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2014 World Cup: Team profiles

Pai Yao
Written by Pai Yao

This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.

GROUP A

 

BRAZIL

With five titles to their name Brazil is the most successful national football team in World Cup history. They head into this tournament as the early favorites despite their world ranking having slipped to ninth in recent years. While playing on home soil provides a significant advantage, it will also exert huge pressure on them. Brazil last hosted the World Cup in 1950 and were expected to win their first title but were upset by Uruguay in the final at the new Estádio do Maracanã – at the time the biggest stadium in the world with almost 200,000 attending.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title, has returned to try to rekindle the golden days. He isn’t a huge fan of overtly attacking football but it is hoped he will at least prevent them from swinging between their traditional Samba style and modern pragmatic football as they have done in recent times.

Nevertheless, the offensive prowess of Brazil should not be underestimated. They have been prolific in pre-tournament friendlies, including a 6-0 win over Australia and more recently a 5-0 thrashing of South Africa with Neymar scoring a hat trick. In the 2013 Confederations Cup, a warm up to the World Cup, Brazil defeated a number of notable teams before demolishing world number one Spain in the final. It’s fair to say they have finally found the right balance in this squad, with a very strong mid-field and plenty of experience. They will be eyeing first prize and certainly have the talent to go all the way.

Coach: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Captain: Thiago Silva
FIFA ranking: 9
Odds: $4.00
Home strip colors: Yellow and green
World Cup appearances: 19
World Cup titles: 5 – 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002

CROATIA

Croatia has never been short on footballing talent. With legendary striker Davor Šuker leading the way, they reached the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup but have been out of the spotlight since the 2008 European Cup when they reached the quarter-finals under Slaven Bilić. They failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and failed to progress out of the “Group of Death” at Euro 2012 at the hands of Spain and Italy.

Igor Štimac, who took over the national team from Bilić after that tournament, endured a turbulent 2014 World Cup qualification campaign. Croatia won five and drew one of their first six group matches before suffering a dip in form and just squeezing into the playoffs. Štimac offered his resignation and left the post to another former legend in Niko Kovač, who oversaw their defeat of Iceland to book their ticket to Brazil. However, the Iceland win led to the World Cup unavailability of defender Josip Šimunić, who led Croatian fans in a chant with pro-Nazi connotations, earning himself a 10-match ban in the process.

Although they don’t rank among the favorites, Croatia is too good to be considered as just making up the numbers. Experienced captain Darijo Srna was once the most sought-after fullback in Europe, while playmaker Luka Modrić is the current mid-field engine of Real Madrid. The attacking line is also full of stars from the European leagues, such as Eduardo, Ivica Olić, Nikica Jelavić and Mario Mandžukić. If Kovač finds the right formula they will be looking beyond the group stage and their opponents from there would be well advised not to take them lightly.

Coach: Niko Kovač
Captain: Darijo Srna
FIFA ranking: 16
Odds: $151.00
Home strip colors: Red, white and blue
World Cup appearances: 3
Highest World Cup finish: 3rd in 1998

MEXICO

Mexico’s preparations for this World Cup included a friendly against Nigeria in March – the match specifically organized in preparation for their opening group game against another African side in Cameroon. While Mexico poured everything into their attack, they couldn’t break down Nigeria’s defence – and this highlights their biggest problem right now. They don’t have enough genuine game breakers to trouble the top sides. No longer do they boast players of the caliber of Jorge Campos, Hugo Sánchez and Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

That could all change in the coming years. Blessed with plenty of rising stars, they won gold at the 2012 London Olympics but this is a very different level and their players aren’t yet developed in the tough European leagues. Even star striker Javier Hernandez, who plays at English giants Manchester United, has enjoyed very little game time this season under United’s new manager David Moyes.

A terrible qualification campaign cost former manager Jose Manuel de la Torre his job. Miguel Herrera, who stood out in the Mexico national league, took over and led the team to an easy 9-3 aggregate win over New Zealand in the playoffs. Herrera is known for his preference for using home-based players but has had little choice but to pick their few European stars for the World Cup. Rafael Márquez, who played for Barcelona in his prime, will be a reliable leader for the new manager.

Coach: Miguel Herrera
Captain: Rafael Márquez
FIFA ranking: 20
Odds: $101.00
Home strip colors: Green, white and red
World Cup appearances: 14
Highest World Cup finish: Qtr Finals in 1970, 1986

CAMEROON

Minnows in 2014, Cameroon has enjoyed some halcyon eras over the years – none more memorable than in 1990 when, led by the great Roger Milla, they upset Diego Maradona’s Argentina and Gheorghe Hagi’s Romania to reach the World Cup quarterfinals before eventually falling to England. Milla, who was 38 at the time, etched his name in World Cup folklore.

Since then, Cameroon has qualified for all bar one World Cup – missing Germany in 2006 – but have failed to progress past the group stage. German manager Volker Finke is determined to lead the lions back to glory but they face an uphill battle and their 5-1 loss to Portugal in a friendly in March doesn’t bode well.

Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o is Cameroon’s captain and the man most likely to cause a surprise. Once a fearful offensive threat for European giants Barcelona and Inter Milan, Eto’o has lost some speed and agility but his experience and guile have proved more than handy since joining the EPL. The African Lions will also rely heavily on Barcelona’s Alex Song and Queen’s Park Rangers defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto but it will take a titanic performance for them to progress from their group.

Coach: Volker Finke
Captain: Samuel Eto’o
FIFA ranking: 50
Odds: $501.00
Home strip colors: Yellow, green and red
World Cup appearances: 6
Highest World Cup finish: Qtr Finals in 1990

GROUP B

 

SPAIN

In the history of the World Cup, only two teams have ever claimed back-to-back titles. The first was Italy, who won the Cup in 1934 and 1938, while the other was Brazil in 1958 and 1962 – a team blessed with unprecedented football talents such as Pele and Garrincha.

This year Spain head to Brazil not only as defending champions but also back-to-back winners of the European Championships in 2008 and 2012, so there is huge expectation on them as they look to become just the third team in history to win the World Cup successively. However, for the first time in many years there are some question marks over their ability to win another major trophy. At the 2013 Confederations Cup, which was considered a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, hosts Brazil beat them comprehensively. Their World Cup qualification campaign was also nothing to brag about. They were slotted into the smallest group in Europe with only five teams including a revitalized France and although they managed to top the group without a single defeat, only 14 goals were scored in the process – a sure sign of a less prolific attack compared to their prime between 2008 and 2012.

Spain still has arguably the best mid-field in the world with Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Xabi Alonso pulling the strings, but the strikers are less convincing with Fernando Torres and David Villa clearly past their best. They also face a very tough group with the Netherlands and Chile both very strong opponents.

Coach: Vicente del Bosque
Captain: Iker Casillas
FIFA ranking: 1
Odds: $8.00
Home strip colors: Red, yellow and dark blue
World Cup appearances: 13
World Cup titles: 1 – 2010

NETHERLANDS

Three Finals, three runner-up finishes – the Oranje’s story plays out like a tragic drama. No wonder they have been dubbed “the football kings without a crown”. Since the 1970s, former Netherlands manager Rinus Michels’ “Total Football” has stood out as a groundbreaking and highly effective method in terms of tactics and style, with Barcelona and now Bayern Munich among its loyal followers. But the nation that pioneered it while producing such unique talents as Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit have always struggled to take the final step to glory.

Could this be their time? The Netherlands enjoyed a near perfect World Cup qualification campaign with nine wins and a draw from their 10 games, scoring 35 goals in the process while only conceding five. Only Germany matched that level of performance in Europe. Robin van Persie scored 11 goals during the campaign and was a merciless goal machine on his day. But manager Louis van Gaal is right to have his concerns, as van Persie has not been at his best for Manchester United this season.

The Dutch are famous for a lack of character and confidence when it comes to the big moments. Although they reached the final of the 2010 World Cup, their 2012 European Championships campaign saw them finish bottom of the “Group of Death” against Germany, Portugal and Denmark with the failure costing Bert van Marwijk his job. Veteran van Gaal will have talented players such as van Persie and Arjen Robben at his disposal but do they have the self-belief to finally fulfil their potential?

Coach: Louis van Gaal
Captain: Robin van Persie
FIFA ranking: 11
Odds: $26.00
Home strip colors: Orange and white
World Cup appearances: 9
Highest World Cup finish: 2nd in 1974, 1978 and 2010

CHILE

If you are looking for entertaining football, Chile should be the one to keep an eye on during the World Cup. After a slow start, Chile changed their manager midway through the qualification campaign as Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli took over and successfully led them to automatic qualification. Sampaoli is an admirer of predecessor Marcelo Bielsa’s energetic and high-pressing football – no wonder Chile scored the second most goals in the South American zone with 29, behind only Argentina!

Iván Zamorano was the most revered player in Chilean history and spent his best years with European giants Real Madrid and Inter Milan. Nevertheless, the Chilean fans have much more to look forward to at this World Cup with a number of individuals who could shoulder the burden. Forward Alexis Sánchez is one of the best wingers in European football and his football idol is unsurprisingly Zamorano. Mid-fielder Arturo Vidal, one of the key players in the Juventus squad, will be setting the pace. Together with Napoli striker Eduardo Vargas, the three Musketeers scored 14 goals between them during the qualification campaign.

Chile’s performance during the friendlies leading up to the World Cup has been promising too. They beat England 2-0 at Wembley, then narrowly lost to Germany in an entertaining contest. And when they are back on South American soil, the familiar culture and weather will give them a considerable “home continent” advantage. Unfortunately, they were slotted into this tough group with Spain and the Netherlands, but don’t underestimate this Chile squad – they just might surprise you.

Coach: Jorge Sampaoli
Captain: Claudio Bravo
FIFA ranking: 15
Odds: $41.00
Home strip colors: Red, blue and white
World Cup appearances: 8
Highest World Cup finish: 3rd in 1962

AUSTRALIA

Unfortunately for the many Australian readers of WGM, the Socceroos will likely to be the team their three rivals target in an effort to boost their all-important goal difference at this World Cup. Although they surprised the world when they progressed to the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Aussies rode a bumpy road during this qualification campaign and faced further humiliation in successive 6-0 losses to Brazil and France in recent friendless – results which led directly to the dismissal of former coach Holger Osieck.

His home-grown replacement, Ange Postecoglou, is highly rated but faces a shrinking pool of local football talent. Already seeing their “Golden Generation” in decline, their worst nightmare occurred in January when Robbie Kruse, the attacking lynchpin of the Socceroos, tore the ligaments in his left knee. It’s still unsure whether he will be available in time for the World Cup but it doesn’t look good. Kruse was the Australian Football Player of the Year in 2013 and his absence would be a huge blow. There was talk that 35-year-old Harry Kewell might be recalled in his absence until he recently announced his retirement and although Tim Cahill continues to perform at a high level, the likes of Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer are in the twilight of their career. With arguably the toughest group at the Cup and a heavy injury toll, it doesn’t look good for the Socceroos.

Coach: Ange Postecoglou
Captain: Lucas Neill
FIFA ranking: 63
Odds: $301.00
Home strip colors: Green and gold
World Cup appearances: 3
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 2006

GROUP C

 

COLOMBIA

Colombia without their star striker Radamel Falcao is akin to a tiger without its claws. Unfortunately, the Monaco talisman ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in January and it’s highly unlikely he will recover in time for the World Cup. His absence is a devastating blow for Colombia. Falcao was the national top goal scorer with nine goals during the qualification campaign while his attacking partners Teófilo Gutiérrez (6 goals) and James Rodríguez (3 goals) contributed just nine goals between them.

Argentinian José Néstor Pékerman introduced big changes to Colombia after he took over the team a couple of games into the qualification campaign. They were a powerful force when playing at their home ground in Barranquilla with five wins and only one defeat from their eight home games, and were lethal in attack with the third most goals scored during qualification with 27. Only Argentina and Chile scored more, but of course this was achieved with Falcao leading the line.

Nevertheless, Colombia has another number that can’t be ignored – they also conceded the least goals during the campaign with 13. If that performance is anything to go by then even without Falcao, they might still have the fortitude to strangle their opponents.

Coach: José Pékerman
Captain: Mario Yepes
FIFA ranking: 5
Odds: $26.00
Home strip colors: Yellow, blue and red
World Cup appearances: 4
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 1990

GREECE

They might not boast the attacking prowess of Spain or Brazil, but Greece will likely bring some other important attributes to this World Cup – solid defense and tough tackling. In 2004, Otto Rehhagel led a highly defensive Greek outfit to the European Cup title and the 2014 version of this side isn’t much different. In qualification they only managed 12 goals but conceded just four in 10 games, with five of their wins coming 1-0.

Another stereotype of the Greek national team is their tendency to use experienced, older players. At Euro 2012, Greece contributed the oldest player to the tournament in veteran goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias (38). Again, not much has changed with the average age of this Greek side being 27 years and their oldest player captain Giorgios Karagounis is 36.

But new manager Fernando Santos has brought some new faces as well. Konstantinos Mitroglou, who moved to Fulham this winter for a club record fee, was Greece’s top goal-scorer during qualification although Fulham’s relegation fight has been tough on him and his form leading up to the World Cup is a concern.

This is the third time Greece has qualified for the World Cup with their two previous outings ending in the group stage. They have been handed arguably the most open group of all this time around but it remains to be seen whether they can achieve their best result in Brazil.

Coach: Fernando Santos
Captain: Giorgios Karagounis
FIFA ranking: 13
Odds: $201.00
Home strip colors: Blue and white
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage

CÔTE D’IVOIRE

Since their World Cup debut at Germany in 2006, the draw hasn’t been particularly kind to Côte d’Ivoire. Placed in the same group as Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006, then Brazil and Portugal in 2010, they are yet to progress beyond the group stage despite boasting some extremely talented sides.

With that in mind, Brazil represents the best chance yet for Côte d’Ivoire’s “Golden Generation” to create history. Although, with the exception of Yaya Touré, most of their best players have passed their prime – the likes of Didier Drogba, Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou and Emmanuel Eboué – their abilities should never be underestimated. And with young players such as Lacina Traoré and Wilfried Bony shining in the English Premier League, they have reached an interesting stage in the nation’s footballing development.

One reason we do like the look of Côte d’Ivoire is the presence of Drogba, who knows how to perform on the big stage. Take the 2012 Champions League final for example. The last chance for Drogba to claim a belated European title, he scored the 88th-minute equalizer to send the game to extra time, then converted the winning penalty at the death. This summer will be his last chance to shine in a World Cup, so will we see something similar?

Coach: Sabri Lamouchi
Captain: Didier Drogba
FIFA ranking: 24
Odds: $126.00
Home strip colors: Green, orange and white
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage

JAPAN

Since their World Cup debut in France in 1998, the Japanese national team, having benefited from the creation of the J-League, has been ever present at football’s showcase event. In that time they have experienced both highs and lows, with exceptional performances at Japan/Korea in 2002 and South Africa in 2010. The current squad has progressed well under Italian manager Alberto Zaccheroni and enjoyed a wonderful qualification campaign in which they finished well clear of main rivals Australia.

The team is powered by a handful of talented players from top European clubs, with Shinji Kagawa one of the best. Kagawa’s former manager Jürgen Klopp once branded him the best young attacking midfielder in the world. Although Kagawa’s move to Manchester United has seen him consistently played out of position, he still has the confidence to perform at the top level.

But Japan isn’t only about Shinji Kagawa. Shinji Okazaki, the striker from Mainz 05 who scored eight goals during qualification, as well as Keisuke Honda who currently wears the legendary number 10 shirt of AC Milan, are players worth keeping an eye on.

With Japan having developed their players around technique and tactical awareness, it will be interesting to see if their endeavours pay off in Brazil.

Coach: Alberto Zaccheroni
Captain: Makoto Hasebe
FIFA ranking: 48
Odds: $101.00
Home strip colors: Navy, white and red
World Cup appearances: 4
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 2002, 2010

GROUP D

 

URUGUAY

Semi-finalists at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Uruguay’s qualification campaign was far from impressive this time around with a fifth place finish meaning they needed a play-off win over Jordan to book their spot in Brazil. Legendary manager Óscar Tabárez has plenty of questions for his 2011 Copa América champions to answer if they are going to perform similar feats to 2010.

Uruguay boasts a mouth-watering front line with Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani their prime strikers. Suárez has been in red hot form for Liverpool this season and has progressed from the raw striker we saw four years ago to one of the game’s elite players. He was also the top goal scorer in the South American zone with 11 – one more than Argentina’s Lionel Messi. And of course we can’t forget Diego Forlán – the Golden Ball winner as the best player at the 2010 World Cup!

One thing that does concern Uruguay’s supporters is their problematic defense. La Celeste conceded 25 goals during qualifying – more than two goals per game – and centre backs Diego Godín and Lugano will have to be more vocal to organize their defensive line.Nevertheless, if history is anything to go by, it wouldn’t surprise to see Uruguay give this tournament a real shake. After all, they also qualified for South Africa in a play-off but saved their best for when it mattered most.

Coach: Óscar Tabárez
Captain: Diego Lugano
FIFA ranking: 6
Odds: $23.00
Home strip colors: Sky blue and black
World Cup appearances: 11
World Cup titles: 2 – 1930 and 1950

COSTA RICA

If you follow your football closely, you will no doubt remember the brilliant goal Joel Campbell scored for Olympiakos against Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League clash this season. On loan to the Greek club from Arsenal, Campbell represents the future of Costa Rican football.

But can he do it all by himself? This Caribbean nation doesn’t possess enough top talent to trouble the best in the business so they will rely heavily on Campbell and PSV Eindhoven’s Bryan Ruiz to produce something special. Nevertheless, Colombian manager Jorge Luis Pinto formed a well-oiled unit during their qualification campaign and they joined USA in going straight through after finishing second in their group behind the Americans.

The biggest problem for Costa Rica is the nightmare group they have drawn and judging by their 4-0 loss to Chile in January they are still some way behind the top nations. It will take a supreme effort from them to equal their one and only Round of 16 appearance on debut in 1990.

Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
FIFA ranking: 34
Odds: $1,501.00
Home strip colors: Red and blue
World Cup appearances: 3
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 1990

ENGLAND

If German football represents the perfect model for ambitious footballing nations, England stand as a shining example of what not to do. Their record in big tournaments over the past 20 years has been one of farce and disappointment and they won’t have forgotten their 2010 campaign where they surprisingly finished behind the United States in their group before being humiliated 4-1 by Germany in the Round of 16. Although England boasts arguably the best league in the world, their national team will need more than one generation to catch up to the likes of Spain and Germany.

On the plus side, manager Roy Hodgson has a bigger football talent pool to choose young players from than his predecessor Fabio Capello thanks to clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton, who still care about cultivating local players with solid technique such as Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling. But Hodgson isn’t known for getting the best out of a side’s attack and although key players have performed well during the EPL season they have typically failed to fire on the international stage.

It’s fair to say this England side is in a bit of a transitional phase, which could well prove a great thing, and they head to Brazil minus recently retired veterans Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, while Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson may also be past their prime. At least there isn’t as much expectation on them as in previous years and they might consider simply progressing out of the group stage to be an achievement. If they can get that far, who knows?

Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Steven Gerrard
FIFA ranking: 12
Odds: $26.00
Home strip colors: Navy, red and white
World Cup appearances: 13
World Cup titles: 1 – 1966

ITALY

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, few could have predicted Italy’s sudden fall from grace in South Africa four years ago as they finished last in their group behind Paraguay, Slovakia and even New Zealand! The 2006 World Cup champions were quickly brought back to earth, prompting a period of dramatic change in their national set-up.

New manager Cesare Prandelli quickly recognized the need for transformation and among his first actions was to bring in new blood such as Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli who helped revitalize the team. An even greater change lay in the long overdue switch in Italy’s football philosophy. For years renowned as a water-tight defensive unit, it was their ability to shut down opponents that brought them World Cup glory in 2006 but Prandelli’s Italy is more attack-minded. After the disappointment of 2010, Euro 2012 saw them back where they belong as they knocked out England and Germany before falling to Spain in the final.

They also cruised through their European qualifying group ahead of Denmark and the Czech Republic and although they have landed a tough group, they will expect to progress and then some.

The question, though, is whether they are one or two great players short of pushing for a fifth World Cup win?

Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
FIFA ranking: 8
Odds: $26.00
Home strip colors: Azure blue and white
World Cup appearances: 17
World Cup titles: 4 – 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006

GROUP E

 

SWITZERLAND

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this young Swiss side. They enjoyed a great draw in their World Cup qualification with Iceland, Slovenia and Norway never going to cause them any problems and unsurprisingly they remained undefeated to top the group. As a result, their FIFA ranking rose dramatically – at one stage to sixth above Brazil, Italy and the Netherlands!

Switzerland reached the last eight at the 1954 World Cup on home soil but have never managed to go beyond the Round of 16 since then. German manager Ottmar Hitzfeld is lucky enough to have a group of good young talent such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valentin Stocker. Ironically, he has Kosovo to thank for that – Shaqiri, Xhaka and Valon Behrami were all Kosovo-born but fled their birth country as war tore the country apart during the 1990s. With these Balkan-origin football talents, Switzerland will hope to have a big role to play this summer.

Hitzfeld is another reason they can at least be confident of progressing from their group. Having previously enjoyed great success with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, he took over Switzerland in 2008 and after a slow start that saw them fail to progress past the group stage at the 2010 World Cup and miss Euro 2012 completely, they look to be a much better chance here.

Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Captain: Gökhan Inler
FIFA ranking: 7
Odds: $81.00
Home strip colors: Red and white
World Cup appearances: 9
Highest World Cup finish: Quarter finals in 1934, 1938, 1954

ECUADOR

Every side enjoys the benefits of home ground advantage, but none has demonstrated such a dramatic difference in home and away performance ahead of the 2014 World Cup. With Estadio Olímpico Atahualpa in the capital city Quito located at high-altitude, Ecuador took full advantage with seven wins and a draw from their eight games. Those fantastic home results helped them finish above Uruguay to claim autoqualification on the final day thanks to goal difference, but it’s also hard to ignore their poor results on the road where they failed to record a single win. With three draws and five losses away from home, the signs aren’t overly encouraging for their trip to Brazil.

Tragedy hit Ecuadorian football last year when their second highest goal scorer, Cristian Benitez, died suddenly from cardiac arrest. The 27-year-old striker scored four goals in nine games during qualification with only Felipe Caicedo scoring more with seven. Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia, arguably the key man for Ecuador, hasn’t been at his best since the 2012/13 season and although they will likely fight it out with Switzerland for second spot in the group they will need to produce their best if they are to progress.

Coach: Reinaldo Rueda
Captain: Antonio Valencia
FIFA ranking: 23
Odds: $101.00
Home strip colors: Yellow, blue and red
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 2006

FRANCE

The bitter memories of France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign still linger long in the minds of fans and players alike. Manager Raymond Domenech completely lost control of the dressing room and a coup from several senior players became one of the major talking points of the tournament as they finished last in their group without a single win.

Current coach Didier Deschamps has demonstrated much better man-management and tactical prowess since taking over in 2012. However, his Les Bleus don’t possess the quality of France’s 1998 World Cup winning side that included the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly. That’s not to say they don’t boast world class players – Samir Nasri (Manchester City), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) and Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich) spring to mind – but they have generally struggled to produce their best football when on international duty – a problem shared by the English team.

France found themselves in the same group as Spain during the qualification period and were no match for the World Cup champions, leaving them in a play-off with the Ukraine for a ticket to Brazil. Remarkably, having lost the away leg 2-0, they scored a stunning 3-0 win in the return leg to show everyone just what they are capable of when they click. With that newfound self-belief, will we see a resurgent France in 2014?

Coach: Didier Deschamps
Captain: Hugo Lloris
FIFA ranking: 17
Odds: $21.00
Home strip colors: Blue, white and red
World Cup appearances: 13
World Cup titles: 1 – 1998

HONDURAS

For most of our readers, it’s fair to say Honduras has very few recognizable faces, although the name Carlo Costly might ring a bell for some Chinese football fans. With seven goals he was the second highest goal scorer for Honduras during qualification. Costly enjoyed a short spell in the Chinese second division last year before returning home. As a tall and rugged striker, he partnered well with fellow forward Jerry Bengtson with the duo contributing 16 goals between them during qualification.

Wilson Palacios, who spent several successful seasons in the English Premier League, most notably at Tottenham, will sit in the middle and set the pace for Honduras. Palacios is renowned for his hard tackling and strong physical presence and he will be crucial to the hopes of manager Luis Fernando Suárez.

Honduras has never progressed beyond the group stage in their two previous attempts and it will be very difficult for them to change that this time around, but perhaps simply winning their first ever World Cup game would be considered a step in the right direction.

Coach: Luis Fernando Suárez
Captain: Noel Valladares
FIFA ranking: 36
Odds: $1,501.00
Home strip colors: Blue and white
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage

GROUP F

 

ARGENTINA

It is fair to say that Argentina only have themselves to beat at the World Cup this summer. The reason is simple – with so much outstanding talent and vast experience at the top level of European football, they stand out as one of the leading contenders provided they play to their unbridled potential.

But it’s been a long time since that has happened with Argentina having seriously under-achieved since they last claimed the title in 1986. Their 2010 World Cup ended in particularly disappointing fashion, humiliated 4-0 by a young Germany as star players such as Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero struggled to find any real form.

The appointment of Alejandro Sabella as their new manager in 2011 certainly raised a few eyebrows. As the long-term assistant to predecessor Daniel Passarella, he didn’t boast much first team experience and many argued he didn’t represent Argentina’s best choice. But Sabella has done a terrific job, leading the team to the top of South American qualification in convincing fashion. Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín performed strongly with 19 goals between them and with the Argentinians scoring a total of 35 goals while conceding just 15 it was a strong and balanced performance. Sabella looks like the real deal and if he can get the best out his star-studded squad this summer Argentina will be extremely difficult to beat.

Coach: Alejandro Sabella
Captain: Lionel Messi
FIFA ranking: 3
Odds: $6.00
Home strip colors: Sky blue and white
World Cup appearances: 15
World Cup titles: 2 – 1978 and 1986

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only nation making its World Cup debut this summer and given they haven’t even featured in the European Cup before, it’s difficult to predict how they will perform on football’s biggest stage. But there are plenty of familiar faces in their squad and they’ve been blessed by a relatively good group, so the rare feat of progressing to the Round of 16 at their very first attempt isn’t beyond them.

Edin Džeko, the prolific Manchester City striker, will lead the Bosnian attack. With 10 goals during qualification and a glorious career that has taken him to Germany and England, Džeko represents the hopes and dreams of this tiny nation. But he isn’t short of support. Vedad Ibišević, the Stuttgart striker, shares a great understanding with Džeko; young midfielder Miralem Pjanić was a product of the prestigious youth academy of French club Metz and now plies his trade with Italian giants Roma; and Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begović is a world-class stopper who has attracted the plaudits of top Premier League managers like Arsène Wenger.

Manager Safet Sušić led the team through a successful qualification campaign, with an impressive 30 goals scored in 10 games while only conceding six. They certainly have the squad to push for progression and with Džeko and Ibišević together up front that looms as a realistic goal.

Coach: Safet Sušić
Captain: Emir Spahić
FIFA ranking: 21
Odds: $151.00
Home strip colors: Blue and white
World Cup appearances: 0

IRAN

Although Iran has featured at the World Cup on three previous occasions in 1978, 1998 and 2006, their nine group stage games have only produced a solitary win. That came back in 1998 in a side boasting the likes of Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia, who both played in Germany’s Bundesliga during their prime.

It hasn’t been an ideal lead-up to this year’s tournament. Coach Carlos Queiroz signed a threeyear contract with Iran back in 2011 that will run through the World Cup but the Portuguese is unlikely to renew again given his frustration at the nation’s inability to arrange friendlies due to lack of funds. They finally managed to organize a game in March against minnows Guinea and proceeded to lose 2-1 – showing just how difficult it will be for Iran to compete in Brazil.

Javad Nekounam, Iran’s captain and main talisman, played in La Liga with Osasuna for six years and is currently with Al Kuwait SC. As top goal scorer during qualification, he is their most likely source at the World Cup but it seems simply recording their second win in a World Cup match would be quite a feat in itself.

Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Captain: Javad Nekounam
FIFA ranking: 42
Odds: $1,001.00
Home strip colors: Red, white and green
World Cup appearances: 3
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage

NIGERIA

Nigeria’s World Cup draw in Brazil looks markedly similar to their ill-fated 2010 trip to South Africa where they were pitted against Argentina, Greece and South Korea and bowed out without a single win. This summer they again face the top South American team, an Asian side in Iran and a European side in Bosnia and Herzegovina who will likely be tougher than Greece was four years ago.

But Nigeria is a different team now with new manager Stephen Keshi a local hero and renowned motivator. He led them to the African Cup title in 2013, beating Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Burkina Faso in the process, and has mixed European based stars with local players well. Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is the lynchpin of the side, while striker Emmanuel Emenike and young defender Godfrey Oboabona are learning their trade in the Turkish league.

We have fond memories of the glamour Nigerian side who brought a breath of fresh air to the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, with players like Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu bemusing defenders. They were truly the golden generation of Nigerian football, while it will take a supreme effort for Keshi’s side to catch up to the performance and imagination their predecessors presented to the world.

Coach: Stephen Keshi
Captain: Vincent Enyeama
FIFA ranking: 47
Odds: $201.00
Home strip colors: Green and white
World Cup appearances: 4
Highest World Cup finish: Round of 16 in 1994, 1998

GROUP G

 

GERMANY

There is no doubt that Germany currently boasts one of the best squads in world football. They are one of the early favorites for this World Cup and their resurgence as a football powerhouse is nothing short of extraordinary.

Having claimed the 1996 European Cup by beating the Czech Republic thanks largely to the efforts of Oliver Bierhoff, Germany’s decline over the next 10 years was inevitable given their once brilliant football philosophy was quickly becoming outdated. Yet these days the best young German players can be found dominating all the top European leagues with the likes of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Marco Reus hugely sought after talents.

A long due switch in the nation’s footballing philosophy and the emergence of young managers, combined with the revolution of the academy system, has brought sweeping changes to German football. They came very close at the 2010 World Cup and again at Euro 2008 and 2012 despite their inexperience, so is the 2014 World Cup the right opportunity for Joachim Löw’s ambitious Germany to return to glory?

They scored 36 goals, the most of any side, in European zone qualifying and only conceded 10 although two games will remind Löw that his team hasn’t won anything yet – they threw away a four goal lead against Sweden in Berlin before winning 5-3 in the return game in two exciting but far from convincing displays – and Sweden didn’t even make the World Cup!

It should also be noted that no European team has ever won the World Cup in North or South America, so Germany will have to make history to get the job done. Still, if they play their best football it will take a special effort from one of their rivals to stop them lifting the trophy.

Coach: Joachim Löw
Captain: Philipp Lahm
FIFA ranking: 2
Odds: $6.50
Home strip colors: White, black, red and yellow
World Cup appearances: 17
World Cup titles: 3 – 1954, 1974, 1990

PORTUGAL

Cristiano Ronaldo booked his place in Brazil this summer at the expense of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Sweden, and the World Cup is better off for having arguably the best player in the world taking part. The newly crowned Ballon d’Or winner is Portugal’s talisman, scoring eight goals in qualifying as well as displaying red hot form for club side Real Madrid.

Portugal is a unique team in the football world, having boasted three distinguished players to lead three different generations. Eusébio, who passed away early this year, was the hero who led the team to third place at the 1966 World Cup – knocking Pele’s Brazil out in the process. Luís Figo, another incredible player of his time, led the team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups before Ronaldo emerged as the new national icon soon after.

Coach Paulo Bento has a fairly balanced team at his disposal, with Pepe and Bruno Alves being the cornerstones of their defense. They have two world-class mid-fielders in João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, while Nani and Fábio Coentrão will support their attack with lightening speed from the wings. And of course there is Ronaldo lurking up front hoping to make all the difference. The problem for Bento is the lack of experience at the very top level of international football. They boast a quality squad, but for all their potential they need to prove to the world they deserve to be thought of alongside the big guns.

Coach: Paulo Bento
Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo
FIFA ranking: 4
Odds: $29.00
Home strip colors: Red, green and white
World Cup appearances: 5
Highest World Cup finish: 3rd place in 1966

GHANA

Ghana has arguably been the best African nation for more than 10 years. It is a relatively rich and peaceful country and their youth national team has continually performed well internationally. Sadly, it has been reported that talented youngsters from right across Africa would try to buy Ghanaian passports in order to represent the Black Stars’ youth team, which is known to be one of the best ways to attract interest from big European clubs. It is unclear how much human football trafficking has contributed to the rise of Ghanaian football, but the West African country has certainly produced a handful of world class players over the years.

Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari, two of the most fearful defensive midfielders in Europe in their prime, will control the middle of the park for the Black Stars. In fact, there are few stronger or more physical sides than this Ghana outfit with André Ayew, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah all possessing powerful physiques.

Ghana stormed into the quarter finals of the 2010 World Cup before they bowed out in style against Uruguay in a game highlighted by Luis Suárez’s handball and red card, and the dramatic penalty shootout that condemned Ghana’s fate. They are in a tough group this summer and will have to overcome Portugal for second spot. Which will win the battle – Portugal’s flair or Ghana’s power?

Coach: Akwasi Appiah
Captain: Asamoah Gyan
FIFA ranking: 35
Odds: $151.00
Home strip colors: Red, yellow and green
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Quarter finals in 2010

USA

Despite decades of development, football is yet to become a truly popular sport in America, with their love for gridiron, basketball and baseball unswayable. Nevertheless, the United States is reaping the rewards of the football schools they opened across the nation in the midst of the 1994 World Cup on home soil which have helped produce a few gems in Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and more recently Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore.

America has been ever-present at the World Cup since 1990 with mixed results. They were humiliated in finishing last in France in 1998, but in 2002 they surprisingly beat Portugal in the group stage to progress all the way to the quarter finals – a disaster that won’t be easily forgotten by their foes when they meet again in Brazil.

Can America do it all over again this summer? Given that Dempsey and Donovan have both passed their prime it could be difficult – particularly given they boast three strong opponents in the group stage.

Their simple goal will be to prove the doubters wrong.

Coach: Jürgen Klinsmann
Captain: Clint Dempsey
FIFA ranking: 14
Odds: $151.00
Home strip colors: Red, white and blue
World Cup appearances: 9
Highest World Cup finish: 3rd place in 1930

GROUP H

 

BELGIUM

Belgium has never historically been considered a footballing powerhouse. Despite qualifying for six successive World Cups between 1982 and 2002, they have only once progressed as far as the semi-finals (1986) and despite earning a reputation as a tough, well-drilled side they have rarely troubled the true giants of international football. But that could be about to change.

Having failed to qualify for the World Cup since 2002 and the European Championships since 2000, the Belgian squad has been flooded with a new crop of highly impressive youngsters over the past two years and the transformation has been remarkable. Having finished nine points clear at the top of their qualifying group without a single loss, only Germany and the Netherlands accrued more points in Europe.

Manager Marc Wilmots has a ton of talent at his disposal, headed by Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Eden Hazard. Midfielder Hazard has been particularly impressive for Chelsea this season and will be a key force for the Belgians in Brazil. Also in the squad are the likes of Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, Thomas Vermaelen of Arsenal, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Atletico Madrid’s Toby Alderweireld.

Yet as exciting as this emerging batch of players is, the one major concern is their lack of big game experience. Even for a player of Hazard’s quality – a man many believe will go on to become one of the greats – playing in your first World Cup can be a daunting experience. Perhaps this will be a World Cup too early for the current batch – a bit like the German side of 2010 – but they should still ease through their group without too much trouble. And rest assured there isn’t a single side at Brazil 2014 that will look forward to playing them.

Coach: Marc Wilmots
Captain: Vincent Kompany
FIFA ranking: 10
Odds: $11.00
Home strip colors: Red, black and yellow
World Cup appearances: 11
Highest World Cup finish: 4th place in 1986

RUSSIA

Plenty of interest surrounded the appointment of Fabio Capello as Russia’s new manager following the resignation of Dick Advocaat in mid- 2012. Capello had previously overseen England’s underwhelming 2010 World Cup campaign and questions were asked of his ability to transform the misfiring Russians, but he has surprised many with what he has achieved over the past two years.

Not only did Russia top their qualifying group ahead of more fancied Portugal, they conceded just five goals in the process as Capello turned a once erratic side into a solid defensive unit.

This will be Russia’s first World Cup appearance since 2002 and serves as a timely precursor to 2018 when they will host the tournament for the first time. It also represents a tremendous opportunity to create history by finally progressing past the group stage, having failed to do so in 1994 and 2002.

One major concern is that Russia has just one player in the squad – Sevilla winger Denis Cheryshev – plying their trade outside of the homeland and that lack of top level European football could come back to haunt them. Still, they have proven to be a well-balanced side in the lead-up to Brazil with their water-tight defence complemented by a strong midfield boasting Roman Shirokov, Igor Denisov and Viktor Fayzulin as well as the highly talented but enigmatic Alan Dzagoev.

Russia’s fate may well come down to how they cope with the pressure. In 2002, in a group eerily similar to this one, they were tipped to progress but after beating Tunisia in their opening match suffered consecutive losses to Japan and Belgium to fall short. Time will tell if they can put those bitter memories behind them.

Coach: Fabio Capello
Captain: Sergei Ignashevich
FIFA ranking: 19
Odds: $81.00
Home strip colors: Red, white and blue
World Cup appearances: 2
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage

SOUTH KOREA

If recent history is anything to go by, South Korea could represent more than just nuisance value in Brazil this year. With a proud history of over-achieving, it’s hard to forget their thrilling run through the 2002 World Cup when they stunned everyone by reaching the semi-finals thanks to shock wins over Italy and Spain – albeit in highly controversial circumstances. They also progressed out of the group stage in South Africa four years ago with a win over Greece and a draw with Nigeria.

This time around sees them pitted against a strong Belgian squad who will be expected to top the group and the most likely scenario is that it will come down to either Russia or South Korea as to who finishes second.

Coached by Hong Myung-Bo – who was captain of that 2002 side – their big hope is Bayer Leverkusen’s record signing Son Heung-Min who is lethal up front and will keep opposition defenders honest. They also boast the 6-foot, 6-inch striker Kim Shin-Wook – a rare giant in Asian sides and the obvious target man for former Bolton winger Lee Chung-Yong.

This is actually South Korea’s eighth-consecutive World Cup appearance which is quite an impressive feat, although their form in qualifying didn’t do a lot for their confidence after finishing second in their group behind Iran and only just scraping in ahead of Uzbekistan. That effort cost former manager Choi Kang-Hee his job, but their form under Hong has been promising and they managed an impressive 2-1 win over Switzerland last November.

Coach: Hong Myung-Bo
Captain: Lee Chung-Yong
FIFA ranking: 60
Odds: $251.00
Home strip colors: Red, white and blue
World Cup appearances: 8
Highest World Cup finish: 4th place in 2002

ALGERIA

Algeria’s second consecutive appearance after their 2010 return to the World Cup after 24 years in the wilderness, the North African nation is still looking for its first Round of 16 appearance having failed to progress in three previous attempts.

It would be a surprise if they were to do so in Brazil, however they are undoubtedly a team on the rise and we could well see a glimpse of much better things to come in this young and talented squad. Midfielder Saphir Taider recently joined Italian giants Inter Milan on a big money deal and is one to keep an eye on, as is Sporting Lisbon striker Islam Slimani. Another midfielder, Sofiane Feghouli, plays for Valencia in Spain and has drawn comparisons with the great Zinedine Zidane.

Their experience comes in the shape of veteran defender Madjid Bougherra, who plied his trade with Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton in England before spending four years with Scottish giants Rangers between 2008 and 2011. Algeria also boasts a highly respected coach in Vahid Halilhodžić. Halilhodžić guided Cote D’Ivoire to the 2010 World Cup and has enjoyed a successful club career as well, having led Paris Saint Germain to victory in the French Cup in 2004.

Although they eased their way through qualifying in the always competitive African Confederation, they face a tough time of it here – even if history shows that African sides have a proud history of proving the doubters wrong.

Coach: Vahid Halilhodžić
Captain: Madjid Bougherra
FIFA ranking: 25
Odds: $751.00
Home strip colors: Green and white
World Cup appearances: 3
Highest World Cup finish: Group stage