Here are my predictions for the 2014 FIFA World Cup:
Group Round (June 12-June 26)
Group A- Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Who will advance?
Brazil (1st) and Mexico (2nd)
Players to watch:
Neymar (BRA), Luca Modric (CRO), Oribe Peralta (MEX), Samuel Eto’o (CMR)
For Brazil, anything but a World Cup win will be a considered a failure. After being ranked 22 by FIFA last June—the lowest in their history—the Seleção triumphantly won the Confederations Cup last year against Spain. Brazil, now ranked sixth, is looking to win its sixth WC championship and advance past the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002. Brazil should have no trouble playing against Croatia and Cameroon, but their toughest match will be against Mexico. Mexico is lucky to be in the World Cup. They struggled in CONCACAF qualification, fired their coach, were spared elimination by the USA and had to play an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand. El Tri will have to prove to their critics and fans that they are still a powerhouse team. A combination of team veterans (Andres Guardado and Giovanni dos Santos) and a younger generation (Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez) will help Miguel Herrera’s side advance to the Round of 16.
Group B- Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Spain and Chile
Andres Iniesta (ESP), Arjen Robben (NED), Arturo Vidal (CHI), Tim Cahill (AUS)
Spain, Netherlands, Chile and Australia make up the first of three Groups of Death at this tournament. Champions Spain have a very tough schedule, starting with a rematch of their 2010 championship match against the Netherlands, then a game against Chile (another 2010 rematch). Spain will need favorable results in these two games in order to guarantee a spot in the Round of 16. Chile finished third in the CONMEBOL qualifications. They reached in the Round of 16 four years ago and reached the quarterfinals of the Copa America. Players like Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Humberto Suazo will make the difference for Chile in Brazil.
Group C- Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Colombia and Japan
Mario Yepes (COL), Giorgos Karagounis (GRE), Yaya Touré (CIV), Keisuke Honda (JPN)
Colombia’s star striker Radamel Falcao, Los Cafeteros’ top scorer in WC qualification, could miss the World Cup if he does not recover from a knee injury he suffered in January, but that does not rule out Colombia from qualifying for the Round of 16 for the first time in their history. After a respectable 2010 World Cup campaign, winning the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 and being the first to qualify for this year’s tournament, Japan should qualify with Colombia for the knockout stage.
Group D- Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Italy and Uruguay
Luis Suarez (URU), Bryan Ruiz (CRC), Wayne Rooney (ENG), Andrea Pirlo (ITA)
Group D is the second Group of Death. Cesare Prandelli has turned the Italian team completely around since their early exit in South Africa. Under Prandelli’s watch, Gli Azzurri were unbeaten in qualification, made it to the finals of Euro 2012 and won third place in the Confederations Cup last June. One of the world’s best goalkeepers, Gianluigi Buffon, will make a huge difference for the Italians, as will midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo as well as forwards Mario Balotelli and Giuseppe Rossi. Uruguay once again qualified last for the World Cup, beating Jordan in the intercontinental playoff. With a Copa America win in 2011, a fourth-place finish at the Confederations Cup last summer and star forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, La Celeste could have another surprise run like they did in South Africa.
Group E- Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Switzerland and France
Josip Drmic (SUI), Christian Noboa (ECU), Franck Ribery (FRA), Wilson Palacios (HON)
The way FIFA organized the pots for the World Cup draw in December meant Switzerland would avoid being drawn with top-ranked teams. They got drawn into a fair group that includes Ecuador, France and Honduras. The Swiss had a rocky qualification start, but ended up on top of their group. Ranked eighth, the Swiss had one defeat in competitive matches in 2013.The French had a horrendous World Cup in South Africa. They qualified for Brazil through the European playoff round. They lost to Ukraine in the first leg, but won the return leg in dramatic style. France, though, has Franck Ribery at midfield and Karim Benzema up front, who will help Les Bleus advance to the Round of 16.
Group F- Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina
Lionel Messi (ARG), Edin Džeko (BOS), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (IRN), Kenneth Omeruo (NIG)
Without a doubt, Argentina will win this group. All eyes will be on Lionel Messi, who has struggled in the past few months with Barcelona. FIFA’s three-time player of the year has surprisingly scored only once for the Albiceleste in the World Cup (against Serbia and Montenegro in 2006), so Messi must prove this year he can be just as magical for both club and country. Brazil 2014 marks Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first tournament as an independent nation. They almost qualified for South Africa, but lost to Portugal in the European second round playoff. This time Bosnia won its European qualifying group by winning 8 games, and drawing and losing once. Led by Manchester City’s Edin Džeko, Bosnia’s top scorer, Bosnia’s only serious threat in the group round will be Argentina which they face first.
Group G- Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Germany and USA
Mario Gotze (GER), Cristiano Ronaldo (POR), Kwadwo Asamoah (GHA), Michael Bradley (USA)
This is the ultimate Group of Death in Brazil. I would be unrealistic if I did not choose Germany to advance. I would be unpatriotic if I did not choose the USA to advance. Since taking control of the team in 2011, Jürgen Klinsmann has turned the USA into the strongest team in the CONCACAF region. The USA won the Gold Cup in 2013, defeated Mexico at the Azteca stadium for the first time in their history, beat Italy and Germany, and finished first in qualification. Klinsmann has also brought new, promising young players to the squad. The USA must win their first match against Ghana and take advantage of the Amazon climate when they face Portugal in Manaus. Depending on the outcome of the USA’s first two games, they will either have to go all-in against Germany to survive the group, or play for love of country if they earn unfavorable results. The USA has many advantages: history is on the USA’s side (they defeated Portugal in the 2002 World Cup), Portugal is practically a one-man team led by Cristiano Ronaldo and Klinsmann knows how Germany plays since he coached the German squad in 2006 and his assistant coach, Joachim Low, is now the current coach.
Group H- Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Russia and Belgium
Eden Hazard (BEL), Saphir Taider (ALG), Alexander Kokorin (RUS), Park Chu-Young (KOR)
Fabio Capello’s Russian squad is under pressure to perform well ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which will be held in the Eastern European country. Their qualification campaign was bumpy, but they finished ahead of Portugal in their group. This is Russia’s first World Cup appearance since 2002. Both Algeria and Russia might benefit from the fact that Capello’s England squad faced Algeria in 2010, and are familiar with each other’s playing style. Belgium is currently on a roll. They have made a long-awaited breakthrough in the soccer world and topped its qualification group without any trouble. With a majority of Les Diables Rouges playing in Europe, there is a lot of talent that Coach Marc Wilmots can count on in Group H play.
Round of 16 (June 28-July 1)
Brazil vs. Chile
Colombia vs. Uruguay
Switzerland vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Germany vs. Belgium
Spain vs. Mexico
Italy vs. Japan
Argentina vs. France
Russia vs. USA
Quarterfinals (July 4-July 5)
Brazil vs. Uruguay
Switzerland vs. Germany
Spain vs. Italy
Argentina vs. USA
Semifinals (July 8-July 9)
Brazil vs. Germany
Spain vs. Argentina
Third-place (July 12)
Germany vs. Argentina
Germany wins against Argentina
Championship (July 13)
Brazil vs. Spain
Spain makes history and becomes the first team to successfully defend the World Cup trophy.