By Trey Mongrue
While it is followed religiously pretty much everywhere else, soccer only becomes appointment viewing for the average American sports fan one summer every four years. Well, that time has arrived once again as 32 countries – including the United States – have congregated in Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Not familiar with the world’s most popular sporting event? No problem.
Welcome to DIG’s official World Cup preview.
Participants: Brazil, Cameroon, Croatia, Mexico
One Match to Watch: Brazil vs. Mexico, June 17
Players to Watch: Neymar, forward, Brazil; Samuel Eto’o, forward, Cameroon; Luka Modrić, midfielder, Croatia; Giovani Dos Santos, forward, Mexico
Interesting Fact: Winners of five trophies, Brazil is the most successful country in World Cup history. However, the one other time the country hosted the tournament, the Brazilians unceremoniously lost in the 1950 final to Uruguay.
Preview: Coming off of a Confederations Cup title in 2013, host-Brazil’s latest generation of young players have done well in limited action. But for a country that boasts the sport’s greatest champion of all-time, Pelé, its fans will not celebrate for real until a World Cup trophy is lifted. The good news for the Brazilians is that FIFA dealt them an easy group with an aging Cameroon, an offensively-challenge Croatia and a mentally fragile Mexico.
Prediction: Brazil wins group, Croatia advances
Participants: Australia, Chile, Netherlands, Spain
One Match to Watch: Spain vs. Netherlands, June 13
Players to Watch: Mile Jedinak, midfielder, Australia; Alexis Sánchez, forward, Chile; Robin van Persie, forward, Netherlands; Pedro, forward, Spain
Interesting Fact: Spanish club FC Barcelona has eight of its players representing in this group – seven on Spain and one on Chile. Also, the first match of this group pits Spain opposite the Netherlands in a rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final.
Preview: So far, Spain’s current core of players has achieved just about everything they could possibly have. That includes European championships in 2008 and 2012 and the country’s first World Cup trophy in 2010. The Spanish now look to become the first country to win back-to-back titles since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962. It won’t be easy, however, with 2010’s runner-up Netherlands and a Chile squad that has young talent and a home crowd behind them. Unfortunately for Australia, it is a minnow in a sea full of sharks.
Prediction: Spain wins group, Chile advances
Participants: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
One Match to Watch: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast, June 19
Players to Watch: Fredy Guarin, midfielder, Columbia; Vasilis Torosidis, defender, Greece; Yaya Touré, midfielder, Ivory Coast; Shinji Kagawa, midfielder, Japan
Interesting Fact: With golden generation players such as Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré and Didier Drogba now well into their thirties, this is considered Ivory Coast’s last chance to make a deep run. The country shouldered heavy expectations in 2006 and 2010 but failed to make it out of its group on both occasions.
Preview: In a group where four continents are represented, this is also a group where any two can advance to the knockout group without it being considered a surprise. After qualifying with relative ease, Columbia appeared to be the favorite to win the group and a dark-horse contender to win the whole thing. But an ACL injury to talisman forward Radamel Falcao back in January dealt a huge blow to Columbia, while giving the other three teams new life.
Prediction: Colombia wins group, Ivory Coast advances
Participants: Costa Rica, England, Italy, Uruguay
One Match to Watch: England vs. Italy, June 14
Players to Watch: Joel Campbell, forward, Costa Rica; Raheem Sterlin, midfielder, England; Mario Balotelli, forward, Italy; Luis Suarez, forward, Uruguay
Interesting Fact: Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster is just the third non-English Premier League player to represent England at a World Cup since 1994.
Preview: In the previous 19 World Cups, eight different countries have lifted the trophy. Three of those (England, Italy and Uruguay) find themselves in this group with at least one of them destined to face the immense disappointment that is not making it out of the group stage. Costa Rica had one of its best qualifying campaigns in quite some time, but that was all quickly forgotten when the groups were drawn back in December,
Prediction: Italy wins group, Uruguay advances
Participants: Ecuador, France, Honduras, Switzerland
One Match to Watch: Ecuador vs. France, June 25
Players to Watch: Cristian Rodríguez, midfielder, Ecuador; Karim Benzema, forward, France; Roger Espinoza, midfielder, Honduras; Xherdan Shaqiri, midfielder, Switzerland
Interesting Fact: With four players on its roster currently playing in Major League Soccer, Honduras has the most American-based players besides the United States.
Preview: The French have followed quite a unique pattern in recent World Cups. They won it all in 1998, did not win a single match in 2002, lost in the final in 2006, did not win a single match in 2010. If history tells us anything, it is that France will have a successful run this time around. Even without stalwart Franck Ribery (who will miss with a back injury), France seems to be the clear favorites with Ecuador, Honduras and the Swiss in a no-holds-bar fight for second place.
Prediction: France wins group, Switzerland advances
Participants: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
One Match to Watch: Argentina vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 15
Players to Watch: Lionel Messi, forward, Argentina; Edin Džeko, forward, Bosnia; Ashkan Dejagah, midfielder, Iran; John Obi Mikel, midfielder, Nigeria
Interesting Fact: Iran defender Steven Beitashour was born in San Jose, CA and accepted a call-up with the United States for a 2012 friendly match before ultimately deciding to represent Iran, where both of his parents are from.
Preview: If his career ended today, Argentina’s Lionel Messi could lay claim to soccer’s best player of all-time. His résumé includes six Spanish La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions League titles, an Olympic Gold Medal and four FIFA Ballon d’Ors – an award given to the best player each year. The only thing that eludes him is a World Cup trophy. With a relatively easy group and the tournament in Brazil, this may be Messi’s best shot.
Prediction: Argentina wins group, Bosnia and Herzegovina advances
Participants: Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States
One Match to Watch: United States vs. Portugal, June 22
Players to Watch: Mario Götze, midfielder, Germany; André Ayew, midfielder, Ghana; Cristiano Ronaldo, midfielder, Portugal; Michael Bradley, midfielder, USA
Interesting Fact: In a 2010 group stage match, half-brothers Kevin-Prince Boateng (Ghana) and Jérôme Boateng (Germany) became the first siblings in World Cup history to face each other on opposite teams. They will meet again on June 21st.
Preview: 2013 was a banner year for the United States under head coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Highlighted by a record-breaking 12-match win streak, the United States finished atop its qualifying group for the third straight cycle. Optimism was at an all time high, until the group draws came out. In what is thought by many as the “group of death” the US gets third-ranked Germany, Portugal who has the reigning Ballon d’Or winner in Cristiano Ronaldo and Ghana – a team that has eliminated the U.S. in 2006 and 2010. Klinsmann was hired to take American soccer to the next level and getting out of the group would go a long way in proving that.
Prediction: Germany wins group, United States advances
Participants: Algeria, Belgium, Russia, South Korea
One Match to Watch: Belgium vs. Russia, June 22
Players to Watch: Hassan Yebda, midfielder, Algeria; Romelu Lukaku, forward, Belgium; Aleksandr Kokorin, forward, Russia; Ki Sung-yueng, midfielder, South Korea
Interesting Fact: Russia is the only squad in the World Cup that fields a 23-man roster made up entirely of domestic-based players.
Preview: With a mixture of veteran experience and talented youth, the Belgians have as good a chance as any of the contenders to make a deep run. But while the group may look easy on paper, Belgium can’t sleep on a cohesive Russian side led by former Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello and a young and exciting South Korean team that loves to attack whether it is up by two goals or down by four.
Prediction: Belgium wins group, South Korea advances
KNOCKOUT STAGE PREDICTIONS
Round of 16
Brazil over Chile
Uruguay over Columbia
France over Bosnia
Germany over South Korea
Spain over Croatia
Italy over Ivory Coast
Argentina over Switzerland
Belgium over United States
Brazil over Uruguay
Germany over France
Spain over Italy
Argentina over Belgium
Brazil over Germany
Argentina over Spain
Brazil over Argentina