Examine the eight groups of teams chasing the World Cup:
Group A: Hosts are well-positioned
Countries: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Most of their parents weren’t born in 1950 but Brazil’s players know all about what happened the last time their country hosted the Cup and about the loss to Uruguay in the Rio finale that threw everyone into a prolonged funk. “It was the first time I ever saw my father cry,” recalled the immortal Pele, who later hoisted the golden trophy three times. While the Selecao have won the championship a record five times, a sixth at massive Maracana would be the most satisfying of all. “It’s up to me and my teammates to wear our hearts on our sleeves,” said forward Fred, “and give the happiness which has been on hold for 64 years.” Yet while the draw was relatively gentle the second round brings trouble with defending titlist Spain or runner-up Netherlands on the horizon. Winning the group with a formidable crew, from striker Neymar to keeper Julio Cesar, shouldn’t be a problem against one opponent that didn’t qualify last time (Croatia), one that didn’t manage a point (Cameroon), and one that barely qualified this time (Mexico). So the race clearly will be for second. The Croatians, who made a huge splash in their 1998 debut when they upset the Germans and beat the Dutch for third place, needed to win a playoff with Iceland to earn their place. While Cameroon qualified without a struggle, the Indomitable Lions want to atone for their South African collapse. “We need to put the disappointment of 2010 behind us,” said forward Vincent Aboubakar. The Mexicans, who needed an American gift even to get into a playoff with New Zealand, have advanced in their last five appearances but their task this time may be beyond them.
Group B: Spanish, Dutch on collision course
Countries: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Spain already has made history as the only team to win both the World Cup and consecutive European crowns, but its résumé won’t help La Furia Roja become the first country from the continent to prevail in South America. “We have to forget the past and not gloat over what we have won in previous years,” said manager Vicente del Bosque, whose squad was shredded by the hosts in last summer’s Confederations Cup dress rehearsal. Their opening match against the Netherlands, a replay of the 2010 final that Spain won in extra time, could determine their fate since the group runner-up will likely face Brazil in the second round. The Spaniards, who conceded only three goals in eight qualifying matches, return all but a couple of starters from 2010, most notably midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, forward David Villa, and keeper Iker Casillas, and their tiki-taka possession style will be even more productive in the heat and humidity. The Dutch, who didn’t collect a point in the Euros, rebounded to breeze through qualifying and have a formidable attack led by Robin van Persie. The best team never to win the Cup hasn’t failed to advance since 1938, but the Oranje will need to be wary of Chile, which is appearing in consecutive tournaments for the first time and is sparked by midfielder Arturo Vidal. “I think this team can beat all,” reckoned manager Louis van Gaal, “but we can also lose.” The youngish Australians, still built around forward Tim Cahill, are the universal choice to bring up the rear.
Group C: Ivory Coast looks to prove its mettle
Countries: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
If the Group of Death has an antithesis this is it, a quartet with nobody that ever has survived the second round. The best of them could be Ivory Coast, which was tossed into brutal company at the last two Cups. “We’re going to show the world what we can really do,” vowed defender Arthur Boka. “This time we’re going to make it.” The Elephants still have the goods in captain Didier Drogba and midfielder Yaya Toure, but they also have a history of falling short on the big stage. “We will have a chance,” said manager Sabri Lamouchi, “but we have to seize it.” Colombia, making its first appearance since 1998, is coming off its best qualifying effort, finishing second to Argentina. But Los Cafeteros will be without star striker Radamel Falcao, sidelined by a knee injury, in their quest to advance for the first time since 1990. The Greeks, who’ve never survived group play, had to beat Romania in a playoff for their return ticket, provoking a celebration among their countrymen who’ve been battered by a busted economy. “It is a message of hope and faith,” mused manager Fernando Santos. While its lineup is aging — captain Giorgos Karagounis is 37 — Greece plays stingy defense, winning half of its qualifiers by a 1-0 count, while allowing only four goals in 10 matches. On the rise are the Japanese, who went out to Paraguay on penalties in the second round last time and qualified for the fifth straight time. With Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa manning the middle, the Blue Samurai, Asia’s best side, can’t be overlooked. “We will respect our opponents,” said manager Alberto Zaccheroni, “but certainly we won’t be frightened.”
Group D: Italy, England try to regain form
Countries: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
The football lottery gods have a devilish sense of humor, making England and Italy slog it out in the Amazon jungle in their opener. Perhaps it’s their purgatory for last time, when the Azzurri finished at the bottom of a middling bunch after winning the Cup in 2006 and the Three Lions lost their group to the Yanks and were disemboweled by the Germans in the second round. The Italians extracted some payback at the last European championships, beating the Mannschaft in the semis after knocking out the English on penalties. Now, with ageless Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Andrea Pirlo orchestrating in the midfield, and Mohawked Mario Balotelli up front, the Azzurri are primed to reach the final again. “We have few limitations and for that reason we are a reliable side,” mused Buffon, whose teammates easily earned a 14th straight invitation to the dance. The English, who had to go down to the last day to win their qualifying group, still have the likes of forward Wayne Rooney and midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, plus hot foot Daniel Sturridge. And while they haven’t failed to advance since 1968, there’s no guarantee they will should Uruguay return to form. La Celeste, which finished fourth last time and went on to win the Copa America, had an abysmal qualifying quest and needed to beat Jordan in a playoff. “In football there is also a First World and a Third World,” said manager Oscar Washington Tabarez. “We in Uruguay are not among the powers, not even in the South American region.” If striker Luis Suarez bounces back from meniscus surgery, though, his blueshirted comrades could make another run. Odd men out figure to be the Costa Ricans, who missed out in 2010 but earned a berth with a parsimonious defense that put them second to the US in the regional standings.
Group E: A Swiss surprise?
Countries: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Well, why can’t the Swiss top this group? The French needed a fantasy comeback to win their playoff with Ukraine. The Ecuadorans didn’t win a qualifying outing that wasn’t played two miles high, and the Hondurans never have won a Cup match. Switzerland, which is making its third straight appearance, cruised through its prelims and earned a seed. “On a good day we really can beat any team,” reckoned manager Ottmar Hitzfeld. Once upon a time so could France, which won the Cup in 1998 and reached the 2006 final but scored only one goal in 2010 when the squad refused to practice after manager Raymond Domenech booted Nicolas Anelka off the team. “To win it for us would be viewed as a miracle,” conceded manager Didier Deschamps, who captained Les Bleus when they won it all at home. Still, France figures to advance if it doesn’t stumble given quality veterans such as winger Franck Ribery, defender Patrice Evra, and keeper Hugo Lloris. Ecuador, which startled everyone by surviving its 2006 group, missed out last time. While sea level is not its thing, La Tri won’t have to travel far to lace up this time. “How far can we go? Who knows?” remarked midfielder Enner Valencia. “We’re not one of the favorites, that’s for sure.” Nor is Honduras, although Los Catrachos performed more than creditably in their previous two appearances and beat the Americans and Mexicans (at sky-high Azteca) to earn their spot. “People underestimate us, so we can do this,” said manager Luis Fernando Suarez, who’ll have the Revolution’s Jerry Bengtson as his top gun.
Group F: Star power has Argentina rolling
Countries: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
If God is a Brazilian (at least once a quadrennium), the nextdoor neighbors may have had papal intervention going for them this time. Argentina, which hasn’t won the Cup since 1986, when Diego Maradona borrowed the divine hand for a moment, and hasn’t made the semifinals since 1990, has a dream draw with perennial underachiever Nigeria, one-and-done Iran, and newbie Bosnia-Herzegovina. “I don’t promise the Cup,” cautioned manager Alejandro Sabella. “We are thinking of finishing in the top four. And we want more than that.” La Albiceleste, which went unbeaten in its final 14 matches to win the continental qualifier, has a bunch of global big boys in attackers Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain and midfielder Javier Mascherano, and should tango its way to the second round. Nigeria should join them, but the Super Eagles have a history of saying goodbye shortly after saying hello. If star John Obi Mikel can rally his colleagues, Nigeria could make some noise. “I think we are going to make big progress,” said keeper Vincent Enyeama. The Iranians haven’t done much since they took down The Great Satan (a.k.a. Uncle Sam) in 1998 in Lyon, but they shut out the Koreans on the road to qualify and they’re coached by Carlos Queiroz, who directed the Portuguese in 2010. “We need to understand that we’re not going to Brazil to be whipping boys or for a holiday,” he said. The Bosnians and their Herzegovinian neighbors just missed making it in 2010 but they nailed it this time, winning eight of their 10 qualifiers while outscoring their rivals, 30-6. If they can grab a point from Argentina in their opener, the Dragons could go through. “We will play for second place,” said manager Safet Susic, “but I believe that we could find ourselves among the 16 best teams in Brazil.”
Group G: ‘Group of Death’ to challenge US
Countries: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, United States
When the balls were drawn there was no debate this time about which was the Group of Death. Dump this foursome into a samba sauna for a couple of weeks and who can say who’ll emerge? As always Germany is a sound bet — the Mannschaft haven’t missed the quarterfinals since reunification and finished third in the last two tournaments. Manager Joachim Low has a bunch of global veterans in the likes of defender Philipp Lahm, midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil, and Thomas Muller and four-timer Miroslav Klose, plus goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. “Lots has to go right to win a tournament like this,” warned Low, whose side hasn’t managed it since the West Side won in 1990. The Portuguese, who went out, 1-0, to Spain’s champions last time (and again to their Iberian neighbors in a shootout in the Euro semifinals), had to sweat mightily for their return ticket, winning a playoff with Sweden in which superman Cristiano Ronaldo scored all four goals. Once again Ronaldo, who’s battling tendinitis and a muscle injury in his left leg according to the Portuguese Football Federation , will be the marked man and he’ll need to be transcendent in the opener with the Germans. Ghana is the side nobody wants to face. The Black Stars were the only African team to advance at the last two Cups, and only a missed penalty (after an egregious Uruguayan hand ball) kept them out of the semis in South Africa. “We will live up to expectation in Brazil,” predicted manager Kwesi Appiah, whose squad has knocked the Yanks out of the last two tournaments, the last one in overtime. This time the US gets Ghana immediately and given the other members of what the Germans call the Todesgruppe, an opening loss likely would prove fatal. “Yes, it is a very difficult draw,” acknowledged manager Jurgen Klinsmann, “but we expect to do well.”
Group H: Belgium looking for successful return
Countries: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
If you thought the Belgians had been put into a witness protection program for the last dozen years, nobody would blame you. The Red Devils have been no-name phantoms since they finished fourth in 1986, missing the last two tournaments. This time, after winning its qualifying group, Belgium has a golden chance to advance behind an airtight defense anchored by keeper Thibaut Courtois and a midfield energized by the slithering Eden Hazard, who inspires biblical images. “I’d be disappointed if we didn’t make the last 16,” remarked manager Marc Wilmots, who was on four Cup teams with Les Diables Rouges. Russia, which hasn’t managed that since it became one country again, has the stuff to join the Belgians after missing the last two dances. The Motherland may field a bunch of “stariks” (old men) but they won their qualifying group ahead of Portugal and can live on stone soup if they have to. The South Koreans, who are Asia’s traditional strongmen (eight straight Cup appearances) haven’t done much since they finished fourth when they co-hosted in 2002, and they barely earned their spot this time but the Taeguk Warriors are sturdy and relentless. They’ll need to be with the Russians as their opening opponents. “It’s going to be very difficult,” acknowledged manager Hong Myung Bo, who played in four Cups for his homeland. “To create a surprise, a massive effort and huge sacrifices will be required.” Even more so for the Algerians, who are making consecutive appearances for the first time since 1986 after going goalless last time. The Desert Foxes (Les Fennecs, s’il vous plait) are difficult to run to ground. It took Landon Donovan’s last-chance dash to beat them in the 2010 group finale. If Algeria can steal a point from the Belgians in their opener, they could raise a few eyebrows. “If we lose many people will say it’s normal,” conceded captain Madjid Bougherra. “But we want to make a big surprise.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.