Guest Written By Brian O’Neil
Here. We. Go(oooooaaaaaallllll!).
The wait is finally over. Here is a preview of the 32 teams participating in the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Happy We Were Invited
Due to a tough draw, insufficient skill set, or a combination of the two, it will be a shocker if any of these teams advance to the knockout stage.
FIFA Ranking: 62
Key Player: Mile Jedinak
While Group G is rightfully getting labeled the Group of Death, Australia has to be asking itself what it did to deserve this draw. Salvaging a point against Chile, Netherlands, or Spain will be considered a successful tournament. Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill will need to find his scoring touch for the Aussies to have any hope.
Korea Republic (South Korea)
FIFA Ranking: 57
Key Player: Son Heung Min
Korea has shown that it’s 2002 controversial semifinal appearance on its home turf was no fluke, as it most recently advanced out of the group stage in South Africa. They will have to be disciplined and opportunistic to escape a solid group containing Belgium, Russia, and Algeria.
FIFA Ranking: 43
Key Player: Ashkan Dejagah, Iran
The Persian Stars are appearing in only their fourth World Cup, with their only win coming against, you guessed it, the United States back in 1998.
FIFA Ranking: 33
Key Player: Emilio Izaguirre
FIFA Ranking: 28
Key Player: Joel Campbell
These two Latin American countries will both have their hands full in their respective groups (Costa Rica more so than Honduras), and an early exit seems imminent. CONCACAF could have a rough go of it in this World Cup edition.
African Nations of Mediocrity
With the spotlight off away from the host continent of 2010, maybe one of these undermanned teams can surprise an opponent or two.
FIFA Ranking: 56
Key Player: Samuel Eto’o
Samuel Eto’o leads the inconsistent African squad in what will be his fourth appearance on the big stage. While a result against the host nation is somewhat unrealistic, good showings against Mexico and Croatia can possibly lead to an escape from Group A.
FIFA Ranking: 44
Key Player: John Obi Mikel
Putting all allegations aside, this Nigerian squad is looking to replicate its success in the African Cup of Nations. They did not look sharp in their warm-ups in recent weeks, which leads me to believe they will fall short of advancing to the knockout stage. The game against B&H should be the one that determines Nigeria’s fate.
FIFA Ranking: 37
Key Player: Asamoah Gyan
The Achilles Heel for Team USA, many would argue that this squad is being short-changed with a label of mediocre. There is a sense, however, that perhaps the African nation is due for a setback after an overachieving 2010. But with many of those same names returning for this go-around, and with a healthy Michael Essien, no team in the Group of Death will have a walk in the park against Ghana.
No one expects these teams to go far, but few would be surprised if they pulled off an upset (or two) and made the knockout round.
FIFA Ranking: 46
Key Player:Keisuke Honda
Japan has developed a reputation as a creative, pesky squad that will not backdown to supposedly superior opponents. Keep an eye on Honda (Milan) and Kagawa (Man U), as Japan figures to sink or swim based on their performances. In a group with solid yet beatable opponents, do not be surprised if Japan moves on.
FIFA Ranking: 26
Key Player: Antonio Valencia
This team relies heavily on their wingers to create scoring opportunities, which will need to be aplenty after watching this suspect defense struggle in a warm-up against Mexico. The weak group allows Ecuador the opportunity to advance despite its defensive flaws, but even if it does, do not expect La Tri to advance in the knockout stage.
FIFA Ranking: 22
Key Player: Sofiane Feghouli
This is a much different squad than the gritty one the United States escaped in 2010. With only a few holdovers, the (over ranked) inexperienced team will need to take care of business against South Korea and hope to get a result against either Russia or Belgium.
North American Reality Check
These bitter rivals will have their hands full in their respective groups, and will need to be in top form to advance (especially USA!).
FIFA Ranking: 20
Key Player: Giovani dos Santos
El Tri has played much better since firing its coach, but Mexico is still not at the level where it expected to be given the level of promise of this generation of players. While Dos Santos is finally coming back into form after a couple of years of turmoil, it will be interesting to see where Chicharito fits into the squad after not seeing much action for his club (Man U).
FIFA Ranking: 13
Key Player: Jozy Altidore
As mad as American soccer fans are over Coach Klinsmann’s tempered expectations, it will take an outstanding team and, perhaps, individual effort by GK Tim Howard to survive the “Group of Death”. A win against Ghana is a must for this squad to have hope going into matches against powerhouses Portugal and Germany.
Solid Yet Unspectacular
These teams each have a few notable stars, but advancing to the knockout stage would be labeled as a successful trip across the Atlantic.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
FIFA Ranking: 21
Key Player: Edin Dzeko
Reaching the World Cup for the first time, this nation is not just content with an appearance. Led by powerful striker Edin Dzeko, who has not always been in the starting XI for Man City since his arrival (only because of the plethora of attacking options), the offensive firepower will need to be supplemented by enough defense to survive the manageable group stage. As noted earlier, the matchup against Nigeria could be the determinant of who advances with Argentina.
FIFA Ranking: 19
Key Player: Alan Dzagoev
Moving forward from a generation of underachieving players, the Russians will look to Dzagoev to find the net (3 goals in Euro 2012) early and often. Qualifying ahead of Portugal, Fabio Capello’s squad means business in Brazil.
FIFA Ranking: 18
Key Player: Luka Modric
Beginning the World Cup against the host nation is a gargantuan task, but if Croatia can stay collected and get favorable results against the other two opponents, the knockout stage should be well within reach. The major question is, can Real Madrid midfield wizard Luka Modric continue his outstanding 2014 play for his home country?
Respected by FIFA…And That’s About It
While consistent, these teams simply do not have enough weapons to bring home the hardware.
FIFA Ranking: 12
Key Player: Konstantinos Mitroglou
A team that surrendered merely four goals in ten qualifying games, they will look to replicate the magic from 2004’s Euros title. Don’t expect much flashiness from the Greeks, as 1-0 will most likely be the scoreline in any victory they obtain.
FIFA Ranking: 6
Key Player:Xherdan Shaqiri
This squad is young but full of top-notch talent that plays in the top European leagues. An undefeated qualifying campaign raised eyebrows in Europe. The knockout stage is a reasonable goal, but anything further might be too much to ask for from this inexperienced team.
If everything clicks, they can play with anyone…but that is a huge if.
FIFA Ranking: 10
Key Player: Daniel Sturridge
On paper, the Three Lions look like a perfect combination of talented experience and youth. However, one can make the argument that the English Premier League, home to 22 of the 23 players (save the 3rd string goalie), has been down the last few seasons. Liverpool stars Steven Gerrard (Captain) and Daniel Sturridge look to build on the momentum from their successful club season, while a confident Wayne Rooney looks to finally produce on the biggest stage.
Don’t Wish Upon a Star
Both of these teams are without their marquee player, which should temper previously high expectations as they attempt to collectively fill the glaring void.
FIFA Ranking: 17
Key Player: Karim Benzema
Looking to make amends on its horrid 2010 campaign, France received a huge blow when standout midfielder and international veteran Franck Ribery was ruled out of the competition. Les Bleus will be hoping the emergence of Paul Pogba will be enough to take command of a very winnable group.
FIFA Ranking: 8
Key Player: James Rodriguez
The absence of Falcao is crippling to a Colombian squad with high hopes on its home continent. A team that scored 27 goals in qualifying expects to still top Group C, but advancing past the knockout stage will be much tougher without its star.
The combination of top-notch talent and manageable group draws could result in quarterfinal appearances.
FIFA Ranking: 23
Key Player: Yaya Toure
Ivory Coast is undoubtedly the most talented African squad in the tournament, yet talent has not gotten this golden generation of players very far in past competitions. After being placed in the 2010 Group of Death, the 2014 edition of Ivory Coast is ready to challenge for supremacy in a much more manageable Group C. Yaya Toure is coming off perhaps the most complete club season of any central midfielder in the world, and Didier Drogba is looking to go out with a bang in what will undoubtedly be his last World Cup.
FIFA Ranking: 11
Key Player: Eden Hazard
Dark horse would have definitely been a suitable term during qualifying campaign, but the cat might be out of the bag after many Belgian players (Hazard, Kompany, Courtois, etc.) shined for their respective clubs this past season. This team is absolutely loaded and, while the 2016 EC and 2018 WC might feature many of these players in their prime, the Belgians would likely need to reach at least the quarterfinals to consider this campaign a success.
Skilled, Yet Somewhat Flawed
Aside from a missing piece (or two), these teams are in position to have an outside shot at the semifinals, and could (big IF) even have a shot at the trophy with four perfect knockout stage games.
FIFA Ranking: 15
Key Player: Robin Van Persie
The 2010 runner-ups are looking to rebound from an awful 2012 Euro showing. This team is experienced in the back, but loaded with world-class attackers.The trio of Sneider, Van Persie, and Robben should send shivers into any opposing defense, but are their enough soccer balls to go around?
FIFA Ranking: 14
Key Player: Alexis Sanchez
The South American nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when it was confirmed that star midfielder Arturo Vidal would be ready to go for the opener against Australia. A deep run on its home continent is within reach, as long as the suspect defense (common theme this tournament) does not have too many slip ups.
FIFA Ranking: 9
Key Player: Mario Balotelli
The ultra-talented, highly volatile striker labeled “Super Mario” will have the whole world watching for an encore performance after his outstanding 2012 display in Europe. Andrea Pirlo, also outstanding in 2012, leads a slew of Juventus players hoping to translate club success into a title at Brazil.
FIFA Ranking: 7
Key Player: Edinson Cavani
Uruguay has enjoyed quite the run these past four years. Diego Forlan, still hoping to produce at an advanced age, was the player of the tournament in 2010. The torch has been passed to Liverpool super-forward Luis Suarez, who has had an unbelievable goal rate despite constant negative publicity. However, Suarez has sustained a recent injury that could limit his effectiveness, meaning fellow star striker Edinson Cavani might need to carry the scoring load in order for Uruguay to advance deep on its home continent.
FIFA Ranking: 4
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
The Portuguese faithful were relieved to see Ronaldo in form in his final tune-up at the Meadowlands against Ireland. The attacking midfielder will need some help, though, as he will likely have multiple defenders shadowing throughout the tournament. In order to survive the Group of Death and advance in the knockout stage, players like Moutinho and Nani will need to have major contributions.
The semifinals are a must for these juggernauts, with each team expecting to lift the trophy.
FIFA Ranking: 5
Key Player: Lionel Messi
There is no greater attacking 1-2 punch in this competition (sorry Suarez/Cavani) than that of the great Lionel Messi and Manchester City forward Sergio Aguero. Add in Higuan and Di Maria, and there is no reason Argentina shouldn’t score at least three goals a game. The defense is always a question mark,
but with EPL champions Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta manning the back, there is a sense of security that had been missing in recent history. Expect Messi to be at his best (a la Maradona) on the grand stage.
FIFA Ranking: 2
The main reason United States fans fear their draw, Germany brings an unthinkable amount of talent to Brazil. Many would agree that this is the most complete team in the field, starting with it’s world-class keeper, Manuel Neuer. The combination of experience and talent should serve the Germans well as it powers through a tough group and beyond. Perhaps the biggest question mark is who manager Joachim Loew decides to go with in his starting XI as the tournament progresses.
FIFA Ranking: 1
Key Player: Andres Iniesta
The reigning champs will have a plethora of world-class midfielders (Iniesta, Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas, Silva, etc.) at their disposal once again, which will lead to scrutiny if La Roja cannot gel from the get-go. And speaking of scrutiny, the decision to go with both veterans David Villa and Fernando Torres at attack could prove costly if Diego Costa’s injury lingers into the tournament. Nothing less than a title will do for this well-oiled machine.
FIFA Ranking: 3
Key Player: Neymar
Expectations are always greater for the host nation, and this statement is only multiplied for the Brazilians as they try to capture World Cup number six. Neymar is the fan favorite, and rightfully so, but a loaded defense might prove to be the key to hoisting the trophy. Will the pressure get to this skillful, yet inexperienced squad of stars? A nation fixated on the game of soccer will be devastated if the Brazilians do not take the title.
And the winner is…..Spain. I am going against traditional thinking, as European teams do not tend to fare well on South American soil. But I cannot help but think that the pressure will eventually get to the inexperienced Brazilian squad. Spain is poised to cap off its fourth straight major tournament victory (‘08 Euros, ‘10 WC, ‘12 Euros). This one will definitely be the toughest of the four. With that said, let the games begin!
My Pre-Tournament Top XI:
GK Neuer, Germany
DEF Alves, Brazil
DEF Silva, Brazil
DEF Ramos, Spain
DEF Lahm, Germany
MID Toure, Ivory Coast
MID Xavi, Spain
MID Iniesta, Spain
MID Ronaldo, Portugal
FWD Messi, Argentina
FWD Suarez, Uruguay
GK Buffon, Italy
DEF Chiellini, Italy
DEF Kompany, Belgium
DEF Pique, Spain
DEF Hummels, Germany
MID Robben, Netherlands
MID Modric, Croatia
MID Pirlo, Italy
MID Hazard, Belgium
FWD Neymar, Brazil
FWD Aguero, Argentina