aviv, who won the Israeli Premier League title that year. He then returned to Lille, where he became first-choice keeper under René Girard. Enyeama went 1,062 minutes without conceding to open the season, and was named Ligue 1’s African Player of the Year.

    Enyeama is yet to take on Agüero, but he’s familiar with how to stop Argentina. The albiceleste beat Nigeria 1-0 in the last tournament, thanks to an early header from Gabriel Heinze, but without Enyeama, the result could’ve been much worse. The goalkeeper impressed with a series of fine saves on Lionel Messi, and made a couple of fine blocks to stop Gonzalo Higuaín. Another set of strong performances could see the Super Eagles sneak into the knockout rounds.

    How they play

    You know those motivational posters that declare, “There’s no ‘I’ in team”? Cliche as it may be, that’s Nigeria’s modus operandi. They have recognizable names in Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel, but neither held down a starting role in the Premier League this season. Fans of French soccer will know Vincent Enyeama, Lille’s goalkeeper, who was also in goal for Nigeria’s 2002 and 2010 World Cup squads. Emmanuel Emenike was briefly famous after being accused of match-fixing at Fenerbahçe. But there’s no major star overshadowing the rest of the Super Eagles squad.

    There’s no egos (or at least, no super-sized ones) in this dressing room, either, and that helps coherence on the pitch. Nigeria’s approach looks to be pragmatic – escape with just enough points to advance. They rarely score many goals, with their 4-1 victory over Keshi’s former country, Mali, an anomaly since he took over at the helm.

    Still, Nigeria are hoping to open the tournament with a big win over Iran, one that sets the tone of the group stages and helps propel them into the knockout round. For that they’ll be counting on Emmanuel Emenike, the top scorer in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations – but the forward often wastes his chances. They’ll also need a little help from Ahmed Musa, whose pace could very well make him dangerous against the shaky defenses of Bosnia and Argentina. Finally, they’ll be welcoming back Peter Odemwingie, whose rift with Keshi saw him dropped from the 2013 AFCON squad.

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    How they got there

    In a word: easily. Ranked 5th on the continent, Nigeria had a bye to the second round of African World Cup qualifying. The second round features 10 groups of four teams, with the top side moving on to the third and final round. Nigeria’s high ranking landed them in a group with Malawi, Kenya and Namibia, and they had no trouble topping the table.

    It’s worth noting, however, that the Super Eagles took just 12 points from their six games, winning three and drawing three. Keshi’s team approaches matches cautiously, doing their best to ensure they keep a clean sheet rather than committing to all-out attack. Scoring more than one goal is rare.

    Still, it's hard to argue with Keshi's tactics — that caution paid off in qualifiers. In the third round, Nigeria came back to beat Ethiopia 2-1 in the first leg, then 2-0 in the second to book their spot in Brazil. They'll probably need to be bolder should they want to emerge from Group F: both Bosnia and Argentina have the firepower to breach the Super Eagles' defense, and the onus will be on Nigeria to try to find enough goals to keep them competitive.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 3:00 pm Iran
    Jun. 21 6:00 pm Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Argentina
  33. Introduction

    Groups of Death, almost by definition, rarely have a clear-cut favorite. But for Group G, it’s more about who’ll take second than who will emerge on top. Fans love to debate whether Spain or Germany are the best team in Europe, but there’s no denying Germany are one of the strongest sides heading to Brazil. Even hampered by injury, they should finish first in Group G, and their three group stage matches will serve as a litmus test of their cup-winning credentials.

    Below Germany, things get messy. Portugal, Ghana and the United States are so closely matched that it’s plausible any of the three will progress to the Round of 16. Portugal are and should be favored to escape thanks to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s top player over the past 12 months. However, Ronaldo’s carrying thigh and knee injuries, and should he not be fully fit, both the U.S. and Ghana could take advantage.


    1 - Germany

    2 - Portugal

    3 - United States

    4 - Ghana

    Germany: Germany are the favorites, but they’re not without their problems. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira have yet to regain the form and fitness that saw Germany dominating teams in 2010, and Manuel Neuer and Philipp Lahm went into training camp carrying injuries. But the squad is packed with talent, especially in the midfield. They may be more vulnerable than many would’ve thought even a month ago, but they’re still tipped to advance.

    Portugal: Even if Cristiano Ronaldo is not 100 percent fit by the time the first match rolls around, he’ll still be capable of lifting Portugal to second place. FIFA’s World Player of the Year is coming off an excellent season in which he broke the Champions League scoring record, ultimately guiding his team to the trophy. His supporting cast probably can't out-duel Germany, but Ronaldo’s 12 goals in his last 10 games for Portugal shows the superstar doesn’t need much help.

    United States: Pity the USMNT. Last time around, it was only a late goal that stopped them from advancing to the quarterfinals. But they won’t have much chance to improve on that performance, especially given the unsettled nature of their defense. Instead, this trip to Brazil will likely have fans flashing back to 2006, when the U.S. finished bottom of their group, collecting just one point. It’s not to say this is a poor squad, just that they’ve been drawn in a difficult group — and with eyes seemingly on 2018 rather than 2014, these games may be more about teachable moments than anything else.

    Ghana: Ghana has more talent than the United States, but the United States has a more coherent plan. No one knows what position Kwadwo Asamoah, their best player, will actually play, and Kevin-Prince Boateng, their most creative player, just skipped the last four years of national duty. They're still cycling through flavor-of-the-week central defenders and they don't have a strong keeper to bail them out of trouble. Things could magically come together for the Black Stars, but if they don’t, they’ll probably find themselves in fourth.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 12:00 pm Germany vs. Portugal
    Jun. 16 6:00 pm Ghana vs. United States
    Jun. 21 3:00 pm Germany vs. Ghana
    Jun. 22 6:00 pm United States vs. Portugal
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm United States vs. Germany
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Portugal vs. Ghana

    Must-Watch Game

    United States vs. Ghana

    If either team actually manages to pull off a win in their World Cup opener, they're suddenly a contender to get out of the group and might only need one point in their final two games to make the knockout stage. The loser, however, will be the clear favorites for fourth place and could exit without a single point. And if they draw, well, that’s bad news for both. Matches in which both teams have to win are always good watching, and the fact that this is a grudge match for the Americans — they’ve been knocked out of back-to-back World Cups by the Black Stars — should make this even tastier.

    The U.S. and Ghana will probably try to pack the midfield and rely on athleticism more than technical ability or tactical nous. But Jurgen Klinsmann appears to be working on a starting XI that's specifically targeted toward winning a midfield battle against the Ghanians. He seems to believe that this game is his team's World Cup. Does Akwasi Appiah believe the same?

  34. Germany entered the 2010 World Cup with minimal hype. They had a combination of veterans who had disappointed at Euro 2008 and young players who were largely unknown outside the Bundesliga. But thanks to a series of impressive results — they demolished England and Argentina before losing narrowly in their semifinal against eventual winners Spain — they emerged as the international darlings of the tournament, billed for bigger and better things in the next World Cup cycle.

    Die Mannschaft fell short again at Euro 2012, losing to Italy in the semifinals, but they rebounded by dominating World Cup qualifying. A European team has never won a World Cup in the Americas, but Germany has many believing that they can buck the trend.

    Jogi Löw's biggest problem lies in how to best utilize his players. He might have more talent than any team in the tournament, but unfortunately for him, a lot of that talent plays in similar positions. Can he find a way to get 11 stars to work in a balanced side? Will his injury-hit midfield hold up? We’ll find out in the group stages.

    • Group g
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 2
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):

      Manuel Neuer; Erik Durm, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Philipp Lahm; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos; Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller; Mario Götze.

    Key Player

    The biggest reason Germany made a semifinal run in the last World Cup was the spectacular play of Bastian Schweinsteiger. His conversion from above-average winger to world-class central midfielder was massive for both Germany and Bayern Munich, but he's suffered through a series of injuries over the last two seasons and doesn't appear to be the dominant force he once was.

    If he's fit by the time Germany's game against Portugal rolls around, and can stay healthy throughout the tournament, they'll be contenders to win the whole thing. But if he's anything less than the best version of himself, the Germans can be beaten on the counter — watch Mario Balotelli's goals from Euro 2012 for an example.

    With Sami Khedira still struggling to get fit after tearing his ACL late in 2013 and Toni Kroos — far more comfortable in an attacking role than as a true box-to-box player — likely pressed into midfield duty if Khedira’s not fully recovered, Germany's hopes of winning their first World Cup since 1990 hinge on the legs of Schweinsteiger.

    How they play

    The organization and efficiency that Germans are known for has gone a bit by the wayside. They'll still be good at making intelligent decisions on the counter-attack and getting back into shape when they lose the ball, but this version of Germany has quite a bit more swagger than the teams that came before them.

    They'll likely line up in a 4-2-3-1, with Arsenal playmaker Mesut Özil sitting behind a striker. The most important aspect of Germany's attack will be the interchanging between the three attacking midfielders behind the central midfielders and the striker; their movement off the ball and creative passing should pull defenses out of position. They're equally adept at counter-attacking and keeping the ball, but they won't be able to sit back and catch teams napping like they did in 2010. They're not the underdogs anymore — they have a target on their backs.

    The biggest way Germany can alter the game will likely be through lineup changes at center forward. Jogi Löw doesn’t have a true star striker at his disposal, but he does have plenty of solid options who can play the position in different ways, allowing him to adapt to his opposition’s defensive style. Look for Mario Götze and Miroslav Klose to both get turns up top, and don't be too shocked if Lukas Podolski, André Schürrle or Thomas Müller get their chances either.

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    How they got there

    Germany's road to Brazil couldn't have been much smoother, though they did suffer a surprise setback in their fourth qualifying match.

    In one of the best international games of the last couple of decades, Sweden turned a 4-0 deficit into a 4-4 draw at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Özil scored to put the Germans up by four goals in the 55th minute, but Sweden quickly struck back with two goals to pull within two by the 64th minute. They scored again in the 76th, then netted a dramatic equalizer in the third minute of stoppage time.

    As fun as that match was for the neutrals, it could have been a demoralizing setback for the Germans. But they were having none of it: their next two matches were against Kazakhstan, whom they beat by a combined score of 7-1. They went on to win the rest of their matches, including a 5-3 revenge victory in Sweden, to finish qualifying 9-0-1, top of their group.

    36 goals scored, 10 conceded. Be afraid, Group G.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 12:00 pm Portugal
    Jun. 21 3:00 pm Ghana
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm United States
  35. Ghana was Africa's lone representative in the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and, depending on who you ask, may or may not have been completely robbed of a spot in the semifinals by Uruguay striker and comic-book supervillain Luis Suárez’s intentional handball. They made their 2010 run with a very young side and were expected to come to the 2014 World Cup as a potential dark-horse contender, perhaps with an Africa Cup of Nations title or two in tow.

    Sadly, Ghana has stagnated since 2010. They have plenty of talent, but they're not what they should be. The Ayew brothers are not yet global superstars, Asamoah Gyan is playing in the Middle East rather than in a top European league and former wonderkid Isaac Vorsah failed to make the squad. Instead of being the greatest African side ever, they're just another decent team.

    But they won a tough qualifying group that included 2012 Africa Cup of Nations winners Zambia, then steamrolled Egypt in a playoff. Gyan is scoring, even if he doesn't play at the highest club level, Kevin-Prince Boateng is back in the team after napping through qualifiers and Kwadwo Asamoah is a legitimate superstar. They're not one of the two best teams in this group, but that doesn't mean they can't get out of it.

    • Group g
    • Federation CAF
    • Fifa Ranking 37
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3):

      Adam Kwarasey; Samuel Inkoom, Jerry Akaminko, John Boye, Daniel Opare; Michael Essien, Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin-Prince Boateng; Christian Atsu, Asamoah Gyan, André Ayew.

    Key Player

    Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah is not only Ghana's best player, he's also their most versatile. He's likely to be a box-to-box central midfielder for the Black Stars, but he's played as a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder and on the left side of midfield in the past. He also plays left wingback in the bianconeri 3-5-2.

    Asamoah can be anything Ghana needs him to be. He'll probably look like something approaching a playmaker simply because Ghana doesn't have one, but he'd also make a great defensive left winger if they're holding onto a lead, and can play an attacking left back if they're chasing a game. Don't be surprised if he plays multiple positions throughout the tournament.

    If Michael Essien starts in midfield, Asamoah's athleticism will be a huge help for the Black Stars defensively. Essien's days as one of the most dynamic midfielders on earth are over and he's now just a pure holder. Asamoah will need to race back to break up opposing counters and press to win the ball back when Ghana's sitting deep.

    How they play

    Many of the top African sides are known more for their size and speed than their creative passing, but the Ivory Coast have Yaya Touré and Nigeria have experienced success playing John Obi Mikel as an advanced playmaker. Ghana, meanwhile, has gone through the last four years without a true central playmaker. Asamoah is good technically, but he doesn't play the kind of creative balls through the center that most teams expect from their No. 10s. Kevin-Prince Boateng's return to the squad gives the Black Stars the kind of player who can thread clever passes through opposing defenses and his return could change their style a bit.

    Ghana's biggest asset is probably their stable of talented wide players. André Ayew is the biggest star on the flanks, but he's got competition. Christian Atsu is just as tricky of a dribbler as Ayew and had a great season in the Eredivisie. Majeed Waris, who scored nine goals in half a Ligue 1 season this year, can play at striker as well as a winger, but he's more likely to get time out wide. Two of these three will probably start and will be depended on to create for center forward Asamoah Gyan as well as chip in with a few goals themselves.

    Expect to see a packed midfield, Asamoah and Boateng spraying passes out wide, and Gyan looking to pounce on loose balls in the penalty area

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    How they got there

    The second round of African qualifying sees 40 teams separated into 10 groups, with only one team from each group advancing to the playoff round. Ghana was a top seed, but drew arguably the toughest second seed: Zambia, the winners of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations.

    They lost their second qualifying match of the round in Zambia, but then the Copper Eagles surprisingly slipped up away to Lesotho and at home against Sudan. That meant Ghana only needed a draw against Zambia on the final day to go through. They won instead, with Majeed Waris and Kwadwo Asamoah scoring in the 2-1 victory.

    The Black Stars were seeded again for the playoff draw, and again drew arguably the best second seed, Egypt. But then Ghana stunned everyone by laying a serious beating on Bob Bradley's team, delivering a 6-1 first leg thrashing. That made the second leg virtually meaningless — Egypt couldn’t stop the Black Stars from booking their flights to Brazil despite a 2-1 win.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 6:00 pm United States
    Jun. 21 3:00 pm Germany
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Portugal
  36. It’s sometimes difficult to separate Cristiano Ronaldo from the rest of this Portugal side. After years in Lionel Messi’s diminutive shadow, Ronaldo stepped things up several gears, winning the Ballon d’Or and breaking the Champions League scoring record en route to helping Real Madrid to their record 10th European Cup. He has a habit of dominating everything around around him, whether that’s the media coverage or the game itself. Ronaldo can and surely will win games for this team on his own.

    But he can’t win every match without a bit of help, and questions remain about whether or not he has the supporting cast for Portugal to be seriously considered a threat to the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and group-mates Germany. They became a one-man show in their qualifying playoff against Sweden and needed Ronaldo to bail them out. What do Portugal do when he can't do it all?

    The answer should be ‘quite a lot’ — the likes of Pepe, Fabio Coentrão and João Moutinho are hardly chopped liver — but as long as Portugal lean on Ronaldo to get things done they’ll be vulnerable to the occasional weak game from their superstar. Their success in Brazil may well come down to whether the rest of this team steps up their game rather than simply waiting for Ronaldo to do his thing.

    • Group g
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 4
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-3-3):

      Rui Patricio; Fabio Coentrão, Bruno Alves, Pepe, João Pereira; Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, João Moutinho; Cristiano Ronaldo, Hélder Postiga, Nani.

    Key Player

    Cristiano Ronaldo. An obvious choice, but there's no need to overthink this one. Even if the supporting cast plays spectacularly, there won't be one standout from the non-Ronaldo grouping that helps them to glory, nor will any one other player be good enough to carry Portugal on their own when Ronaldo isn't playing well. The supporting cast will be the difference between a group stage exit and a deep run, but for a truly spectacular run, Portugal require Ronaldo to be at his stunning best.

    Real Madrid's superstar broke a Champions League record with 16 goals in the competition this season, with many of those coming before he was given the Ballon d'Or in January. But Ronaldo dealt with a couple of minor injuries in the second half of the season, resulting in Real Madrid falling out of the title race in La Liga .

    Ronaldo’s game is all about power and athleticism. He’s deadly in the air, stronger than all but the top defenders in the tournament, lightning-quick, and can and will shoot from anywhere. His trigger-happy nature can sometimes be annoying — one of the criticisms leveled at him is that he’ll spurn teammates in better positions to go for glory himself — but he’s one of the sport’s premier marksmen, and racking up shots means he’ll also end up racking up goals.

    When Ronaldo’s on the ball, it’s a scoring chance for Portugal. It’s really that simple.

    How they play

    Organization and balance are Portugal's key attributes, with the rest of the team working hard to ensure Ronaldo can play in a free role. They don't need to worry about him being in the right position defensively; it's everyone else’s job to make sure he's not the reason they're caught out.

    Ronaldo's runs into the middle of the pitch from the left wing should vacate space down the left flank for Fabio Coentrão to move into. The left back is an excellent crosser of the ball, but has the skill to cut back and pick a pass on the ground when he receives the ball as well. A similar dynamic exists on the other flank with Nani and Joao Pereira.

    João Moutinho will be the main passer in midfield and much of Portugal's creative burden will fall on him. Ronaldo can make goals for himself, but if Portugal are playing well, Moutinho's likely to be the man providing assists. The fantastic work rate of Raul Meireles and positional discipline of Miguel Veloso make for great compliments for Moutinho in a well-balanced three-man midfield.

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    How they got there

    Portugal were drawn into a group with Russia and no other serious threats, so it was clear from the outset that the two matches between Russia and Portugal would likely decide who went straight to Brazil. The first meeting between the two came in October 2012 and was won by Fabio Capello's men, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win for Russia that put Portugal in a hole. They dug an even deeper one with draws against Northern Ireland and Israel, meaning their 1-0 win over Russia in their second meeting left them with work to do. They slipped again, drawing Israel a second time, and had to qualify via a playoff.

    Unfortunately for neutrals, Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimović's Sweden were drawn together, meaning that only one of Ronaldo and Zlatan could make the World Cup. Ronaldo scored the only goal in the first leg, scored the first goal of the second leg, then scored twice more to complete a hat trick and seal Portugal's qualification after Sweden had pulled level on aggregate. It probably went a long way toward winning him the Ballon d'Or.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 12:00 pm Germany
    Jun. 22 6:00 pm United States
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Ghana
  37. Not long before the World Cup, the United States gave coach Jurgen Klinsmann a contract extension that runs through the 2018 finals. It was a surprising move, and one that's arguably contributed to Klinsmann making some controversial decisions.

    Landon Donovan — the country's leading scorer and the man who scored their dramatic winner against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup — is out. Julian Green, a teenage prospect, is in, along with MLS veterans and World Cup rookies Chris Wondolowski and Brad Davis. Donovan's exclusion has dominated the build-up to Brazil in the States, but it's been coming since his sabbatical from the game last spring.

    More important than where the U.S. has been with Donovan is where they're going with their new generation of players. They own a win and a draw against Mexico at Estadio Azteca in the last two years and Klinsmann has created a much deeper player pool, both through convincing dual-nationals (mostly German-Americans) to declare for the USMNT and calling up talented MLS players who didn't get a look under the previous regime.

    This is not Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena's USMNT. Those teams could sit deep, defend and steal points with their counter-attacking. Klinsmann's teams are more ambitious and like to keep the ball. Whether they can play like that against sides of the quality of Germany or Portugal and still take points remains to be seen.

    • Group g
    • Federation CONCACAF
    • Fifa Ranking 13
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-4-2):

      Tim Howard; DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson; Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley; Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore.

    Key Player

    The United States aren’t a bad team, but it's no insult to say they have the fourth-most talented squad in their group. They don't have Ghana's athletes, nor do they have a megasuperstar like Portugal, and they don’t possess the overall quality of Germany. They're going to be on the back foot quite a bit, and that’s where Tim Howard comes in.

    Klinsmann will say over and over that the USMNT are going to play their game and be proactive instead of reactive, but the U.S. are going to lose the possession battle in at least two games and will likely give up more shots than their opponents as well. They'll depend on Howard to make some huge saves to keep them in games.

    And Howard has done that, on many occasions, for both club and country. He had a rough 2012-13 campaign at Everton, but bounced back with a very good 2013-14 season. He's also been consistently solid in net for the United States and could be the reason they steal a draw or win that they don't necessarily deserve at the World Cup.

    How they play

    The United States’ style is still very much a work in progress, even as the World Cup approaches. They're working toward transforming themselves into a team focused on possession, able to keep the ball against any opposition, but they'll have to get a bit pragmatic on the big stage and find a balance between Klinsmann's desired setup and the more defensive tactics that they used to employ.

    Recently, Klinsmann has been experimenting with a diamond-shaped midfield, and recent results suggest he might end up sticking with it. They outplayed Mexico in a friendly with the diamond before both teams made wholesale changes in the second half, and he continued with the concept in recent wins over Azerbaijan and Turkey. It's a system built around the talents of Michael Bradley, whom a number of fans have been hoping would be pushed into a central attacking midfield role for quite some time. It also moves Clint Dempsey out of that role and into a strike partnership with Jozy Altidore, which makes better use of the Seattle Sounders star’s poaching abilities.

    If Klinsmann sticks with this system, the fullbacks will be key. They'll have to provide most of the width going forward, while also ensuring that they don't get caught too far up the pitch when the U.S. loses the ball, a difficult balance to strike. The diamond might give the U.S. a chance of winning the midfield battle against superior opponents, but it's not clear if their fullbacks will be able to perform in a more challenging role.

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    How they got there

    The United States finished on top of CONCACAF's final six-team qualifying phase, commonly referred to as 'the Hex', but they almost failed to make it that far.

    Usually, the U.S. breezes through the round of qualifying that precedes the Hex, but they struggled this time around. They drew against Guatemala in their second game and lost away to Jamaica, setting up a string of must-win matches. But they pulled themselves out of that hole, beating Jamaica 1-0 in the return match, then just barely getting past Antigua and Barbuda, thanks to a 90th minute winner from Eddie Johnson. In their final game of that qualifying section, they beat Guatemala 3-1. Instead of being a footnote on their road to Brazil, this round was more interesting than the 'hard part' of qualifying.

    A 2-1 loss away to Honduras in the first Hex round raised some concerns, but they were erased by a home win over Costa Rica and a 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca, their first competitive draw in Mexico since 1997. The U.S. won their next three matches, so their September 2013 loss in Costa Rica was no big deal. With a 2-0 win over Mexico in the following fixture, the U.S. punched their ticket to Brazil. They went on to win their last two qualifying matches anyway, topping the Hex.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 16 6:00 pm Ghana
    Jun. 22 6:00 pm Portugal
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Germany

    Further Reading

    Plotting a course for the United States to escape Group G

    Read more on the United States blog at Stars and Stripes FC

  38. Introduction

    If you've checked out on soccer since the last World Cup, you may have missed Belgium emerging as a European power. A generation of great young players has emerged, breezing through their qualifying group en route to a top seed and a ticket to a very winnable group. But while Group H lacks any traditional superpowers, Belgium need to remain focused, as a trip to the next round isn’t a given.

    Russia were impressive in European qualifying, narrowly edging out Portugal to claim top spot in their group. Fabio Capello may not have worked wonders with England in 2010, but he’s still regarded as one of the game’s better tacticians, and with him at the helm Russia could wiggle through. South Korea are traditionally strong as well, while Algeria have added some fresh talent in the last year.

    Top to bottom, this is one of the most difficult groups in the tournament to pick. All four of these teams are good enough to grab at least four points from this group, yet none are good enough to assume they won’t slip up.


    1 - Belgium

    2 - South Korea

    3 - Russia

    4 - Algeria

    Belgium: The Belgians have some minor weaknesses — their fullbacks are actually central defenders and their starting midfielders aren’t great with the ball at their feet — but they have the most talented team in the group. Romelu Lukaku could very well be the difference maker, the difference between Belgium scraping through and bulldozing their way to first. It’s sometimes difficult to remember the striker is just 21 years old, and does still hit the occasional cold streak. Barring one of those ruts, his pace and power will probably be too much for any defense in this group to handle.

    South Korea: This is a team full of players in the primes of their careers who have played with each other for a long time. Their stars get plenty of playing time in high-level leagues and the rest of their starters are on form, at the peak of their athletic abilities, and are extremely familiar with their teammates. That cohesion could well give the South Koreans an edge over Russia, who are still doing some tinkering, but their questionable defense means qualification is by no means assured.

    Russia: If Russia gets through to the knockout stages, much of the credit will likely go to Fabio Capello. The coach has experimented with different variations of 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations in warm-up friendlies, implying that he'll switch between them based on both the opposition and what’s going on in-game. If he makes the right calls with his tactics and team selection, Russia might be able to grab results in every match. But his serial tinkering contributed to England's downfall in 2010; he can’t afford to make any mistakes with the group this tight.

    Algeria: Algeria don't have any recognizable superstars and they only made it to the World Cup by winning their final playoff on away goals. Yet they do have a solid team — a team that could, in fact, steal second place. Their success or failure might fall on the shoulders of striker Islam Slimani, who is in very good form for both club and country. He’ll need to bang in the goals for the Fennec Foxes to have a chance of advancing; if he doesn’t, they’re probably toast.

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 17 12:00 pm Belgium vs. Algeria
    Jun. 17 6:00 pm Russia vs. South Korea
    Jun. 22 12:00 pm Belgium vs. Russia
    Jun. 22 3:00 pm South Korea vs. Algeria
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm South Korea vs. Belgium
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Algeria vs. Russia

    Must-Watch Game

    Russia vs. South Korea

    Some fans enjoy boasting of their love for defense-oriented, disciplined, cautious games. If you’re one of those fans, the first game of Group H is likely the stuff of fantasies. Both sides know a win would make them favorites to get out of the group, but both will be concerned about starting off with a loss.

    It’s unlikely this match will provide much excitement for the neutrals, but you should watch it anyway. Not just because it’s likely going to set the tone for Group H, but because it’s the World Cup and that’s what you do — you suffer for your passion.

  39. Algeria don't have the superstars based at big European clubs that some other African teams can boast, but they might possess the most well-balanced squad of the teams that made the World Cup from CAF. They have center forwards who can score, talented wide men, true playmakers, defensive midfielders and a couple of central defenders who have played in the World Cup before. They are, in other words, solid across the pitch.

    On paper, it might appear that Algeria are lacking in experience, but despite their low cap totals, Hassan Yebda, Medhi Lacen, Djamel Mesbah and Rafik Halliche have been here before. So has Madjid Bougherra, the squad's most capped player. There’s some flair in this squad too — attacking midfielders Yacine Brahimi and Sofiane Feghouli have the creativity to unlock the solid defenses they'll face in Group H.

    Strikers Islam Slimani and El Arbi Hillel Soudani are in excellent form as well, while new arrivals Aissa Mandi, Nabil Bentaleb and Riyad Mahrez provide them with more firepower and depth than they had in qualifying.

    Algeria don't look sexy, but don't underestimate them. They're a legitimate threat to upset the three teams favored above them.

    • Group h
    • Federation CAF
    • Fifa Ranking 22
    • Projected Starting 11 4-2-3-1

      Rais M'Bolhi; Djamel Mesbah, Madjid Bougherra, Essaid Belkalem, Aissa Mandi; Hassan Yebda, Medhi Lacen; Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi, Nabil Ghilas; Islam Slimani.

    Key Player

    Algeria sometimes can win midfield and possession battles against seemingly superior opposition, but it would be a surprise if they play consistently on the front foot in Brazil. Their center forward is inevitably going to be isolated, and will have to do quite a lot on his own. Luckily for the Fennec Foxes, they have a center forward who's capable of doing just that.

    Islam Slimani began the season on the bench for Sporting Lisbon, but eventually won a starting spot and was first choice by the time the season ended. He's been hot for Algeria — he’s notched 10 goals in the last two years, including one in Saturday's warm-up against Armenia.

    Slimani has everything: size, pace, touch, aerial ability, work rate off the ball and finishing skills. If they're going to get out of Group H, they'll need him to create a goal or two out of nothing to help them steal results. If recent form is any guide, he’ll be up to the challenge.

    How they play

    Algeria's back line is probably the weakest portion of their team so far as individual talent goes, but they make up for that by being well-organized and by playing a couple of very disciplined defensive midfielders in front of their defense. Mehdi Lacen will be the key man, while coach Vahid Halilhodžić will likely rotate the other midfielder (he can pick between a true holder, a box-to-box type or a deep-lying playmaker) based on the situation.

    The big link between defense and attack in most 4-2-3-1 formations is one of those two midfielders, but in Algeria's case, it might actually be the attacking midfielder. That role will probably be filled by Yacine Brahimi — Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli, though a more talented player, has been openly criticized by Halilhodžić for complaining about the intensity of training — and he drops deeper to find the ball than most No.10s.

    Look for Brahimi to pick the ball up early in a possession, then look wide to start the attack. In Nabil Ghilas and Riyad Mahrez, Algeria have a couple of very good athletes who like to run at defenders out wide, and will be counting on them to catch opposing defenders out of position.

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    How they got there

    Algeria had a reasonably easy second-round qualifying group in CAF, though Mali and Benin are certainly no pushovers. Algeria's lone loss in that round of qualifying was away to Mali, but they rebounded, winning their remaining four games. Mali choked down the stretch, drawing at home against Rwanda and Benin to hand Algeria the group before their match on the final day, which the Fennec Foxes won at home.

    The Algerians were one of the seeded teams for the CAF third round playoff draw and were pitted against Burkina Faso, who’d been runners-up in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. They lost the first leg away, 3-2, with Burkina Faso drawing a penalty in the dying minutes to grab the win. But Algeria were in a good position with two away goals, and they took advantage with a 1-0 home victory in the return leg to book their trip to Brazil.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 17 12:00 pm Belgium
    Jun. 22 3:00 pm South Korea
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Russia
  40. Belgium enter the World Cup as the sexiest of the dark-horse contenders. They don't have the recent success of Spain or the pedigree of Germany, but they possess enough talent to present a serious challenge to anyone at this tournament. They're deep, they're athletic, they're young and they're fun.

    The Red Devils suffered a couple of setbacks before the World Cup: age finally caught up with midfielder Timmy Simons, and center forward Christian Benteke suffered a torn Achilles, but they have more than enough bodies to cover for those losses. Without Benteke, the spotlight will fall on Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, who’s just coming off a spectacular season on loan at Everton.

    For all of Belgium’s talent, this is a team that lacks major tournament experience. Although they breezed through qualifying, these players failed to qualify for Euro 2012, and a number of them were also part of the squad that failed to make it to the last World Cup. The first game of the group stage will be the biggest game that most of their players — Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are the exceptions — have ever played in. There's no reason to believe they're going to fail to rise to the occasion, but it's impossible to tell how they'll react to the moment until they're in it.

    • Group h
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 11
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):

      Thibaut Courtois; Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld; Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini; Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Kevin Mirallas; Romelu Lukaku.

    Key Player

    Belgium has enough attacking talent that they won't be dependent on any one player to carry the creative or scoring load, but Christian Benteke's injury puts a lot of pressure on Romelu Lukaku. If manager Marc Wilmots had both strikers available to him, he could rotate them based on form, fitness or effectiveness against a particular opponent, and if he was feeling really mean he could have run both of them out at the same time. But with Benteke out, Lukaku is going to have to start every game, and he'll be expected to produce in all of them.

    Both Lukaku and Benteke are known more for their size, athleticism and finishing prowess than their technical play, but Benteke's touch is probably a bit more tidy than Lukaku's at this point in their careers. Lukaku is best when his team is playing quick and direct soccer, allowing him to run onto the ball, but Belgium's opponents might end up sitting deep and prioritize restricting space above all else. That's going to make life hard on Lukaku, although he certainly has the muscle to create space in a packed penalty box.

    If Belgium do more than get out of the group stage and make a serious run deep in the tournament, it'll probably happen because Lukaku found a different level, doing more than just scoring on through balls and poacher's efforts. If he becomes a more complete striker, there's no limit to what Belgium can achieve. He’s not their best player, but the Red Devils will live and die on what Lukaku can do in Brazil.

    How they play

    Belgium are probably the only widely-hyped favorite that can't exactly be shoved into a box, mostly because they have a little bit of everything. The attribute they're probably best known for is their size and power — Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli are an intimidating bunch. But they also have their fair share of nimble tricksters in Eden Hazard, Adnan Januzaj, Dries Mertens and Kevin de Bruyne.

    Belgium are most likely to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They’ve experimented with a few different sets of attacking midfielders behind Lukaku: the most likely grouping will be Hazard, de Bruyne and Mirallas, with de Bruyne operating centrally. However, Hazard's gotten a look in the central spot as well, and both Mertens and Chadli should be fine to slot in as well.

    If Belgium wants to play defensively or just very direct, they have the option of shifting Fellaini up into an attacking midfield role and bringing in another central midfielder. Watching Fellaini and Lukaku work together up top isn't the sexiest brand of soccer, but the overpowering physicality of the pair could be quite effective.

    No matter which players Wilmots selects, the wingers will be key for Belgium. Their fullbacks are really central defenders being played out of position, which means they’re not quite as comfortable providing width as more natural wide players. That puts an extra burden on the wingers to control the flanks; whether or not they can do that may determine how far Belgium go in this tournament.

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    How they got there

    Belgium had one of the most difficult qualifying draws in UEFA, ending up in Group A alongside both Serbia and Croatia, two sides with World Cup aspirations of their own. The Red Devils looked to be playoff-bound after Croatia nabbed an away draw in Belgium early in qualifying, but a slip-up by the Croats at home against Scotland put Belgium back in the driver's seat.

    In the penultimate qualifying game, Lukaku starred in Zagreb, scoring twice in the first half to put Belgium comfortably ahead of Croatia, who were in a must-win situation. Niko Kranjčar pulled a goal back late, but Belgium held on for a 2-1 win to clinch automatic qualification into the World Cup. The only blemish on their record, a 1-1 home draw against Wales, came after they’d secured top spot, but they still finished qualifying unbeaten.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 17 12:00 pm Algeria
    Jun. 22 12:00 pm Russia
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm South Korea
  41. Rarely do teams make coaching changes after qualifying for the World Cup, but South Korea has done just that. Even though they qualified directly for the finals by finishing second in their Asian qualifying group, performances were poor by their standards, and Choi Kang-Hee resigned after qualifying concluded.

    Enter Hong Myung-Bo, the legendary South Korean international, and arguably the greatest defender ever to come out of Asia. He joined South Korea as an assistant coach the year after he retired as a player and they've been grooming him for the big job ever since. After guiding the under-23s to bronze at the 2012 Olympics, it was time for him to take the helm of the senior team.

    Because South Korea now have a different manager than they had for qualifying, it's not necessarily easy to nail down who they're going to pick and how they're going to play. But they look organized, Hong's Under-23 team was extremely well-drilled and there's a lot of talent in South Korea's midfield and attack.

    • Group h
    • Federation AFC
    • Fifa Ranking 57
    • Projected Starting 11 (4-2-3-1):

      Jung Sung-Ryong; Yun Suk-Young, Kim Young-Gwan, Hong Jeong-Ho, Lee Yong; Ki Sung-Yueng, Han Kook-Young; Son Heung-Min, Koo Ja-Cheol, Lee Chung-Yong; Park Chu-Young.

    Key Player

    South Korea have a lot of talent going forward, but the only man in this team that can be considered a superstar at the international level is Bayer Leverkusen attacker Son Heung-Min. The 21-year-old has been one of the Bundesliga's top players over the past two seasons, scoring 24 goals in all competitions with Leverkusen and Hamburg SV.

    As the team’s top player, South Korea’s approach will likely be built around Son. He can play any role in attack, but is most likely to start as a left forward, with Koo Ja-Cheol in the hole. He can also slot into central attacking midfield, or even fill in at striker.

    Son is particularly fun to watch, as dribbling and finishing are his best attributes. He’s more than happy to beat his man with a trick, then pick out the perfect spot in the corner of the net to score, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that very scene playing out in Brazil.

    How they play

    Due to the managerial change, it’s not entirely clear how South Korea will play in Brazil. However, the basic formula likely hasn’t changed much since they hosted the World Cup in 2002 — they work hard, stay organized, and look to beat teams by the simple virtue of making fewer mistakes than their opponents. This version of South Korea is both better technically and more athletic than previous editions, but they're still a team that will depend on superior positioning and fitness to get results.

    Hong is likely to set up his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a box-to-box midfielder and a true holder. Ki Sung-Yueng will get forward and has a knack for scoring goals from late runs into the box, while Han Kook-Young sits deeper. If Hong wants to get more aggressive, he can bring in Ha Dae-Sung or Park Jong-Woo, who are a bit closer to Ki's style mold. Going forward, Son, Koo and Lee Chung-Yong will do just as much creating for themselves as they do for striker Park Chu-Young.

    South Korea's central defenders do not have the same pedigree as the rest of the side, but they're not lacking in ability — they're all fairly quick for center backs and stand more than 6 feet tall. Even though Hong has taken to rotating in other spots, he's stuck with Kim Young-Gwon and Hong Jeong-Ho anchoring his back line, and will be hoping they can develop some chemistry before the World Cup begins. Whether or not that happens will be key to their success.

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    How they got there

    South Korea didn't have to go through a playoff to make up for their collapse like Mexico, Uruguay and Portugal did, but their struggle to qualify was fairly embarrassing nonetheless. They got off to a strong start, winning their first two games, but their qualification was called into question when they took just one point from away matches against Iran and Uzbekistan.

    The Koreans bounced back with a win over Qatar, but were stunned when Lebanon, by far the weakest team in their qualifying group, stole a draw from them in June. That put them in a situation where they needed a result against Uzbekistan on the penultimate day and they barely pulled it off, winning on an own goal despite a poor performance.

    One game later, South Korea lost to Iran for the second time in the qualifying round. Even though they had already secured passage to the finals, that bad result was one too many for Choi. The Koreans will hope appointing Hong Myung-Bo turns their fortunes around.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 17 6:00 pm Russia
    Jun. 22 3:00 pm Algeria
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Belgium
  42. The Russians have been cycling through big-name coaches since 2006, but have struggled to find the right fit. Guus Hiddink followed up an impressive Euro 2008 run by failing to qualify for the World Cup, while Dick Advocaat struggled in Euro 2012. Enter Fabio Capello, the world-renowned Italian tactician, previously seen managing England to a predictably disappointing World Cup exit.

    Capello has worked wonders with Russia, guiding them directly to the World Cup by beating out Portugal to win the qualifying group. His team looks to be a near-perfect blend of organized and stylish, with an air that’s more Italian than traditionally Russian.

    Russia also have a useful combination of youth and experience: Capello’s done excellent work with this squad, nurturing the country’s young talent and pushing out more experienced players who were holding down their place through inertia alone. Many of the current team’s stars had just a handful of caps before the Italian took the reins, and the veterans that remain on the team are there on merit.

    For all of their talent and organization, Russia, exempting their semi-final finish in Euro 2008, have a very poor record in major tournaments. But this is a group that, with a little luck, they can emerge from. Is this the year they finally make the World Cup knockout stages, or will history continue to work against them?

    • Group h
    • Federation UEFA
    • Fifa Ranking 19
    • Projected Starting 11 4-3-3:

      Igor Akinfeev; Dmitri Kombarov, Sergei Ignashevich, Vasili Berezutski, Andrey Yeshchenko; Igor Denisov, Viktor Fayzulin, Alan Dzagoev; Aleksandr Kokorin, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Aleksandr Samedov.

    Key Player

    Capello has experimented with multiple formations, but whichever shape he ends up going with, it's likely that Aleksandr Kokorin will be a key cog in the wheel. He's played up top and out wide, with a strike partner and without, in a 4-3-3 and in a 4-4-2. The 23-year-old has been one of the best players in the Russian Premier League over the last two seasons and has been arguably the most dynamic attacker in Russia's squad since Capello took over.

    Kokorin's best trait is that there are no serious holes in his game. He has the dribbling skills and crossing ability to play out wide, but he's powerful enough, good enough with his back to goal and instinctive enough as a finisher to play as a lone striker. His versatility is what's made him one of Russia's key players, and it doesn't hurt that he has a knack for scoring spectacular goals from out of nowhere.

    The most likely spot for Kokorin is wide left in a 4-3-3, flanking Aleksandr Kerzhakov, where he’ll have full rein to terrorize opposing full backs.

    How they play

    Capello is not a man married to a set style of play, and he's done well to find a system that best suits the players at his disposal. Russia are well-organized defensively, but they have a few flair players and aren't lacking in creativity.

    Expect to see quite a bit of pressure from Russia on opposing midfields and defenses without the ball, but any pressure they do apply will be thoroughly controlled. They'll close down very aggressively, but they'll do so in a way that ensures that no area of the pitch is left wide open when they press.

    Russia mostly played 4-3-3 throughout World Cup qualifying, but have experimented with 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 as well. If they stick with the 4-3-3, expect to see Igor Denisov as a lone holder behind Viktor Fayzulin and one of Alan Dzagoev or Roman Shirokov.

    Fayzulin, a 28-year-old midfielder who had not been capped by Russia before Capello took over, is the personification of Capello's philosophy. He now has 18 appearances with the national team and, if healthy, is a virtual lock to start in Brazil. The longtime Zenit St. Petersburg player has a combination of creativity and discipline that makes him perfect for Russia, no matter how Capello sets up his team.

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    How they got there

    While winning a qualifying group containing Portugal is certainly impressive, Russia were virtually handed a berth in the tournament by the Portuguese. Russia won the first meeting between the two sides in October 2012, giving them a leg up on their rivals, but the drama was just getting started. Instead of rolling through the rest of their fixtures en route to a decisive return fixture in Lisbon, the two teams proceeded to exchange bizarre screwups.

    Russia were given a huge advantage when Portugal drew Northern Ireland less than a week after their big win, but then Capello’s team gave those points right back by losing to that same Northern Irish side. But Portugal weren't done making mistakes — they dropped points against Israel in their next match to give Russia the upper hand again.

    In June 2013, Portugal came up huge in their second match against Russia, grabbing a win to give them clear a path to the World Cup. But then they drew against Israel again, leaving Russia to top a group that neither side really deserved to win.

    Team Schedule

    Date Time (EDT) Match
    Jun. 17 6:00 pm South Korea
    Jun. 22 12:00 pm Belgium
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Algeria
  43. Estádio do Maracaña

    Rio de Janeiro

    The home of the 1950 World Cup final will once again play host to the biggest match in world soccer, becoming just the second stadium to host two finals (Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is the other). Whereas nearly 200,000 people packed the place 64 years ago, only 73,000 will be on hand this time. A nearly $500 million renovation cut seating, but brought the fans closer to the pitch and restored it to a modern masterpiece that stands alongside the world’s best once again. And after the World Cup is over, the Maracaña will get ready for the 2016 Olympics, when it will host the opening and closing ceremonies.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 15 6:00 pm Group F Argentinia vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 18 3:00 pm Group B Spain vs. Chile
    Jun. 22 12:00 pm Group H Belgium vs. Russia
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Group E Ecuador vs. France
    Jun. 28 4:00 pm Round of 16 C.1 vs. D.2
    Jul. 4 12:00 pm Quarterfinals
    Jul. 13 3:00 pm Final

    Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha


    When plans to build a new stadium in the nation’s capital were revealed, the estimated cost sat at $300 million, but by the time all of the work was done, the price tag was nearer $1 billion — Estádio Nacional was the No. 1 example for World Cup spending run amok. The good news: it’s gorgeous. The seating bowl is right by the pitch and rises steeply to keep fans close to the action, while the striking exterior — a neat fit with the Brasília’s Oscar Niemeyer-designed surroundings — remains. The cost of the work remains problematic, but it is a venue worthy of Garrincha’s name.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 15 12:00 pm Group E Switzerland vs. Ecuador
    Jun. 19 12:00 pm Group C Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Group A Cameroon vs. Brazil
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Group G Portugal vs. Ghana
    Jun. 30 12:00 pm Round of 16 E.1 vs. F.2
    Jul. 5 12:00 pm Quarterfinals
    Jul. 12 4:00 pm 3rd Place

    Arena de São Paulo

    São Paulo

    No stadium has come under more scrutiny than the Arena de São Paulo. It was so hard to get the stadium approved that São Paulo almost got cut from the list of host cities. Then when they did get the go-ahead, the project was plagued by construction deaths, delays and cost overruns. Even now, the stadium is not yet completed, so the first match of the World Cup and a semifinal will be played with an incomplete roof. If you’re looking for an example of Brazil’s World Cup preparedness gone wrong, it’s here. But it does have a cool exterior that projects logos, signs and lights, so there’s that. Hurray!

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 12 4:00 pm Group A Brazil vs. Croatia
    Jun. 19 3:00 pm Group D Uruguay vs. England
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Group B Netherlands vs. Chile
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Group H South Korea vs. Belgium
    Jul. 1 12:00 pm Round of 16 F.1 vs. E.2
    Jul. 9 4:00 pm Semifinals

    Estádio Castelão


    Like many stadiums in Brazil, the Castelão was not built specifically for soccer. The lower bowl was in an oval, leaving huge gaps between the stands and the field. That was fixed in a pre-World Cup renovation that has left the venue with much better seating arrangements. Toss in a beautiful new roof with elegant supports and a classy shell and you have one of the tournament’s best stadiums.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 14 3:00 pm Group D Uruguay vs Costa Rica
    Jun. 17 3:00 pm Group A Brazil vs. Mexico
    Jun. 21 3:00 pm Group G Germany vs. Ghana
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Group C Greece vs. Ivory Coast
    Jun. 29 12:00 pm Round of 16 B.1 vs. A.2
    Jul. 4 4:00 pm Quarterfinals

    Estádio Mineirão

    Belo Horizonte

    In 1965, Estádio Mineirão was capable of holding more than 130,000 people — without fear that the whole place would crumble mid-match. The World Cup provided the opportunity to restore the time-worn stadium, completely overhauling the old ground. Because it is oval-shaped, the stadium had more space between the stands and field than most would like, but the lower bowl was rebuilt to rectify that. The core of the structure — a concrete shell — was reinforced and a new roof constructed. It still has its old design and feel, but now has the modern amenities needed for the World Cup.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 14 12:00 pm Group C Colombia vs. Greece
    Jun. 17 12:00 pm Group H Belgium vs. Algeria
    Jun. 21 12:00 pm Group F Argentina vs. Iran
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Group D Costa Rica vs. England
    Jun. 28 12:00 pm Round of 16 A.1 vs. B.2
    Jul. 8 4:00 pm Semifinals

    Estádio Beira-Rio

    Porto Alegre

    An old, giant, two-tiered oval stadium, Estádio Beira-Rio was a classic South American venue, including the style’s downsides: a huge gap between the seats and field and no roof. That has been fixed with a renovation that brought the fans closer to the pitch — although they are still a fair way back — and put a beautiful roof on the place while maintained the two-tiered design. Owned by Internacional, Estádio Beira-Rio is one of the only privately owned stadiums in this World Cup.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 15 3:00 pm Group E France vs. Honduras
    Jun. 18 12:00 pm Group B Australia vs. Netherlands
    Jun. 22 3:00 pm Group H South Korea vs. Algeria
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Group F Nigeria vs. Argentina
    Jun. 30 4:00 pm Round of 16 G.1 vs. H.2

    Arena Fonte Nova


    The old Fonte Nova was nearly 60 years old, and would have been more expensive to renovate than to knock down and start again. So down went the old building and up went a sparkling new Fonte Nova. The new version was inspired by The HDI-Arena in Hannover, one of the venues for the 2006 World Cup, but it kept the open end that the old Fonte Nova possessed. The result is a venue that looks more European than any other in Brazil, with the added bonus of a lake view through the open end.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun 13. 3:00 pm Group B Spain vs. Netherlands
    Jun. 16 12:00 pm Group G Germany vs. Portugal
    Jun. 20 3:00 pm Group E Switzerland vs. France
    Jun. 25 12:00 pm Group F Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Iran
    Jul. 1 4:00 pm Round of 16 H.1 vs. G.2
    Jul. 5 4:00 pm Quarterfinals

    Arena Pernambuco


    Recife got a brand new stadium for the World Cup, one that’s supposed to be the center of a development that includes shops, homes, business, an arena, convention center and a university. The accompanying construction is still a work in progress, but the stadium is done and it is beautiful, clad in white with red seats and a roof covering all of the seats. The venue can also glow red at night, making it shine at the heart of a what is expected to be a district revitalization project.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 14 9:00 pm Group C Ivory Coast vs. Japan
    Jun. 20 12:00 pm Group D Italy vs. Costa Rica
    Jun. 23 4:00 pm Group A Croatia vs. Mexico
    Jun. 26 12:00 pm Group G United States vs. Germany
    Jun. 29 4:00 pm Round of 16 D.1 vs. C.2

    Arena Pantanal


    A large square roof with a sweeping, shimmering facade makes the Arena Pantanal one of the most unique in South America. The stadium, built from scratch to replace the city’s old Estadio Jose Fragelli, was delayed repeatedly, and construction was ongoing until virtually the last minute. Now that it’s complete, Arena Pantanal should be an imposing venue. Steep two-tiered stands mark all four sides of the pitch, which should result in one of the most imposing atmospheres at the World Cup, and the gaps between the stands will be filled with greenery — a striking feature that’s also intended to lower the temperature on the playing surface.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun 13. 6:00 pm Group B Chile vs. Australia
    Jun. 17 6:00 pm Group H Russia vs. South Korea
    Jun. 21 6:00 pm Group F Nigeria vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Jun. 24 4:00 pm Group C Japan vs. Colombia

    Arena de Baixada


    Construction on the Arena de Baixada experienced so many delays that FIFA required them to show significant progress back in February, or Curitiba would be dropped as a host city. They made that deadline, but are still up against the clock to be ready for the World Cup, with construction expected to continue until the very start of the tournament. The stadium should be gorgeous, one of the most intimate in the World Cup and featuring an iconic square roof design, but that assumes it will be completed.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 16 3:00 pm Group F Iran vs. Nigeria
    Jun. 20 6:00 pm Group E Honduras vs. Ecuador
    Jun. 23 12:00 pm Group B Australia vs. Spain
    Jun. 26 4:00 pm Group H Algeria vs. Russia

    Arena da Amazônia


    Manaus might be the most improbable city to ever host a World Cup match, making the Arena da Amazônia the most improbable venue in the tournament’s history.. The stadium sits 900 miles up the Amazon River, meaning planners had to figure out how to get materials to the remote city and then how to actually build the thing in monsoon season. It took four years, but they managed it, and the result is a beautiful stadium (even if it is inspired by a fruit basket) that glows at night and has orange and yellow seats to complete the fruit motif.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 14 6:00 pm Group D England vs. Italy
    Jun. 18 6:00 pm Group A Cameroon vs. Croatia
    Jun. 22 6:00 pm Group G United States vs. Portugal
    Jun. 25 4:00 pm Group E Honduras vs. Switzerland

    Arena das Dunas


    The brand new Arena das Dunas has been up against the clock, with the construction of the temporary seating for the World Cup still underway.  Don’t worry though — everything is supposed to be done in time for the tournament, and the core, permanent aspects of the stadium have been praised by FIFA. Inspired by the local sand dunes, this is the only severely asymmetrical stadium in the tournament and might be the most unique venue in Brazil.

    Date Time Group Match
    Jun. 13 12:00 pm Group A Mexico vs. Cameroon
    Jun. 16 6:00 pm Group G Ghana vs. United States
    Jun. 19 6:00 pm Group C Japan vs. Greece
    Jun. 24 12:00 pm Group D Italy vs. Uruguay