Remember when Brazil used to be everyone’s favorite team because the United States soccer team was so pathetic? It was right about the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States that the interest and talent of our nation began to change. Unfortunately, the MLS still has plenty of years ahead to continue to grow from the ground up. A statement was made in the past year when Clint Dempsey, among others, came back to the MLS from the English Premier League while still in top form. Still, there are teams loaded with top notch players still in their prime (and some towards the end) that are easier to root for and thus the favorites going forward.
The World Cup is like the Olympic games plus winning a league championship for any professional soccer player. It’s not like the World Championships of Basketball (soon to be the World Cup of Basketball) or the WBC (for baseball), this is a competition that has legitimate 4-year cycles that the best of the best fight tooth and nail to be a part of (unless you play for France, not surprisingly).
If you like winning things, chance are you will be rooting for a Spanish repeat. All of the Bracket Predictors that I have done on ESPN haven’t really looked that great for Spain. Then again, the World Cup doesn’t fuck around like some other tournaments that purposely put teams that they don’t like in precarious positions or in the position to run the table by half-assing it. Every year there is a “Group of Death” and this time the United States got caught in what seems to be that very group. One could argue though that there are a few such groups.
Going through the tournament we take a look at Group A; with host Brazil even if missing Neymar they still have plenty of firepower and a much younger cast than in recent years. The other three teams are Mexico, Croatia, and Cameroon. While Les Lions have had success in the past, there isn’t as much talent on this African team compared to older years. And as the third lowest ranked team in the field at 51, there isn’t much hope to get more than a draw and some close losses. Croatia and Mexico will be close as the second teams to get out of the round-robin, and it will be interesting to see whether the athleticism of Croatia wins out or whether the experience of Mexico comes through.
Another very competitive group is the B bracket. Spain, Netherlands, Chile, and Australia are all in and it will be very interesting to see how it turns out. Spain is the tournament favorite going in and the Netherlands always has the goods with Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie, etc. But the Dutch always seem to have terrible luck and it could happen again this time with a very strong South American squad in Chile. Not unlike the high-flying offensive-minded teams of old, Chile has a very deep squad that is better than their number 15 ranking would indicate. Rounding out the group are the Aussies, who have a solid squad that might be able to stay in games if they tighten up their defense and put everyone in the box. Coming from the Oceanic group doesn’t help anyone get ready for the big stage.
Group C has Columbia, Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. With Falcao as an uncertainty, it will be tough to label Columbia as the overwhelming favorite that they would have been pre-injury. None of these teams are especially talented aside from the Columbians and Greece hasn’t been the same since winning the European Championship several years back. Ivory Coast is another one of those teams (like Mexico) that has the talent and experience but might not have the youthful energy to string together several impressive showings. Don’t count Japan out just yet, they may have what it takes to advance given the inconsistencies and misfortune of the accompanying teams.
Fans of Group D are just as likely as any to complain about their draw. With Uruguay, England, Italy, and Costa Rica, you have a group solid combination of teams across the board. While none of these teams appear very likely to make a move on the Cup title, a matchup in the knockout round with Group C could be a blessing or a curse. England comes in trying to move forward with their roster without leaving out any “big names”. Hopefully some of the EPL “stars” will finally come to play this after very few stellar individual seasons by English nationals. Uruguay is like any other team from South America; quick, skilled, and close-knit. Given the parity in this group they will need to come together a few times coming up. Italy hasn’t been as high-powered for some time now, but don’t be surprised to see them make a deep run if the bracket shakes out the way they hope. Costa Rica is another skilled team that will struggle to get results but may surprise a few teams. With strong, intimidating forwards, creating chances will be paramount for this team.
A group that doesn’t seem to have any clear-cut favorite and team with the goods to make it to the semi-final round, Group E will really have to make a name for itself in the round-robin stage. Switzerland, France, Ecuador, and Honduras comprise the teams in this group. The teams look as boring on paper as they likely will on the field. France is looking to make up for a pathetic showing last time around when players boycotted games and they all but quit on their nation (sound familiar?). The Swiss team has actually been quietly strong for some time now mainly due to the top tier talent playing in the Bundesliga. We want to act like South American teams will do great this year only because they are playing close to home, but it is the toughest qualifying stage in the world. Yes, there are very strong European squads left out of the tournament every time, but the depth on South American squads starts at home. There is very little dual-citizenship going on here. Finally, the Hondurans will represent the CONCACAF group. Not an overwhelmingly talented roster, Honduras will rely on tactics and brute strength to fight through games against a grouping of teams that is likely the weakest out there.
Argentina was already looking like a favorite before teams were drawn into groups. When the Gauchos got selected for Group F they received a free pass into the next round. This group is only stronger than Group E based on their strongest team. Hell, it might be exclusively due to Lionel Messi. Bosnia- Herzegovina has a solid group and shouldn’t be overlooked in the group stage. Nigeria isn’t quite the quality that was initially put on the field several Cups ago as the old African Champs. Iran will look to build in recent positive results and may even surprise into the next round.
Now for the “Group of Death”, Group G. With Germany, United States, Portugal, and Ghana there is definitely going to be plenty of cameras out for these games. Germany is always a favorite to make it to the knockout-rounds and this year is no different. If the brackets and results work to their favor, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in the Championship match. Portugal will compete with plenty of flash and glamour from Ronaldo and Nani among others, but the key to advancing will come from the play of their defense. Ghana and the United States have a good bit of recent history together. It may not matter given the teams that will be fighting it out for a top 2 finish. If one of these teams can get a tie with Germany or a win over Portugal, then there is a chance to advance on goal differential provided a 2+ goal win over the opposite team is accomplished.
And last, but probably not least is Group H. A group including Belgium, Russia, South Korea, and Algeria will be very competitive. One thing the world will realize from this group is just how good Belgium is. South Korea will be a tricky/shifty team with the ability to make some noise while Algeria can do the same given they control the play from the midfield as much as possible. The Russians will look to make a splash after missing the last edition of the Cup. Look for Arshavin, among others, the shine if they are to advance.
At the end of the day it may come down to the Group A-Group B showdowns in the knockout rounds. Provided the correct teams advances, we could be looking at Brazil playing the Netherlands or Spain in the round of 16. How nuts would that be? I really believe that depending upon which Group G team finishes second, there may be some surprise upsets in the bottom right knockout rounds (perhaps Belgium or Switzerland over a team like Argentina or Germany). The matchup of Groups E and F will likely be pretty predictably unpredictable beyond the two favorites. Where you might see as many as two games pitting top 10 teams against each other in the round of 16 in the top half, there may be teams outside of the top 20 playing each other as well. I don’t want to call anything too early as the World Cup begins on June 12th and a lot can and will happen between now and then. But we do know that it will be one fun, crazy month of soccer for all involved.