The World Cup is less than a month away, and as Brazil prepares its country to host the festivities, the field prepares its teams; all have begun the process of trimming down their rosters to the final 23-man squads that will board the plane to Rio. Host nation Brazil is one of a handful of nations with a very real chance of taking home the world’s most prestigious trophy, but the question remains, will the pressure of being the host nation be too much for the “Verde-Amarela”? Brazil will kick off the festivities against Croatia on June 12th on its own turf, looking to be the first host nation-champion since France in 1998. As the clock winds down, the Place To Be takes a look at the group stage of the World Cup. Who is poised for a run to the finals? Who is most likely to disappoint their millions of fans at home? Is there anyone who’s ready to shock the world? Enjoy a quick primer of Groups A& B of the 2014 World Cup: Brazil, here on Place To Be Nation!
Brazil – If you’re just tuning in, Brazil hosts the 2014 World Cup in its backyard. On the international stage, there’s roughly a handful of teams every four years that have a realistic shot at winning the entire thing and Brazil is arguably at the top of the list. The team’s record speaks for itself, Brazil is the most successful team in the World Cup’s history. Add to that their tremendous success in ancillary tournaments like the Confederations Cup and one would be foolish to not favor the luck of the Brazilians every four years. The rosters of years gone by for the Brazilian national team are virtually hall of fames in themselves, the team might have the richest history of any in the world. This year’s hero is 22 year old phenom, Neymar, who continues the legacy of single named Brazilian superstars. The FC Barcelona striker will have the weight of the world on his shoulders this summer, but there’s no better stage to cement one’s legacy than the world’s greatest sporting event in your own backyard. Unfortunately, there are serious questions regarding Neymar’s health entering the tournament. He’s returned to club play recently, but in limited fashion. Brazil isn’t entirely dependent on Neymar, but it would make their march to the final significantly easier if he was in top form. At forward, outside of Neymar, there’s a curious drop in talent. Players like Hulk and Fred are attackers worthy of wearing the Brazil uniform, but the team no longer has the head and shoulders difference compared to the rest of the field it had in the 2010 and 2006 World Cups. Much of this is due to the questionable development of Brazilian stars in their own domestic league, but either way, Neymar playing at 110% will bode well for the hometown fans. What is the biggest roadblock for Brazil? Brazil should easily pass the group stage, but there’s danger ahead. Brazil could play defending champion Spain in the next round should Spain stumble, or, at best, they face the Netherlands or Chile. Each round, the competition gets stiffer for everyone, but a Brazil vs. Spain so early in the tournament could mean serious repercussions for two nations with serious Cup aspirations.
Cameroon – African nations are often times sexy picks to make serious noise in the World Cup, but the results have often been mixed. Cameroon is headlined by the veteran Chelsea striker Samuel Eto’o, Eto’o has been the face of Cameroonian soccer since the late 90’s and his spot on one of the world’s most successful clubs speaks highly to his talent and reputation. Eto’o isn’t getting any younger though, at age 33 there’s been serious questions about his form throughout club play and despite being a quality player, he’s no longer the extremely dynamic forward he once was years ago. Up front with Eto’o is Kaiserslautern’s Mohamadou Idrissou, the 34 year old was called up to the Bundesliga in 2012 after playing for Frankfurt in the Bundesliga Zwei. Despite some serious age up front, there’s some youth in the midfield and on defense. Midfielder Stéphane Mbia of Sevilla and Gaeton Bong on defense are among the younger players who look to break out in this year’s World Cup. The team is not devoid of talent, but there are significant obstacles to overcome in the group stage, Cameroon will likely not be favored against Croatia or Mexico, much less Brazil.
Croatia- Croatia was gifted the unfortunate opportunity of playing Brazil in the World Cup’s first match. While it doesn’t look great for the team on night one, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Croatia’s chances moving out of the group stage. The nation boasts an impressive number of players on the world’s top clubs for its size. At forward Croatia fields Ivica Olic of Wolfsburg and Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich, who, unfortunately, will miss the opener against Brazil due to red cards. In midfield, Croatia has burgeoning superstar Luka Modric of Real Madrid and a pair of Hamburg players in Milan Badelj and Ivo Ilicevic. Croatia will likely take its lumps in the opener, but if Mexico continues to show the same poor form its had in barely squeaking into the tournament, there’s no reason to not feel confident in Croatia advancing. Even if Mexico plays well, there’s enough talent on the Croatian side to think they’ve got a very good chance at advancing. In either situation, Mexico will be their last test before the next round. That makes taking care of Cameroon that much more important for Croatia.
Mexico – Mexico has limped into Brazil, thanks almost entirely to the US Men’s National team. The USMNT eliminated Panama from contention, leaving room for Mexico’s disappointing fourth place finish in CONCACAF to be just good enough to make the cut for this year’s World Cup. To put it bluntly, Mexico has been terrible in the qualifying stages for Brazil. “El Tri” lost 8 of its 10 qualifying matches, which not only magnifies Mexico’s terrible form, but the weakness of CONCACAF as a whole. Either way, the Mexicans are in, and there’s a real chance they’ve press a reset button and are poised to at least make it out of the group stage, which would be a great outcome for this otherwise disappointing squad. Mexico’s roster is full of Liga MX nationals, but it isn’t devoid of international stars, including Manchester United forward Javier Hernandez, and Bayer-Leverkusen defender Andres Guardado. Still, the impressive development of its roster inside of Liga MX shouldn’t go unnoticed, highlighted by Cruz Azul superstar Marco Fabian and captain Rafa Marquez of Club Leon. If Mexico advances far into this year’s World Cup, many of its stars will return to their own domestic league, either an indictment of Liga MX’s talent, or the inability of the nation’s top stars to find roster spots in Europe. No matter what, it’s not going to be easy for Mexico. Assuming Brazil goes through group play unscathed, which it should, Mexico will have to overcome Croatia to advance and if they show up in anywhere near the form they’ve been in from qualifying, that’s not gonna happen. Even if the team plays well, Croatia has enough talent that it’s going to take the team firing on all cylinders to advance. At best, it’s a coin flip for Mexico, but judging on their past performance, they might have conceded the second spot to Croatia already.
Australia – Australia, like Mexico, has limped into the World Cup. Australia is aided in large part by a fairly easy road in qualifying, where they’ve made the field despite winning only three of their eight matches in the final stage. American fans might be familiar with Australian hero Tim Cahill, the forward plays for the MLS Club New York Red Bulls. Unfortunately, Cahill is likely well past his prime at age 34, despite solid play in MLS, in a group against top players from sides like Spain and Chile, he might no longer have enough gas left in the tank to push the “Socceroos” forward. Outside of Cahill, many of the team’s players come from second-tier teams in Europe, or Australian clubs. In their identity the Australians actually bear many resemblances to the Americans. The Aussies are tough, usually in good shape and ready to run the field against any opponent, but talent wise, they are among the bottom of this year’s tournament.
Chile – Chile will be one of this year’s darlings, due to their strong finish in the second half of qualifying. Chile beat England and had draws against both Brazil and Spain before wrapping up the qualifying stage. The Chilean attack begins with Alexis Sanchez of Barcelona, who is coming off a strong year with one of La Liga’s top clubs. The team is also strong in midfield, with stars like Arturo Vidal of Juventus and Carlos Carmona of Atalanta. Chile is coming into this year’s World Cup strong, and they’ll need all the momentum they can get. Despite standouts like Sanchez and Vidal, the Chileans were given no favors in having to face both Spain and Netherlands in the group stage. What’s working in Chile’s favor? They play a familiar style of soccer to the continent, and one distinctly different than Spain or the Netherlands. Chile plays a style not entirely conducive to UEFA, they are relentless in pressing on the opposing team’s half of the field and have talented defensive forwards and midfielders. If a team like the Netherlands, has an off night, it’s not unthinkable to think Chile can pull off the upset and advance. The goal for Chile should be to make it out of the group stage, beneath Spain.
Netherlands – I have a love and hate relationship with the Netherlands. It seems every four years, I see them as a nation destined to finally put it all together and shock the world and win it all. There have been plenty of reasons to think that should happen. The Netherlands are probably the most talented nation to have never won a World Cup. Many nations, including European foes like Germany, England, Belgium, Poland, Portugal and even Italy would love to have players like Bergkamp, Van Nistelrooy, or Marco Van Basten on their squads, even if they’d never admit it. This year’s team is no different, the vaunted men in orange boast an impressive group heading to Brazil. At the top of the list has to be Bayern Munich star Arjen Robben, one of the world’s most furious and exciting midfielders. Joining Robben in midfield is national team stalwart Wesley Sneijder of Galatasaray. Up front, Netherlands are led by Robin van Persie of Manchester United. In goal, Netherlands boasts an array of top level keepers, Tim Krul of Newcastle and Jasper Cillessen of Ajax leading the list. Chile is likely Netherland’s biggest foe in the group stage. Even if they advance past the group stage, a second place finish would match them with Brazil…ouch.
Spain – The defending champs stroll into Brazil in top form, with a loaded, balanced roster that perfectly embodies the “tiki-taka” style of play that has made not only Spain, but many of Europe’s top clubs so deadly. It’s ironic that top club Bayern-Munich’s drilling at the hands of Real Madrid has been heralded by many as the end of “tiki-taka” and a fair warning to those already writing Spain into the World Cup final. Is “tiki-taka” dead? The more important question might be: does anyone else field a roster capable of stopping Spain’s national team employing “tiki-taka”? Spain is yet again incredibly strong in midfield, headlined by superstars Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta of Barcelona. Behind them, it doesn’t get any easier for opposing defenses. The team also fields stars such as David Silva of Manchester City, Santi Cazorla of Arsenal and Juan Mata of Manchester United in the midfield. The midfield positions are crucial in preserving Spain’s style of play, and from front to back, their crop of midfielders for the 2014 World Cup is nothing short of spectacular. At forward, Spain has star David Villa of Atletico Madrid and Fernando Torres of Chelsea. The Spanish defense is anchored by Sergio Ramos and captain goalkeeper Iker Casillas of Real Madrid. In short, there is not a single area of the field in which Spain does not have world class talent and their depth is unmatched. Spain should be favored to win Group B and advance deep into the tournament. Anything short would be a great disappointment.