World Cup: Host Brazil favored, but has a nation on its back
Thankfully the last four years are behind us. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil promises to be a spectacle, both on the field and throughout one of the world's most soccer-crazed countries. The expectations will soar for the host country, which has one of its more talented teams in over a decade, led by emerging superstar Neymar.
The beauty of a World Cup is seeing the best the globe has to offer going head-to-head every day for nearly five straight weeks. This summer's round will be no different as Cristiano Ronaldo will look to put Portugal on his back after winning the UEFA Champions League final with Real Madrid. Same goes for Lionel Messi, who's received criticism from the Argentina press for not being able to deliver the same magic he does with club FC Barcelona.
It'll be up to Spain to continue its dominant reign over the world. Stacked with magnificent midfield talents such as Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa, the Spaniards have put on clinics on the biggest stage in recent major tournaments. Can the La Furia Roja make it back-to-back Cups as the Brazilians did in 1958 and 1962?
Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez is as mercurial as they come and is hated by fans around the world. A country no experts talk about, Belgium, has a group of players that could carry the country deep in the tournament.
Then there's the United States and the Group G gauntlet. Can Jurgen Klinsmann lead the Americans out of the fire and past Ghana and Portugal and Germany? It's possible, but with a revolving door on the back line, the U.S. could be punished by the attacking firepower of Group G.
Teams: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Analysis: This could be Brazil's most-talented squad since 2002, the last time the powerhouse won the World Cup. But there will be accompanying pressure and a lot of it as the host country. The Brazilians are young in comparison to recent rosters, but dominated last summer's Confederations Cup. The Mexicans backed into the World Cup with the help of a U.S. win at Panama, but have the firepower to contend for the second spot out of Group A. Croatia, led by Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic, will be a tough out.
Player to Watch: Brazilian midfielder Neymar
Advancing: Brazil, Croatia
Teams: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Analysis: The Spaniards have dominated international soccer for the last eight years winning the last two European Cups and the 2010 World Cup in Spain. But they're not getting any younger and had a rude awakening in getting a beat-down from Brazil in last summer's Confederations Cup final. The 2010 runner-up, Netherlands, has star Robin van Persie but could be surprised by a very difficult Chilean group. Chile surprised in South Africa and could surprise again. The Australians will be going home early due to an extremely difficult draw.
Player to Watch: Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal
Advancing: Spain, Netherlands
Teams: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan
Favorite: Ivory Coast
Analysis: The Colombians had a magnificent run in World Cup Qualifying, but will miss superstar striker Radamel Falcao due to injury. Still in one of the easiest groups in the tournament, Colombia could overcome the loss of Falcao. Ivory Coast remains stacked with proven international talent, but it is an aging group with the likes of Kolo Toure, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou. Japan will look to lean on stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. The Greeks, as proven in the 2004 Euro Cup, have the ability to surprise.
Player to Watch: Japan midfielder Shinji Kagawa
Advancing: Colombia, Ivory Coast
Teams: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy
Analysis: Group D could be considered a "Group of Death" as well. The Uruguayans had a stellar outing at the 2010 World Cup and have the eccentric Luis Suarez leading the way. Costa Rica will miss injured Real Salt Lake striker Alvaro Saborio immensely, especially in this group, but have Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. England has a slew of young, talented attackers, but an aging midfield. When it comes to Italy, Mario Balotelli can wow in more ways than one.
Player to Watch: Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez
Advancing: Uruguay, Italy
Teams: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Analysis: Perhaps the most wide-open group in Brazil, any number of teams could conceivably take control of the group. Ecuador's intrigue features Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia and a bevy of young attackers. France will be without star Franck Ribery, out with an injury, while Honduras' Wilson Palacios will spearhead a side filled with MLS players. The Swiss have the top seed in the group, but don't have a bonafide star outside of Xherdan Shaqiri.
Player to Watch: France forward Karim Benzema
Advancing: Ecuador, France
Teams: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria
Sleeper: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Analysis: Lionel Messi and his star-studded Argentina side have it fairly easy in Group F. Nigeria could pose a small threat, but Bosnia and Herzegovina may be the surprise team of the tournament led by Manchester City forward Edin Dzeko. The Iranians are coached by former Portugal and Manchester United coach Carlos Queiroz, but could have a repeat of 2006 when they struggled against the high caliber players. This is Argentina's group to get results and perhaps rest stars ahead of the knockout round.
Player to Watch: Argentina midfielder Angel di Maria
Advancing: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Teams: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Analysis: The dreaded Group of Death. And for the Americans, perhaps the most difficult group stage in the history of the U.S. Soccer Federation. The Germans have a golden era of young attacking players who could bloom further in Brazil and Portugal has megastar Cristiano Ronaldo. Ghana has Michael Essien, Kevin Prince Boateng, Sulley Muntari and several faces who have been there to bounce the U.S. in consecutive World Cup tournaments. This is where Jurgen Klinsmann must wave his magic wand. Question is: Will it work?
Player to Watch: German midfielder Mario Gotze
Advancing: Germany, Portugal
Teams: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea
Analysis: The Belgians are stacked with talent. Eden Hazard could turn into a star, while Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku and others could turn in stellar tournament performances. Belgium is the dark horse for a shot at the World Cup crown. Looking for a dark horse in the group, Algeria is it. Still improving from its 2010 outing which ended in heartbreak when Landon Donovan sent the U.S. through on a last-gasp goal Algeria could find itself in the running for the second spot in this group. Russia and South Korea are mysterious sides with several professional players playing in their home country leagues.
Player to Watch: Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku
Advancing: Belgium, Algeria
World Cup opener
P Brazil vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. Thursday TV • ESPN